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

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

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

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

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

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

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

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

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

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

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

The Sphinx..no other words needed!

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

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

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

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

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

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

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

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

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

Luxor Temple

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

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

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

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

Deir El-Bahri Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

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

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

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

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

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

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

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

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

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

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

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

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

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

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

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

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

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

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

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

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

 

Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

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!

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!

Dive the Revolution Tour with IVS!

An so it begins…
Diving has always been to me such a life changing experience, and as an instructor, my ability to share that with others is something I cherish and look forward to every day.  But just like any other Nirvana, sometimes you need to mix things up a bit to keep it fresh and exciting.  So, speaking, as I was, of life changing experiences, how appropriate a time is it to travel to the Middle East and dive right smack-dab in the middle of all sorts of changing things, including governments?

So it’s Friday, and I am thinking, where haven’t I been in a while? Well out of the blue pops Egypt and the Red Sea, so I figure I don’t need to give this any further thought….let’s go!

Indian Valley SCUBA Travels to Egypt and the Red Sea

Truth be told, this is an exploratory trip to conduct some firsthand reconnaissance in preparation of IVS’s trip to this area next year. With so many reports of doom and gloom coming from Egypt and the entire North African / Middle East region, I know the only thing to do is get on the ground there myself, cut through the CNN sensationalism, and come back with the real status that our divers want to know before planning to head there.

So as with any good adventure, we need to start with some packing. Yes, I admit, this trip has been on the books for a while, but does that magically move it up on my priority list? No! Why should this visit to the center of civilization as we know it be any different? Exactly…we’re operating on ‘Dave time’ now!

So as Friday morning dawns, I’ve got about 12 hours worth of work left on my weekly to-do list as of this morning before I depart Philadelphia at 6:25 this evening. So I start the day with a breakfast of diet Mountain Dew and an attitude like the Rob Schneider character in the Adam Sandler movie Water Boy, shouting out ”you can DO it!” First things first, I take inventory, and realize I need to start with piling a load of laundry into the washer, cause without this key step, I’ll be nekkid in Egypt! Not cool, I am thinking, as I get the machine loaded up and spinning away.

But heck, we have a lot to do today, so let me start with some important tasks, such as re-arranging the recycling area, then cleaning up Sue’s apartment. She’ll be coming in to Harleysville for the Beneath the Sea show before I get back, and I have been kinda using her place as a bit of a warehouse for my things – time to clean that up before she picks up on it!! Yes, if you are thinking David might occasionally exhibit some hints of OCD / ADHD you are probably right – but I’ll be back on track with today’s priorities shortly!

OK so I have my packing list out now, but I’ve got time, so before I get into that I sense the geese and duck need some loving before I go, so I decide to clean out the pen a bit, play with them, feed & water them, and play some more. But all this barnyard love only makes me think about the rest of my extended pet family – Pumpkin the cow and Maldives the horse! They are currently living about a half mile from the shop, so I head over there to get some more four-legged loving before I head to the land of the pyramids and camels. They are excited to see me, and so I endure a bit of a mauling when I enter the barn. Big, wet kisses from both of them and I know stopping by to see them was a good decision! Pumpkin is a “rescue cow”, a Jersey-breed dairy cow male, and I don’t think I need to explain the usefulness of a male cow in the dairy herd. Most end up as veal calves or dog food, but this boy lucked out and joined the family a few years ago. He’s about 1,600 pounds of sweet bovine love now, and I sense he is grateful – not always sure but I sense it! Meanwhile Maldives is a 4-year-old Belgian draft horse, and he stands about 19 hands high, which means his shoulders are waaaaaay over my head! He is not yet broke as he has had a bit of a traumatic start, but I’m working with him to get things squared away and let this 2,000# critter know who the alpha male is in this relationship! We end up having a nice morning visit, and I head back to the shop feeling refreshed and somewhat organic from the experience.

It’s 11 now, so still plenty of time to get this all done, and I continue on with my multi-tasking. Clothes are clean & dry, but the emails keep ‘dinging’ in on the laptop….distractions, distractions, distractions! Plenty of time still, no need to worry…yet. Answer a few emails, sort through some more paperwork, another customer in the shop that wants to kibitz a bit….it’s ok, it’ll all fit in. That flight’s not til 6:25!

So finally at 2:00 I start to think about packing my dive gear, and step one is to actually locate my dive gear, which seems to be in a constant state of movement at IVS. I do have a checklist, but sadly, I am a few pieces short of a complete list! What did I do with that double regulator setup?? Where is that wing? Holy smokes, this is painful! OK, let’s swap a few hoses, yes, this will work! We’re looking pretty good now! Regulator located, I need to throw in an octopus in case that is required, but I am hoping the Red Sea operators have stage bottles for me, even at the recreational dive sites. Add a couple of wetsuits, a spare mask, some new boots, and the pile is looking dive-able.

Finally have it together, and I close the two Pelican cases. Each case is amazingly well under the 70-pound limit so I don’t even need to weigh them. It’s now 3:30 and time to pack something to wear. Step one is to empty the clothes from the dryer! OK, how long as I going to be gone for? Yes…15 days…so let’s start…some undies, socks, a couple of bathing suits, bunch of Indian Valley Scuba t-shirts, a pair of shorts, and most importantly, a dozen Hawaiian shirts! Must bring some style to the desert with me! Ooooops…this pile won’t fit in the old bag, so I head back over to IVS to do some shopping. This nice Scubapro Caravan roller duffle seems like it will do the trip, so I take it across the lot for the acid test – will everything fit in?

Lo and behold it passes the test, and now it’s time to clean off my desk. The clock says 4:00, an hour after my “initial” planned departure, so I need to hustle a bit here. Desk is cleaned, now time for me! I jump into the shower, dry off, throw some clothes on, and head into the shop to find my limo driver Ray.

Well wouldn’t you know it he is busy closing a regulator sale, and the retailer in me says I can’t just pull him off of that! So I do some busy work for a few, he closes the sale, and we’re ready to go. Ray fires up his SUV for the airport run but we still have to stop at the bank, as I need a couple of hundred dollars in one-dollar bills for this trip. Seems the standard drill in the land of the pharaohs is a one or two dollar tip for just about everything someone does for you. Looking at that stack of ones, the girls at the bank wonder if I am heading off to some major go-go bar party, but I assure, them it’s nothing like that, only business travel!

So with that stop out of the way, it’s time for Ray to put the pedal to the metal and get us to the airport. OK, I am patient at first, yes that was nice to let that lady in, OK, we’ll wait while this guy makes a left, rather than drive around him on the shoulder…OK…enough! Ray – I’d just like to point out that we have exactly 50 minutes to make the 36 miles to the airport and get me on my flight! Let’s crank it up a bit…a big bit!

We head down the turnpike and we’re cooking around 70 MPH, and I start to relax a little. But wait…as we approach the interchange what is with all this stopped traffic? “Go left Ray” I say, and we pick up a few positions. “OK, right lane looks good” is my next driving suggestion – gosh look at this Route 476 traffic, stop, go (a little) stop again…there’s no rhyme or reason…just a conspiracy to make me late for my flight!

Finally after our umpteenth stop in traffic, I realize that I am not going to make the baggage cutoff for my scheduled flight, so I pick up the phone and call my friends at Delta’s Medallion desk to see what they can do for me. Well wait a minute, they say, let’s call the airport and see what we can do about getting around those baggage checking cutoffs…I shake my head, recognizing that another one of life’s “Rules” has just been reduced to an FAA guideline subject to tweaking when required. “How far away am I” she asks, and I tell her “about ten minutes”. She is on the phone, they have the baggage team involved now, and we come to a complete stop in the traffic. Not wanting to burn a big favor, I tell her there is no way we are making this flight in any fashion, so we forego the secret baggage process, and look at other ways to get from Philadelphia to Cairo tonight.

“Well look at this”, she says, “can you make a 6:50 flight?” Indeed that looks good for the moment, so I tell her “Sure, what do you have?” “How does Philadelphia / Detroit / Paris / Cairo sound”, she asks, and I say, “Let’s do it!” So she begins the process of re-rerouting my travel, but since it’s international travel, we need a ticket counter agent at the airport to get involved. OK, we are in the airport now, and Ray is driving along, dodging the rental car and hotel shuttles all the way. “C’mon Ray, timing is critical here” I point out, and he cuts and swerves us over to the Delta terminal. I grab a skycap, point him to Ray with my bags, and I race inside to get this deal done.

At the Philadelphia ticket counter I approach the agent and introduce myself and explain my “situation.” She introduces herself as LaMonika, and says “there’s no way we’re gonna get this done”. Whoa there sister, those are hardly the reassuring words I was seeking to hear tonight. So I say to the Medallion desk representative, who I still have on the phone, “Ms LaMonika thinks this might be a challenge getting me to Egypt tonight” The phone rep, whose name I never caught, says “Let me talk to her”. I hand over my cell phone, and it’s obvious from the immediacy that Ms LaMonika starts typing with that we have the right team on this job! “Hurry”, she says, “ I need a credit card for the third bag”. Well I pass one over, and she gets it in and hits the “enter” key with exactly one minute to spare – it’s 6:04 as I am taking a picture of my wristwatch and another of Ms LaMonika to start the photo gallery for this adventure.

Up through security, past the IVS bumper stickers strategically located throughout the terminal, and right onto the plane, where, as luck would have it, they upgraded me to the front cabin – sweet! My flight attendant is Ms Avis, and she is just the bundle of joy and purveyor of light beer that this traveler needs right now! I’ve been on a self-imposed two week Coors-free period so tonight is my first taste of the Sweet Nectar of the Gods in fourteen days, and boy, does it taste good! So does the next one, and the one after that too!

Finally we land in Detroit and my connection is not only tight, it is from the opposite corners of the airport with the gates being about as far apart as they can be. So I feel like a celebrity as they repeatedly announce my name over the loudspeaker system, seeking my presence on the soon-to-depart flight to Paris. Finally I arrive and the gate agents are clearly relieved, knowing their mission has been fulfilled and David was on board.

Eight hours later and we set the wheels down on the land of quiche and fried potatoes – France. I’m looking forward to grabbing some fine airport food, because the on-board meal service has been interesting to say the least, with all sorts of French-ish delicacies offered, none of course which I would choose if they were the last meals on earth. Yum, yum… NOT!

On to Cairo and my first Egyptians…

A quick meal at Charles de Gaulle and I board my next and final flight, to Cairo. This is a five-hour jaunt, a piece of cake after the earlier flight, and before you know it I am in King Tut-town. I gather my bags, pass through all the required “Welcome to Egypt” security lines, and there I see Rami, my escort, awaiting there just inside the terminal for me with a big “David Valaika” sign…sweet! He has a pass that allows him to get to the other side of passport control, which is really cool as it helps make sure you start right off in the right line and avoid any immigration hiccups.

So speaking of international incidents, I am in an immigration holding area chock full of Egyptian citizens, Europeans coming to visit or work, and a couple of planeloads of Egyptian blue collar workers in refugee status from Libya. What an eclectic group to be with this evening as I start to absorb this strange new land. But wait, up front in the line voices are rising, then arms are flailing, as one of the immigrants demands faster service from the passport control crew. That leads to him crawling up and banging on the glass on the security booth, which leads to the security guy coming out and screaming back with arms a’ waving, then another guy with more gold stars on his epaulets getting involved and more screaming…God I love this place already!

So I suggest to Rami that perhaps we might consider entering his homeland through another line, and he concurs, so we head over to a less-agitated passport control officer and sail on into Egypt. From there we grab my small mountain of bags, march through the “nothing to declare” line and we’re in-country! Now past a throng of locals wearing the traditional long robes (officially known as Gellabiya) and a few hundred horn-blowing drivers reminiscent of Tijuana or NYC. Finally we arrive at our van and I meet our driver, none other than Mohammed Ali…. no, not that one, but close, named after the great Egyptian leader from long ago! He shuttles me over to the Le Meridian Pyramids hotel where I am to hook up with Dave Hartman to begin our adventure!

But first we have to pass through the first layer of hotel security, the five large steel pipes that are sticking up from the ground completely blocking our passage onto the hotel property. The guard comes out, checks us out, we pass the test, and he activates the hydraulic system which lowers the pipes to ground level and lets us pass.  Now Rami and I unload at the front entrance, and we are greeted by three members of Egypt Tourism Police, an official government security agency specifically charged with security at places of tourism, including hotels, public places, museums, and the like.  All bags pass through an x-ray machine, and we walk through a metal detector, basically the same level of security it takes to board a plane in the U.S.  Again, we pass through successfully, and we proceed to the actual hotel check-in.  That process goes smoothly and I even score Starwood points since this is an affiliated hotel – sweet!  Up to the room with the bags, and there is Mr. Hartman himself waiting for me!

OK, handshakes & hugs complete, it is time to head to the lobby bar and enjoy a cold Sakara Gold’s…. Egypt’s version of Coor’s Light! Dave catches me up on our plans for the next two weeks, which have evolved a bit since we last talked, but what the heck, I am flexible and we’re on a mission to discover the best of Egypt and the Red Sea.  So discover we must!

The hotel is truly first class, with spacious well-appointed rooms, three really nice pools, and a stack of hookah pipes to enjoy!  In the lobby they are celebrating a wedding, and the entire sweeping staircase to the second floor is wrapped in flowers – really pretty and neat to be here to see this part of Egyptian life.  Dave & I are enjoying our brews and the lobby internet until finally the bartender announces he needs to close.  Well closing is one thing, breaking up our party is another!  So he sets us up with a bucket of beers and ice, and we are good for the balance of the evening.  Very nice!  Finally we call it quits and retire for the night to get some decent rest before the adventure really starts tomorrow.

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

New Pyramid Discovered in Egypt

Our first morning in Cairo dawns bright and clear and I step out onto the room balcony to check out the view – and lo and behold, there is the Great Pyramid right there practically next to the hotel – how cool is that?  Now my cultural side is pumped, and I tell Hartman we gotta go check these out!  So we spruce up for the day, I pick a nice low-key Hawaiian shirt to allow the Egyptians to warm up to me slowly, and we down to a superb breakfast buffet complete with omelet bar.  And in the European style I like best, they have cold cuts and sandwich fixin’s out alongside the standard breakfast fare.  I am set, an omelet and a ham & cheese sandwich to fire up the Dave-ster for the day, and we’re ready to go get cultured.

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

View from the Le Meridian-Pyramids Hotel Pool Area

In the lobby we meet up with Rami and today’s host, Ms Manal, a registered Egyptologist and tour guide.  She’ll be showing Dave & I around today as we absorb a bit of the history of this nation.  First stop is the pyramids I saw from the room, and in fact there are several right here adjacent to the hotel.  So Muhammad drives us over in his van. As we pull up and pile out, we are greeted by a policeman and a bomb sniffing dog, who gives our van and backpacks the once over and approves.  Security is clearly taken seriously here, and that is a good thing. Manal gets our tickets, and we begin out tour, walking over to the first pyramid, the one known as The Great Pyramid, and the only surviving example left of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Five Minutes at the Pyramids and on a Camel Already

Well I make it about ten steps towards the pyramid before I am accosted by a couple of camel jockeys, blocking my way with their animal.  OK, OK, I was planning a bit of a camel ride on this trip, so lets just get it out of the way.  I grab a traditional headdress, climb aboard, stand this beast up, and we are off for a little ride around the plaza.  Great photo op, and Dave is there shooting away and capturing the moment.  Enough is enough, here, let me give you this camel back, and that’s when the fun begins.  I feel like someone just hit the ‘hyperspace’ button and I popped up in Tijuana, as the negotiations start over what I have already purchased.  Well my two Egyptian friends picked he wrong guy out of he crowd to work over today, and we have at it, and it gets a little heated.  Five dollars is all this was worth to me, and that is about 10% of what a great time they feel I experienced!  Well five is it, and Malan jumps in, and rips these guys a new orifice or two – I am impressed big time!  That ends it, I give them the $5, and we get on with our pyramid tour.

But there is a lot more to learn here than price bickering, and Manal is chock full of Egyptian facts and secrets to share.  So lets start with Pyramid 101.  The main entrances of all pyramids face due north, and their four sides are perfectly square.  Most have a 52 degree angle up the sides, although that varies a slight bit with some measuring only 49 degrees – still pretty darn accurate and consistent in my book.  And when you build a pyramid its not as easy as getting 2 ½ million blocks, each weighing around 3,000 pounds, and piling them up in a nice geometric shape.   First you have to take in all the ancillary structures that go with any good pyramid project, including the mortuary temple for the embalming process, the main funerary temple for the final service, a giant causeway to transport the body to the entrance, and let’s not forget the five 150 ft long boats that are buried around the outside of each pyramid for the entombed soul to use to sail through his or her afterlife.  Yeah, the construction of the pyramid itself is only the ‘down payment’ on this project!

There are actually three major pyramids located here in relatively close proximity to each other.  The largest, and oldest, is the Great Pyramid of Giza (also called the Khufu’s Pyramid, Pyramid of Khufu, and Pyramid of Cheops) and is the first installation in the Giza Necropolis bordering Cairo, and is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that survives substantially intact. It is believed the pyramid was built as a tomb for Fourth dynasty Egyptian King Khufu (Cheops in Greek) and constructed over a 20-year period concluding around 2560 BC. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, built as the final resting place for the king known as Cheops. The base of the pyramid covers 13 acres, 568,500 square feet and the length of each side was originally 754 feet, but is now 745 feet.  The original height was 481 feet tall, but is now only 449 feet.  The majority of the outer casing, which was polished limestone, was removed about 600 years ago to help build cities and mosques which created a rough, worn, and step-like appearance.  How’s that for paying attention to Ms Manal?

Next to that is the #2 pyramid, built for Cheops son Chephren, and finally the third structure sits behind these two, that being the third pyramid and the tomb of Cheops’ grandson, Mercirous.  These buildings are like the world’s largest Lego set, and towering as they do about 500 ft high over the surrounding desert terrain, they are pretty dang impressive to stand next to!  We actually go into #3, and while it is a neat crawl down a long, narrow and tight shaft way, it is kinda cool to be in a place that was so important to a civilization so long ago.  But like visiting the red mountain known as Uluru in Ayers Rock, Australia, you only need to penetrate one pyramid in your life to cross that off your bucket list of ‘must-do’s’.

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

Solar Boat of Cheops Museum with Headstones in the Foreground

One of the neatest things were the burial pits for the boats they had excavated around each pyramid. Measuring about 30 ft deep, and carved out of the solid bedrock with a rounded bottom for the boat, they had several open ones there to examine.  For some inexplicable reason, when they dug up the first three, they found them to be empty.  Its not easy to loot one of these boats, as the top of the pits have about 75 carefully nested stones fitted across them, each one weighing about nine tons.  But they struck pay dirt in the last two pits, unearthing complete boats in perfect condition in each.  One is still being excavated and restored by a team of Japanese archaeologists, but the other has been already brought up and is on display in a custom-built museum structure behind the pyramid.

We get our tickets and enter the museum that is run by a really low-key bunch of civilian-type folks.  First of course it is another metal detector and x-ray machine, followed by the handing out of canvas shoe covers for us to wear while we are strolling around the museum.  Sure cuts down on the mopping and waxing the floor expense, I am thinking!  We suit up, and head in to check out the goods.  The museum starts off with lots of pieces, actual artifacts from the recovery process, lots of photos, and tools used in the restoration.  It keeps getting bigger and better as we move further into this museum that has a spiral design, moving us further and further upward.  We walk past the actual pit, which the museum was built over and around.  Finally we get to the top floor, and what are we greeted with?  The actual boat itself!

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

The Solar Boat of Cheops-Let's Go Diving

Holy smokes, how cool is this on a number of levels.  First of all, it is a 4,000-year-old wooden boat in perfect condition.  Second, it was actually buried in “kit” form; it was built, tested on the water, and then disassembled to lie flat in the pit.  The reason for this is that if a dead person is going to use something in his afterlife, it has to be “dead” too, and in the case of the boat, taking it apart after it sailed made it “dead”.  Yeah I know, it’s a stretch, but work with me here.  Anyways, that’s the way it works in the world of the Egyptians!

But even more important are my personal observations and determination how this finely crafted boat fits into today’s society.  First of all, the boat was cut into pieces so some of the wood sections fit together like a Chinese puzzle, with all sorts of angles and tabs and holes and other little things.  And, not a single metal fastener was used; every single connection was made either through interlocking the pieces or with rope – really neat to see!  So here is my theory – archaeological teams from all over the world have studied this vessel, and although it was not noted in the records, I know for sure that the Swedes have been here too.  While most went home with photos and volumes of notes to ponder over later, the Swedes took something else from what they saw in this knocked-down, minimal fastener boat – the idea for IKEA furniture!  And there, my friends, you have it!

So finally we are ready to head towards the next stop on our tour, the Sphinx!  It is actually just around the corner from the pyramids, so we jump in the van and head on over.  It is located on the corner of Culture and Urban Sprawl – seriously sitting right there with a birds eye view of the lesser side of Cairo.  I am sure it was pretty dang dramatic in it’s day, but today, well, let’s just say it is a little anti-climatic to be at a place of such cultural significance with a Pizza Hut located across the street.  Still good for some great photo ops, and that dang IVS bumper sticker keeps showing up too!  Kinda like the best of the old and the best of the new, I suppose!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

The Sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza-IVS was here too!!

And now comes the best part – I am looking at a couple of photographs there, just blending in with the locals as I do so well, when this young man comes up to me and asks if I am an American.  Well gosh, my cover is blown, so I fess up “yes I am”.  “May I take a picture with you?” he asks, and I quickly shed my Sean Penn ‘no pictures’ attitude.  “Sure” I say, and he motions to his posse to come over with me.  “Stand next to him”, he says to his wife, and he comes around me, and then another guy, and another woman, and another guy.  ‘Click, click, click’ go the cameras and the smiles are huge and genuine.  He turns and says to me “Thank you” and I say “For what?”.  He explains to me how America’s position, and Obama’s words to Mubarak that it was time to step down, were so overwhelmingly received here.  It was pretty cool to hear that about America from someone in a foreign land.  Then he turns to me and says, “Can I give you something?”.  “Of course”, I say, and with that he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out his January 25th martyr badge, a card that the protesters had printed up and wore around their necks to identify to others in Eltahrir Square and elsewhere what team they were on.  He wore it himself throughout the protests that ultimately peacefully overthrew the government, and wanted to give it to me.  It had the photos of those killed in the initial protests on it and banner of protest (in Arabic of course).  To say I was moved would be an understatement – this was unbelievable and made me so unbelievably proud to be an American.  This is one souvenir from a trip that I will never forget!

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

Our New Egyptian Friends at the Solar Boat Musuem

OK, sentimental moment over, it’s time to head back into the city and go visit the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  It is on the other side of town, and Sunday is a workday here.  The Egyptians celebrate their weekend on Friday and Saturday, so Sunday it is business as normal, with all the traffic and congestion that might go along with that!

But first we must stop for lunch.  The locals eat lunch around 2’ish, so we just beat the crowd into a local eatery called Eltahrir Restaurant, of the same name as the famous square in downtown Cairo that my new friend had spent so many days at.  The menu here is interesting, as they have exactly one thing on it – Koushary.  It’s an Egyptian favorite and staple of their diet, and since my options are limited, it is three orders for our table, for myself, Dave and Manal.  It consists of a bowl filled with layers of Rice, Brown Lintels, Macaroni, Hummus, Spaghetti Pasta, topped with Fried Onions and Tomato Sauce.  Yessiree Bob, that is exactly what I was hoping we’d have for lunch!  Well she was so proud to take us to this local place I had no choice but to ‘man up’ and clean my plate, like my counterparts.  Note to self:  ipsnay on the Koushary on the next trip!

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Enjoying the Best Lunch Ever with our Guide Manal

Our bellies full, we go to one of the many papyrus making shops for a demonstration of the art and science of making paper from papyrus reeds.  Now let’s just get this straight – these places are all exactly the same, just with varying degrees of class – they are art galleries that have really nice papyrus making displays to suck you in.  OK, now that I cleared the air on that, we headed in to one of the newer and classier ones, the Sonodous Institute.  There we met Amir, who welcomed Dave and I over to a nice little papyrus paper making table, and he gave us a first class demonstration on how the stalk of the papyrus reed can easily be made into very durable paper, good for thousands of years as documented from so many items from the past here.  So after a good demonstration, and just like any good tour, where did we end up but the gift shop?  Actually the whole gallery, and they had a lot of cool stuff, but we were strong and resisted!  Good solidarity!

OK, now it’s time for our next and last stop before the airport, the Cairo Museum, also known as the Museum of Antiquities.  We approach through the unending traffic, and as we near, a very dark building appears alongside us.  Well it is none other than the shell of the former headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, the Ruling Party.  Totally gutted and blackened, it stands as a tribute to the power of the people here, seeking positive change for themselves and generations to come.  The amazing thing is the control that the people exhibited, this was not mindless mass damage like the L.A. Lakers fans exhibit after winning another NBA championship, setting random cars on fire, and of course looting all the Korean businesses (why do they hate those people so much?).  No, this was directed solely towards and against the man and his rule, and nothing else was damaged or destroyed in the process.

We pull up to the museum entry road and are greeted not only by the Tourism Police, but by real soldiers with real automatic weapons and real tanks and armored personnel carriers, all here with one specific purpose – the people have spoken, and Egypt is not going to be trashed by a few radicals.  Enough said, there is more than enough firepower present here to straighten out anyone who gets out of line.  Really nice to see, and everything is really cool, there is no bravado, the soldiers are smiling, the people are smiling, the guns are there but not threatening, a very clear picture that nothing bad is going to happen here today!

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Smoozing Security at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

So we worked our way through the traffic to the front of the line, pass the required tests yet again, and drive onto the museum grounds.  We park between a tank and an APC, I snap a few photos, and we walk into the museum front yard.  Some more photos, and we have to check our cameras before we enter the museum.  Wait though cause it turns out the Ruling Party headquarters is locate right next door, so major photo op here!  We snap a hundred or so pics, and then turn our cameras in for the interior tour.

There is so much to see here, and our time is limited, so we focus on the treasures of King Tut, the Boy King.  He is the most documented King in the history of Egypt for one primary reason – no one knew where his tomb was until 1954, so it was never looted or stripped.  Once discovered everyone was pretty dang sensitive about history being lost, so it was documented, cataloged, moved to the museum, and put on permanent display for generations to enjoy.  The funny thing is that of all the kings and rulers of Egypt, he was the most inconsequential, serving only from age 8 to 18, dying a mysterious death, and leaving nothing of any legacy behind him, except a well-hidden tomb full of not-yet-stolen treasure!  Hardly the impression the world has when his tour comes to town, but that is the official Egyptian take on King Tut.

But one of the neatest parts of the display was Tut’s collection of coffins and storage chambers.  Of course he was mummified, then, dressed in all sorts of solid gold bling, like a big ornamental helmet, hand protectors, and lots of chains & stuff.  Then he was placed into a solid gold, 220 pound coffin that essentially fit his body very snugly.  That was then placed into a slightly large gold plated one, that in turn inside a slightly larger wood & gold one, and finally that into an even larger solid wood one.  Then, these were placed into a specially constructed box with a door on the end, and that was placed into another box, and that into another…you get the picture?  So, I am thinking that perhaps he was not given the credit he was due for his inspiration for one of the most fascinating trinkets that still amaze people until today – the nesting Russian matryoshka dolls!

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

The 220 Pound Solid Gold Inner Coffin of King Tut

But all that aside, the display is huge, covering nearly the entire second floor of the museum.  We visit it all, and Manal is amazing in her knowledge of things past, and also of all the various theories and contradictions that exist. But as most of you who know me can attest, my “stink-0-meter” is always on, so I take everything with a grain of salt.  Manal says a few things that don’t quite add up, and can’t answer a few pointed questions I ask, debunking some of her theories.  We are enjoying a good and positive banter back and forth on history, physics, physiology, mechanical engineering, and more, when this woman pops up in my face, and says to me, with an accent – “Sir – can you please save your discussion for outside? The tour groups are listening to you and not the tour guides!”  Well gosh, aren’t I just so sorry to bring some illumination of the slightly distorted ‘facts’ those around me?  Perhaps it was the guide over there, who as I walked past his group earlier, he was telling them that the famous River Nile passes through a total of nine countries – when in fact it actually passes through eleven!   Good tour guide training program they have here at the museum!!  So I say to her, ” I will see what I can do” and she turns on her heels and snubs me as she storms off.  With that Manal speaks up, loudly, that “She is just a French journalist and she gets in her for free – this is not her museum – don’t listen to her!” OK, that’s all I needed to hear, no ‘Ugly American’ story here, international incident over, it was just a French journalist!  Dave 1, French 0.

We finish our tour, having only seen perhaps 10% of what the museum has to offer.  I definitely need to get back here!  One thing we also did get to see was where the scumbags broke in during the revolution and stole quite a few artifacts; I hope they are caught and dealt with in the true Islam way…. tough for a thief to break in again with your hands missing.

From there we pile back into Mohammed’s van and head towards the airport, enjoying some more exhibits of military might on display as we pass by a number of the embassies and consulate offices.  Lots and lots of hardware out there, no one is going to stir any crap here!

Time to leave the desert & start diving, Red Sea style…

On the way to the airport we bid farewell to Manal, and Rami escorts us the rest of the way.  Once at the airport we endure a bit more security right at the airport entrance to keep the riff raff out, and then enjoy some really first class treatment at the Egypt Air ticket counter.  Really nice folks and really nice treatment!  We bus out to our plane (they are not big on jetways in this country) and enjoy a short flight to Hurghada on the coast of the Red Sea.

Upon landing we are met by Steve and Clair Rattle, owners of Pharaoh Dive Club in El Qusier.  They’ve got a van waiting, so we get right on down the road to our next hotel, the Movenpick.  Located right on the shores of the Red Sea, this resort offers everything a diving or non-diving tourist could want in this region.  We check in, head to the bar for a few quick ones, and call it an early night – OK it’s 2 a.m. – and get ready for our 7:30 pick up to go diving tomorrow!

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Our Morning Transfer to Pharaoh Dive Club

Dawn breaks beautifully with a sunrise to greet us coming in from the east over the Red Sea, and it’s time for these two adventurers to get moving!  We head down to breakfast which is even grander and bigger than we had in Cairo, with everything you can imagine, plus a few other things, out for our consumption.  We fill our bellies and walk out to meet Steve and his crew who have come to pick us up in the Pharaoh Dive Club van.  Gear is already loaded so we jump in and head down the road about two miles to the dive center, which is located at the Fanadir Hotel on the beach.  Great dive center, not our kind of hotel, of that I assure you!  Glad we are staying where we are!

We meet the staff and get all checked in with paperwork, they inventory our gear for us to make sure they don’t lose track of it while they wash it, and we get the lay of the land, so to speak.  The highest priority of course is to properly “sticker” the place and we get that done with IVS stickers proudly displayed in all the key locations!  That out of the way, dive #1 is going to be the house reef right in front of the resort, one of the 80 shore-based dive sites that Pharaoh has identified in the local area.

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

Steve Rattle of Pharaoh Dive Club Briefs the Fanadir House Reef

We set our gear up, and the crew questions whether I am really an American or not, since my regulators are all DIN-style.  They usually only see that from the Europeans and Russians, but I assure them I am 100% Grade A Prime U.S Beef!  Once we have everything set up we wade out on the reef about 100 yards in knee deep water, then it drops down to about 4 ft of depth. Fins on, we surface swim a little further, and then drop into the top of a hole down into the reef.  It bottoms out around 35 ft and from there we enter a cavern that we follow through and out to the actually reef face.  The sand is about 35 ft and the reef wall comes right up nearly to the surface all along it, in some places actually poking above the surface.   The water here is a tad saltier than the Atlantic, so we actually had to add a little weight to achieve proper buoyancy.

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The Numerous World Class Dive Sites in El Quseir

The coral life is so very alive and healthy here, with an amazing variety of hard and soft species, lots of reef fish, and all the neat little critters that make a dive special.  We head north about a half mile along the bottom, then reverse back higher up on the reef, and I am positive we have picked a winner here!  Water temp was 75 degrees, so while not quite ‘tropical’ certainly no gloves or hoods needed.  I’m wearing a 4/3mm full suit for warmth (and to avoid marine incidents!) and doing fine with staying warm. We finally head back in and as we surface and stand up on the top of the reef, where we are greeted by Steve’s team who is there to carry our fins and assist us back in – service plus indeed!

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

Large Pristine Hard Coral Head on Fanadir House Reef

We enjoy a bit of a surface interval here and the wind kicks up, blowing at about 30 mph off the sea.  Let’s hope this dies down soon!  After a nice break we toss some tanks in the van, and head north to the harbor, about a mile up the road in town.

We pass through the downtown area of El Qusier and pull into the harbor.  Here Pharaoh Divers keeps their local fleet, consisting of a 28 meter (90 ft) long “day boat”, their “Speed Boat”, a 20 ft Zodiac-style boat, and another larger Zodiac.  Additionally they utilize another local boat for some of the inshore dive sites, and that is what we’ll be diving off today.

Port security protocols are a little different here than in the U.S. due to a heightened worry of invaders from across the sea.  Folks who follow my blog know that I have bit of personal experience with port security and international invasions.  Obviously the Egyptians also have a little history here to support that fear, as this land has been invaded dozens of times in it’s history, and most often from the east.  That being said, Pharaoh needs to have permission from the Coast Guard on a daily basis to leave and return to the harbor, and ultimately one single Coast Guard official in the local office grants this permission.  Seems he “went out to the desert” a few days ago and has been incommunicado, so Steve cannot operate the big boat for diving until they find the guy.  This also explains why there is no night diving by boat off the coast, cause you know you’ll be in some missile launchers sites all night long while sitting out off the coast.

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

El Quseir Harbor-"The Land that Time Forgot"

But it gets better – the government built a new fancy police station here in town, and the Coast Guard felt slighted, with their little office on the water in the harbor.  So they demanded a new building too!

And they received it – a brand new, shiny Coast Guard station – except the only land available was a couple blocks from the harbor, in downtown El Qusier.  And after spending all that money on the ‘crib’, guess what they did not have?  Money left in the budget for a vehicle!!!  Yes, in spite of the fact that the station is located far from the water and the coast they are “guarding”, they have no vehicle assigned to the station.  So every day that Pharaoh wants to head out with their boat, they need to drive over to the Coast Guard station to complete the paperwork (no radios here!) and then, if the officer wants to do a visual inspection, they have to drive him to the boat, and take him back to the station when complete.  Shaking my head here…

So we load the gear onto the big boat and get a chance to tour the vessel.  This is nothing like any day boat you will find in North America, as it is 100 ft long with a 22 ft wide beam, and roomy beyond description.  Although built only 12 years ago, the all wood construction is full of details such as curved glass doors, a hardwood floor throughout the salon area, a bar, couches and chairs with ornate wooden legs and details, enough sun deck area for about 40 people, and more.  By Egyptian custom and prudent local security foresight, the captain lives on board the vessel.  The whole experience is a bit surreal, as you feel like you have gone back in time when you look around at all the details and finish that you’ll never see on a Newton or Island Hopper boat.

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

The Huge Sun Deck of the Noir El Medina Dive Boat

So we will use this vessel today as a staging platform for our diving, plus a nice place to do our briefings, complete our surface intervals, and enjoy a hot cooked lunch.  The crew shuttles our gear over to the smaller neighbors boat via the zodiac so we can head out for our first dive.  We get our wetsuits on, climb down, transfer over, and head out of the harbor.  You may be asking, how does this boat get out?  It’s all in the licensing and the local Egyptian ownership, but that is a whole story in itself. The good news is that we are diving, and the wind has died down!

First drop is at Ras Qusier (literally the Head of Qusier, don’t ask).  We do a hot drop and backroll off the boat, dropping onto the reef wall face.  Everyone is cool, so we drift on down the wall to the sand, and narcosis junkie that I am; I keep heading down to hit the 150 ft mark.  There was plenty further to go, but I don’t want to worry my friends, so I enjoy the euphoria for a bit before heading back up to a shallower depth along the base of the wall.

A Large Coral Outcropping Busting Out with Red Anthias

A Large Coral Outcropping Covered with Red Anthias

Lots of cool critters here to see, in addition to the amazingly healthy varieties of coral.  So much vertical profile in the reef, with lots of grooves, channels, and holes to explore.  Fish life is healthy, even with an indigenous population of lionfish, who have been here for thousands of years and evidently have developed a following of natural predators that keeps their population in check.  It’s funny when you talk to the locals about lionfish problems because that is truly an alien concept to them, having had them living in balance with the rest of the marine population here for as long as anyone can remember.  We see Nudibranchs, black lobsters, turtles, Napoleon wrasses, yellow tail barracuda, huge flatworms, Crown of Thorns starfish, and many more delightful citizens of the deep, large & small.  Our plan is to head along and then cut out to see some “secret” pinnacles covered with anemones and clown fish, but we are having such a great time we never make it nearly far enough down the reef to see that.  We’ll have to come back!

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

Crown of Thorns Starfish on Fas Quseir Reef

We surface and the boat is right there to pick us up.  It’s kinda cool to be the only boat in the ocean, let alone the only divers on the entire reef.  Nice!  We head on back to the ‘mother ship’ and the crew swaps tanks while we enjoy a little sun and surface interval.  But the cook has been busy, and we are called to lunch in he salon, another great spread of hot and cold items, varieties of meats, and more.  We talk about our next dive, and agree to return to where we left off on the last one ‘cause it was way too nice to not see more of it.  After that we’ll just motor over to another reef location for our fourth dive of the day – I am liking Steve and his passion for diving!

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

Large Moray Eel Surrounded by Red Anthias

So back we go, drop down, enjoy even more of what I mentioned above, surface, and motor over to the last site.  This is the Cathedral, and consists of a bunch of cavern and cave-ish systems under the reef.  We drop and I lead the group in, and what a really cool dive this turns out to be.  I so love being inside caves in the water and there is no disappointment here as this labyrinth goes on and on under the reef.  OK, my friends are cold so we need to head back on up, all smiles and laughing over what a great dive that was.

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Blue-eyed Lobster hiding in the darkness of the Cathedral

Back to the mother ship, and we pack the gear (OK, the crew packs the gear, this is a Trish Arrington sort of resort – the boys do it all for you!). We grab our personal things van it back over to the dive center, say good night to our friends, and get shuttled back over to our hotel.  Once there, Dave heads over to the restaurant to grab dinner, but I am so beat I just crash for the night, still in my bathing suit!

Day breaks and we’re up and running early, at the restaurant at 6:15 to make our sandwiches.  The van is spot on time for a 6:40 pick up and we down to the dive center, where Steve and a group of nine German divers await us.  They pile in and it becomes decidedly more “friendly” in the van, but we’ll be fine for our hour and ten minute ride south to the Marsa Alam region, where Pharaoh has another of their four operations is located.  Here we’re going to head out on a 10 meter Zodiac, similar to the Wild Side boat in Bonaire, to dive a couple of sites on Elphinston reef.

Our stepping off point is a ‘camp’ sort of resort, with actual tents on the beach for rooms, a nice restaurant, and a pretty hopping dive center with a pile of fast Zodiac boats.  We gear up under the shady huts, and walk on into the water, where about 75 feet out, we walk up a set of stairs to a dock.  Now one thing I have noticed with docks and jetties here so far, is that a) wood must be expensive for the legs, and b)it is easier to work at low tide.  So, as a result, every dock we have seen so far is under water at any time other than dead low tide.  Interesting!

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

Shagra Dive Camp with view of floating dock and dive tenders

But I digress… we get on the dock and then into the Zodiacs, with the Germans splitting into two groups.  Three of them join Dave and I on our boat, along with our guide, a young man named Mohammed.  He’s got a great command of English so we enjoy a lot of banter as we get ready to head out.  The briefing was completed back under the huts, so there is no need for any more of that detail now.  We are heading into the wind with seas running around 3 to 4, with an occasional 6 and 8 footer.  It’s a bit of a Wild Side experience, but we pound through, with our captain looking very much the Somalian pirate part with his headdress flying in the wind as he races our boat out the 5 or so miles to the reef.  The reef itself is a seamount that rises from the deep ocean floor to a depth of approx 10 ft at the top, and it’s about 1,000 feet long and 100 ft wide.  Before we go we decide to send in the Germans, who drop off the boats in a fairly  un-synchronized fashion in spite of the eins, zwei, drei, loudly shouted out by the leader.  A couple of minutes later, heads are popping in various places around us, so the lack of synchronization was not limited solely to the boat entry.  They finally get them all back on the boats and re-position for a second drop.  Meanwhile we decide it is time for us to go, so the three of us drop over and down.

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

Colorful Coral Heads on Elphinstone with Swarms of Anthias

We are at the very northern point of the seamount, so I decide to drop to 160 to check out the life there, before heading up slowly with the team and working our way along the edges.  The density and variety of corals here is amazing, and the entire mount is covered with fish.  Pretty darn cool dive, and we get a good 45 minutes of bottom time before shooting our surface maker and getting picked up by the boat.  Once we have the Germans on board, we head in, break down the gear, and load up the truck for our second site inspection, just back up the road a bit in Abu Dabab, home of the dugongs!  The dugongs are eastern manatees, and the love the grassy flats here as do quite a few large sea turtles, so our hopes are high!

Second dive was in Abu Dabab off the beach at Solymar Resort, a beautiful seaside complex catering to Italians.  It is a bit surreal gearing up to the lilting sounds of Italian classical music being piped to speakers on the beach.  We wade on and this starts out as a grassy flat plain in 10 to 25 feet of water, and is the year round home of a dozen very large green sea turtles, in the 400 to 500 pound range.  We aren’t down four minutes before we are greeted by the first of our turtles, a huge green one, complete with a couple of bright green remora escorts and a pilot fish.  This turtle could not care less that we were right there, and swam between Dave and I, munching away on the sea grass.

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

Big Turtle with Remoa and Pilot Fish in Two at Abu Dabab

What an excellent photo op this was!  We accompanied him for a bit, flashing away with the camera, and finally turned and left him on his own as we searched for our next exciting sighting, and we were immediately rewarded with a guitar shark swimming past us. Cool!  Another turtle, more sharks, ho hum, this is getting boring…. just kidding…this is fantastic.  We decide to head over to the adjacent reef which is covered with life but unfortunately the viz here today is quite low so it is tough to really appreciate the true beauty of this particular area.

For those Fish ID’ers amongst our readers the Red Sea has a lot of the critters we see in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, but also some interesting additions to our regulars sightings:  pipefish, guitar sharks, crocodile fish, unicorn fish, Picasso triggerfish, Emperor angelfish, Sweet lips, batfish, blue spotted stingrays, bright green remoras, amazingly multi-hued parrot fish, and huge morays that I could not get both hands around touching finger to finger – don’t ask if I tried!

Back in the truck we head another 10 km north to Shoni Bay, where another of the Pharaoh Dive Club centers are located.  After a tour of the beautiful grounds, we gear up and wade out to Steve’s Zodiac boat. Once onboard, we motor out about fifteen minutes to our entry point and drop into the reef, descending down the wall to about 100 ft before leveling out and starting our drift dive home.  This reef, like so many of the others, is absolutely pristine, and so full of life and variety is it utterly amazing.  We spend an hour poking around and working our way south, finally turning the corner into the bay and ending up back at the beach where we started.  Another wonderful dive in the books!

Superfast  Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

Superfast Zodiac Tender at Pharaoh Dive Club in Shoni Bay

On our way back to the hotel we stop to visit Port Ghabil to check out some liveaboards that we might use for a future trip, and also get to drool over some high-end custom yachts docked along the waterfront.  This harbor area is the result of a Kuwaiti investment and nothing was left untouched – it has a Disney-like feel to it, with everything first class and welcoming.  After our stroll, we stop in at the waterfront TGI Fridays for a snack.  One great day of diving with friends, and now here we sit, Pink Floyd music being played, professional soccer on the TV, and cold beers – does it get any better than this?

Finally it’s time to go, so back in the truck to drop off our gear at the dive center, and head back to our hotel for the night.  Second night in a row I am too beat to even make it down to dinner, so we blog a little, upload some photos and videos, and call it a night.

Wednesday morning and today’s plans are to do a little wreck diving just north of us in Safaga.  Steve picks us up at 7:15 and we travel 80 km north the port town. On the road to dive I take advantage of an opportunity to learn even more about the local customs in Safaga 80 k north of El Qusier.  First, there are a lot of police checkpoints along the coast road – these guys pretty security conscious and take invaders and other nere-do-wells pretty seriously.  The second thing I pick up on are the white lines that are painted down the middle of the road, in some areas they are dashed, and other areas have a solid white line.  This comes to mind because Steve crosses that solid white line a few times to pass slower moving vehicles, and I just thinking, “hey, correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t that solid line indicate something about passing?”  Well I am glad I asked, because Steve enlightens me on the local highway department practices, and suggests I look a little closer at the solid white line, and take notice that they have repainted it with a dashed white line on top, indicating it is now OK to pass.  “Silly me”, I am thinking, “of course!”  Not like they could have blacked out the old white line or anything…. just paint white stripes on top!  Amazing.

So our 80 kilometer ride is mainly through continuous desert broken only occasionally by a single home or hotel or military security checkpoint.  We pass some islands covered with mangrove trees, some of the only greenery we have seen in this region.  One thing I have noticed is there are literally hundreds of partially constructed homes, hotels, resorts and the like, which are sitting with no obvious indication of recent construction activity.  I query Steve, and here I learn of another little quirk in the local law – the government owns nearly all the land, and individuals can purchase it for development, but, and this is a big but, you have to start construction within a certain time frame or the government repossesses your real estate!  Hence the “pour the concrete and lay some bricks” approach – we can work on finishing it later!  Not pretty, but it works for these guys.

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

New Wooden Live-aboard Being Built at Dry Dock in Safaga

We drive past a huge drydock facility, where they service and maintain boats as well as construct new ones.  Every boat built here, like our day boats, is made of 100% wood.  Sure, that makes sense to me, as I gaze upon the barren desert – where the heck do they get the wood?  So I ask a few folks today, and get the same answer – “I don’t know”.  A pretty closely guarded industrial secret I am thinking, cause no one knows where the wood comes from!  That actually sort of becomes the trivia question of the week, and no matter whom I ask, no one has a clue.

And I am thinking, if you came here with a fiberglass hull mold, you could kick butt in the boat building business – there’s my business tip for the day!

Finally we enter Safaga, our destination for today.  Most of the resort areas here are somewhat dedicated to attracting tourists from one or two nationalities, and Safaga is basically a German town.  Our dive operator is Ducks Diving, who runs 6 large day boats out of the harbor here. This is a pretty first class operation, and their shop, boats and equipment are pretty state of the art.  So we back the truck up with our gear and here come the equipment handlers, leading a donkey pulling a cart!  How cool, I think, as we load our tanks and gear onto the cart and the donkey is lead down the dock and to the boat.  You know we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Our Donkey Equipment Tender at Ducks Divers in Safaga

Gear loaded, we get on board and wait for the others to load. But wait – there’s no one else getting aboard – Dave, Steve and I have our own 110 ft long private boat and crew for today’s diving!  Talking about living large – this is VIP treatment to the max!

Before we go, though, we get to enjoy another local treat – there are four or five mosques within earshot of the docks, and you can quietly hear the background start to come alive with the call to prayer.  Each mosque has a huge loudspeaker system mounted in it’s minuet tower, and the leaders call out to the members that is time for one of the five daily prayer sessions.  So the calls get louder and louder, and sort of like a Led Zeppelin soundtrack, they pass from tower to tower as the leaders somewhat synchronize the cacophony of chants.  Some of our crewmembers stop their work, and begin their prayer sessions wherever they are.  I am honored for the opportunity to be here and observe this cultural and religious experience.  Very, very different!

Back to our private yacht for the day, this really displays an amazing spirit of cooperation between dive operators in this region; this would be such an alien concept in the Florida Keys where this is so much bickering and in-fighting between the dive operators.  Steve has, over his 20 years here in Egypt, developed a great network of friends and allied businesses, and it truly helps him stand out as a professional in his field and someone I would heartily recommend to others.

Our first stop today will be on the El Arish or (El Tori) wreck, a 240 ft long ferry boat scuttled allegedly as an insurance fraud claim in the early 2000’s completely intact.  It sits on its port side in 120 ft of water a mile off the coast, and everything is still on the boat from the day it sank, including the automatic life boats which never fired upon sinking – good maintenance there for sure!!

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Wreck Briefing on Sea Tiger by Divemaster Emad and Steve Rattle

Emad, our multi-lingual divemaster, gives us a thorough briefing of the dive site, and points out that there is NO PENETRATION on these wrecks.  God, I love a good guideline!  We splash, and can see the wreck right from the surface in the clear water.  Down we go, and we begin to swim along the wreck, until I come upon an opening in the deck…well you know where this is going!  Let’s just imagine, if you will, that I actually penetrated this wreck!  Very cool, but of course one would need to take care as there are objects falling and hanging inside, silt is thick, and there are no escape cutouts…. hey this is a neat wreck!   I (might have) spent a half hour or so inside, working my way around the machinery and fixtures, before rejoining my Steve and Dave.  Dive stats: 111 ft for 45 minutes – way to start off the morning!  Very cool wreck – we’ll have to come back and actually do some penetration!  (wink, wink).

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Nudibran and Red Corals on the El Arish Wreck in Safaga

Back on board, we talk about what might be inside that wreck if we were to actually penetrate it, and begin our slow drive over to the next site.  One thing about these big wooden boats with single engines…they are slow as heck!  So our surface intervals won’t be a problem at all!

Dive #2 will be on the wreck of the Salem Express, a 330 ft long ferry boat lost due to pilot error in a storm that drove it into the reef in 1991 with the loss of over 1,600 lives, mostly Egyptian Muslins returning from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.   That is the unofficial count, which, if official would make it the greatest peacetime maritime tragedy ever, surpassing the Titanic.  But you would have to have records for all those extra seats sold, cause the ship was only rated for 650 passengers, which happened to be the official count of how many were on board when it sank – interesting!

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

Large Cafeteria Area of the Salem Express

The ship is resting on its starboard side in 115 ft of water, reaching up to within 35 ft of the surface.  We drop down, and again, like Ulysses and the Sirens, there is an opening in the deck just screaming out my name!  OK, I am weak, and I must obey the call, so in I go.  I drop into the cargo hold, and let me tell you, my breath is immediately taken away as I swim silently over thousands of suitcases, boxes and bags or personal belongings, seeing the name tags and claim tickets which will forever rest at the bottom of the sea, along with the owners.  This is almost overpowering, just sensing the madness that went through this area one late December night twenty years ago when the ship hit the reef and was lost beneath the waves within two minutes – too fast to even launch the lifeboats, which were still in the davits.  We spend an hour down here, touring sleeping rooms, the bridge, and some machinery spaces, before heading up to debrief aboard.

It’s prayer time again on board, so the crew tends to that, and when done, it’s time to bring out the hookah, so they gather in a circle on the deck huffing away and sharing a good smoke together.  Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore!!

Wreck #3 on today’s adventure is the Al Kafain, a 300 ft long cargo freighter that caught fire and sunk here in 2006.  Wind drove it into the side of a reef and it capsized, coming to rest on the bottom with the superstructure at 90 ft and the keep sitting up at 30 ft (which was until recently on 6 ft, so the ship is collapsing on itself).  Our plan originally was to drop from the Zodiac, check out the wreck briefly, and work our way around this pinnacle back to the mother ship, but we kept the option open to spend more time at the wreck if we liked it.  Turned out to be a very cool wreck, so we checked it out a little more closely.  It was kinda eerie as I entered (in my imagination, as there is NO penetration!) the first cargo hold and there are all the life jackets floating and jammed against the ceiling – spooky! We explore the wreck for about an hour, finding an all white Pepper Moray, a nice swimming black flatworm, a bunch of nudi’s, and some more of the usual critters.  But you know me, and there is an underlying need within me to “root around” so root around I do, and guess what I find?  The ship’s china, and there is perfectly preserved coffee cup with the emblem “K” on it from the shipping company.  How cool is that for a souvenir??

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Large Propeller of the Upside Wreck of Kafrain

Finally it is time to head up, so up we go to the safety stop, and I unfurl my SMB and shoot it up to the surface for our supposedly waiting Zodiac driver to see.  We hang, expecting to hear the sounds of a speeding propeller at any moment.  We hang some more…well we have to hang, cause Steve is diving a Suunto computer and still has another seven minutes of deco obligation to off-gas (no comment on the Cochran vs. Suunto bottom time match-up).  Finally, we surface, and with memories of a recent Coral Sea incident fresh in my mind, there is no Zodiac in sight.  In what is evidently the local fashion, Steve shouts out at the top of his lungs, and the boat crew finally picks up on it, and here comes the Zodiac.  Man how I love it when a plan comes together!

Back on board, we pack our gear and enjoy the leisurely ride back to port.  Did I mention these boats were slow?  We pull up near the dock, and the crew gets it together, with lots of obligatory shouting and yelling that’s Egyptian for “discussing”) we finally manage to swing it around and slide it into the dock. Our donkey awaits, the gear is off-loaded, and we head off south again.

Roots Camp, water-pipes, and local ‘connections’…

Steve has a surprise stop for us, at a new project he has undertaken.  He has partnered with Roots Camp, an alternative style lodging and adventure resort along the coast.  The facility is great, with nice low budget, low amenity rooms, common showers, some new self-contained rooms, a restaurant, dive center and more.  Backpackers and budget travelers love these places, and what better location than right here for one!  We are really impressed with the operation and sit down for a chat with Steve’s two Egyptian partners.  Hassan is the former local chief of police, and Nazese, also known as “The Doctor”, is a railway engineer, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University. He also happened to have spent two years working on his doctorate in engineering in the lovely state of Oregon, so he was pretty savvy about the US and our language, which helped a lot in our political discussion about the world and the current state of affairs in Egypt.  Tonight the news announced the ‘regular’ police were coming back, as they had been sort of hiding for the past couple of weeks, after picking the wrong team to support in the revolution.  Eighty-five police stations were torched over three days during the revolt, so the people voted with their actions and showed the love they have for the cops.

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

Hanging with Locals at Roots Camp...When in Rome....!!!

We are there yacking away for a couple of hours, and enjoying some cold Stella’s (OK, maybe the Christian side of our table is enjoying the beer) and out comes the shisha, or water pipe.  “What flavor tobacco would you like”, I am asked, and I get to choose from honey, cherry, some other fruits, and a couple of flavors that I have no clue about.  I stay on the conservative side, picking cherry, and they set the pipe up.  Some cooling water in the bowl, a replaceable sanitary tip for the mouthpiece (pretty nice feature), the tobacco gets loaded in the top, then some glowing charcoal is placed over the tobacco to provide the heat to drive the flavor (and all the other good chemistry) out of the tobacco and into the pipe.  It is a pretty hard inhalation to get good flow through the pipe so it’s a little ‘heady’ just getting good puffs going, but I soldier on, not wishing to insult my hosts in any way.  Out comes a second pipe, with a different flavor tobacco, and I start to enjoy that.  Water pipe, cold beer, I am thinking, how could this get any better?  So I jokingly say, “I bet this would be great with hash in it”, and Hassan’s eyes light up and he says, “You want hashish?”  Whoa now, OK, let’s keep this nice and ‘proper’, so I respectfully decline the offer.  Whew!  International crisis #3 averted!  Finally it’s time to head back down the road and we say goodbye to our new friends, enjoy the short drive back to the hotel, and call it a night.

Thursday now, and our next to last day of diving with Steve and his gang.  The Coast Guardsman has been located, and we have permission to leave the harbor, so we head out in Pharaoh’s boat to a couple of sites just south of El Qusier.  The area is known as Serib Kebir, and we are going to do three dives here. Our first drop will be from the zodiac, which will run us a bit to the north, and we’ll dive our way back to the boat, which is moored in the center of the site.  We splash in right on top of some fantastic coral formations, and spend 55 minutes, with depths to 85 ft, just taking in the fantastic hard and soft coral here, literally covered with fish and anemones.  This place will be tough to beat, I am thinking, as we head back up to the boat.

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

Pharaoh Dive Club Divemaster Fatie Conducts Briefing for Serib Kebir

A little de-gassing time on board, soaking up some sun on the upper deck, and it’s time to dive again.  This time Steve is going in with us (he sat the first one out) cause he wants to show us this site personally.  OK, I like the sound of that!  We head in right from the mother ship, with no zodiac ride, and swim south along the outside of the reef at first, finally stopping and turning towards shore and into the labyrinth of coral pillars and mounds.  Each turn through these formations just gets better and better – not even in Australia did I see such a collection and variety of healthy first-growth corals and fish counts – I am literally blown away.

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Glass Eye Snappers Congregate on Serib Kebir Reef

Can it get any better, I ask myself.  Well, yes it can…cause there are caves here!!  Really cool caves, into the reef, with hundreds of navigationally challenging passages, dead ends, and cathedral-like openings – no narcosis needed here, I am in total awe.  An hour later, with depths to 120 ft, and we re-surface, and I tell Steve that without question this has been one of the Top 10 dives of my life!! I am amazed.

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Shallow Swim-Through on the South Side of Serib Kebir

Back on board the crew has lunch ready for us, and it’s tough to chew with the huge smile on my face after that last dive.  We have another surprise, as there is a visitor on shore for us to pick up.  Andreas Tischer, the owner of Dive In Dahab, has driven over to meet us.  He will be our host for next week’s segment of the ‘Dive the Revolution’ tour, so it is great to meet him and start the transition.  It’s an immediate good connection, and so we spend some more time talking, relaxing and de-gassing, before finally Dave & I head in for our third dive, with Fati leading us.  We zodiac south a bit and work our way back to the boat, limiting ourselves to 100 ft for an hour, and passing again through the area we just explored with Steve.  Man, I really love this area!

Enough diving for the day, and still in quiet awe over the second dive, we head slowly back in.  And I mean slowly, holy smokes, this single-engine heavy wooden boat makes the dive boat Venture look like a cigarette boat!  But we make it eventually, and clean up for dinner with Steve, Claire and Andy.  Another great evening, and we put our heads on our pillows for the last time at this hotel.

Luxor and the southern antiquities…

Today we are going to head up to Luxor, with a few stops in between, but there is time to get in at least one more dive!  So we gather at 7 a.m. and head down to the beach in front of the Roots Camp to check out that reef, known as Abu Sauatir.  The wind is howling from the north today and it is cold, but we are here to dive.  We gear up on the beach and Andy is joining Steve, Dave & I for this one.  Wait a minute, we are in the Sinai, diving the Red Sea – what the heck is Andy pulling out of his gear bag?  A 7 mm Waterproof Drysuit!  What the heck is up with that?  Next thing you know he’ll be diving a Suunto!  We gear up, and head in.

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Steve Rattle Briefs Andres and I on the Roots Camp Reef Abu Sauatir

Here we have a cut out through the reef, and there is a strong seaward current out the cut as it carries all the water from the waves that are breaking over the shallow reef.  Evidently it gets quite strong at times, as Steve has installed a pull-rope system underwater to use if needed to come back in, hand over hand.  Fortunately it is not needed to day, but we certainly feel the outward flow upon our return.  Since it’s the only dive of the day, I slip on down to 160 ft for a bit to check out the deeper marine life, and we end up with a 50 minute underwater experience on another fine local reef.

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Clownfish Protect Their Sea Anenomoe on Abu Sauatir

Back to the hotel, grab breakfast, showers and pack, and we jump into Steve’s van with one of his drivers for today’s journey.  Steve has given him good instructions, we think, cause we’re in trouble otherwise as there is no common language between him and the two gringo’s he is hauling around.

Our first stop is about two hours north, in the harbor town of Hurghada.  This is the largest and most southern Egyptian city along this piece of the coast, complete with an international airport and a busy harbor.  Our purpose here is to check out a couple of potential liveaboards for a future trip or two, and so we have agreed to meet one of the owners at the Marriott, right on the harbor, which is also where his fleet docks.

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

Nathan and Fefe of Blue O Two in front of Blue Horizon and Blue Fin

We walk in, pass through security, and there in the lobby is Nathan Tyler, the Director of Blue-O-Two, and his International Business Development Manager Frederique “Fefe” Morisod.  They are excited to have us there and have two of their boats at the dock for their end-of-the week turn-around, so we get to tour them without any customers on board. As we saunter down the dock past the other large boats, it suddenly becomes obvious which two boats we are coming to see, because they stand out among this crowd for size, finish & cleanliness.

If I thought the day boats here were nicely appointed, then there is no way to describe these vessels.  Nothing but rich finished woodwork everywhere, like a high-end traditional yacht in the states.  Every floor is fitted mahogany or teak, there is no paneling or fiberglass or painted surfaces anywhere.  The furniture is right out of a nice living room; the bar looks like it belongs in an old English pub – truly just amazing. And nothing was scrimped in the rest of the creature comfort department – they have huge dive decks and swim platforms, sunning areas, every cabin is way oversize compared to any liveaboard I have been on – let’s just say I was impressed!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

I Take Command of the Blue Horizon....Good Thing We Are Docked!

So impressed, in fact, that booked a ten-day trip for 2013 right there while I was talking to them – we need to spend some time diving the Red Sea on these puppies!  Look for more details on that later!

Business complete, now we head towards Luxor, approx 400 km west.  We drive past at least a dozen or more military /police checkpoints, filled with cops of various flavors, all basically just leaning on their AK-47’s and chain smoking cigarettes, waving the cars by.  Some checkpoints had “guard towers” which is just a nice name for another place to put another guy or two that is doing nothing.  Talk about a job creation program – these guys make the TSA look like a productive workplace.

We drive past more random steel barricades set up in the streets without any warning or hazard lights, and speed bumps galore, just in the middle of any old road – seems this is the national program to slow cars down, and they are doing it well.  Update – we have just passed our 20th checkpoint now – not that I am counting or anything!

In fact, only at one did anything even remotely resembling any sort of security process take place.  A plainclothes cop (like all the regular cops are – there are no uniforms for the ‘regular’ police) came over to the van and asked Dave & I to write our names on a blank form he had,  – yes, just write our names, never asked for any ID, no passports, no nothing – just our names…Dave had the form and I said just put my name there too – Mickey & goofy is what I think he wrote, but the cop was happy to have two lines filled out n his form, and we were allowed to pass.  What a waste of humanity and resources this entire security system is.

By the way, the security checkpoint count is up to 24 now and we are still not in Luxor.

Travel by car here is not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach – the drivers are absolute cowboys – constantly beeping horns, flashing lights, passing anywhere on left or right or opposite lane, ignoring oncoming traffic, tailgating you… name something you could get a ticket for in the states and I will point it out to you while it is happening here – weaving, swerving and cutting, this is a good place to hire a driver and forego the desire to rent and drive yourself – note to self!

We enter the town of Luxor, passing through another half-dozen police points and probably 20 more impromptu traffic barricades – still unlighted and unmarked.  We come to an intersection, just past another police checkpoint,  – and our non-verbal driver stops the van and just jumps out, leaving it running.  OK, this is weird…now he returns and some other non-verbal guy climbs in the passenger seat…who the hell knows what is going on here…this is really weird…I am in the third seat so I say to Hartman “ask what’s going on here”, but he is speechless, and frozen in place.  Is this another international incident unfolding before my eyes?  Is this guy a good guy, or what?  Hartman asks if he is our guide and the one-word answer is  ‘no’…OK, that too was weird…at least we are still on well-lighted streets so I am not yet thinking that some Saudi princess has targeted me to be kidnapped as her stud muffin and eternal cabana boy, but you never know…stranger things have happened…

Suddenly, that fantasy is shattered as we lurch to a stop, the mystery man jumps out, the driver jumps out, and it takes me a few seconds to realize we are at our hotel.  Long story short, through an interpreter we learn that our driver was clueless on directions in the town of Luxor, that the guy was in fact a cop (how would you ever really know that?), and he had been asked by our driver to provide directions to the hotel.  OK – interesting local custom, but we are here, my stud muffin dreams are shattered, and we have to check into the hotel.

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

View from our Room of the St. George Sonesta Pool Deck

In the lobby we meet with our host and Learning Through Travel’s head of Egypt operations, Afifi, and his associate Ahmed at the Sonesta St George Hotel, right on banks of the Nile River.  This will be our base of operations for one night and a day while we speed-tour the cultural sites here in Luxor.

Ring, ring, goes the telephone and it’s our early wake up call to get started on today’s tours.  We grab some breakfast and jump in the van, heading south along the Nile to cross over the bridge.  This area is very lush in crops, and there are vast fields of sugar cane to the left and right of us for miles as we drive along.  There are also literally hundreds of guys hauling sugar cane, from huge diesel tractors pulling multiple wagons of the cut plants, to pickups piled high, to donkey-drawn carts with smaller loads.  Exactly how the financial model works here eludes me, and no one I ask understands enough to give me a straight answer, so I just enjoy the view and give up on trying to figure it out.  I can tell you, they don’t farm this way in America!

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Hot Air Ballons Rise Over the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor

Finally we cross over the bridge, and find ourselves on the West Bank of the Nile.  In ancient Egyptian culture, East means life, relating to how each new day is born with the sun rising over the eastern horizon, while West is equated to death, again, dominated by the sunset and each day coming to an end.  So it is natural that you find most of the life, temples and events located on the East Bank and the tombs, cemeteries, and other resting places located on the West.  By no means is this a hard and true law cause there were plenty of examples of exceptions, but it’s a cool cultural thing.

On our way though we get a very nice surprise.  Right here alongside the road is the site of the Colossus of Memnon temple.   It was huge back in the day, with all sorts of ceremonial sections, rooms and buildings, but a few good earthquakes over the years, coupled with a complete lack of any sort of maintenance program, led to it’s demise and the dilapidated state it is in today.  Add to that a few thousand years of local contractors hauling away stones and supplies for homes and other things they are building, and you can imagine what ultimately remains.  But this particular temple has been the target of continuous archaeological research for many years now, and you can see the tents and camps of various schools and groups set up, with a lot of people poking around, scratching the dirt, and sifting through sand for bits of history.  But right smack in front of the former entrance there are two huge carved statues, and I mean huge, which originally flanked the entrance to the left & right.  They were too big to steal I suppose, and carved right out of the ground so the earthquakes and robbers were not a threat.  And right in front of that there is an active excavation taking place, and we get to witness history in the making!

So here is a hole, maybe 40 ft long x 15 ft wide x 6 ft deep, being hand dug by about 15 guys with picks, who are filling up rubber buckets with dirt, passing them up out of the hole, and another couple of guys with wheelbarrows are running non-stop, emptying the buckets into the wheelbarrows, and then running them over to a growing pile a short distance away.  Look, I’m not saying anything, but one guy with a backhoe and a dump truck could take over this country!

But wait…there is a lot of shouting in the hole, and the westerners who were obviously the scientists or supervisors come running over.  They’ve hit something in the hole, and no one knows what it is!  So they continue to dig away, eventually unearthing a stone that measures about 18 inches square and five feet long, covered with ancient carvings.  By Jove, it’s a piece of the temple!  So now to get it out of the hole!  OK, where’s the nylon sling for the backhoe…oh wait, forgot where I was.  Fine, let’s just grab a bunch of mis-matched pieces of rope, get the whole 18-man team on it, pushing and pulling and lifting, and well look at that, it is now outside the hole!   High fives all around and a great photo op for Dave and I!  Timing is everything, eh?

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

Tombs of Pharoahs Inside the Natural Pyramid of the Valley of the Kings

OK enough of this, back in the van and let’s get up to the Valley of the Kings before it gets busy!  This is a site in the rocky hills here where they have unearthed to date 63 different tombs of kings, pharaohs, nobles and a few select other inner-circle types.  In the visitors center they have a really well done acrylic three-dimensional display, showing the valley and landscape about, with the tomb entrances, and then underneath, to-scale representations of the actual tomb excavations.  Truly amazing how deep and long so many of these man made anthills go into the earth, and a testament to the early engineers (and early cheap labor!).  From there we walk out to the bazaar that serves as the pathway to the shuttle trains (think Disney parking) that will take us to the tomb entrances of King Tut, King Ramses the IV, and the rest.  But first we have to run the gauntlet of local pushy vendors and their wares, which are constantly shoved at you at every step here. It’s a Tijuana atmosphere at many of these public places with the vendors – -evidently  ‘no” and “no thanks” are NOT in the Egyptian language at all.  So I shift to Plan B – indifference…maybe they’ll get the hint!

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun

The Tomb of King Tut Ankh Amun..Buried in his Jammies!!!

Once inside the tomb entrance area, we buy a pass that lets us enter a few of them, and let me tell you, these babies are built for comfort as opposed to the pyramids we experienced the other day.  Nice wide walkways, high ceilings, great symbolic artwork on the walls, just a very neat thing to experience.  The sad part is the scumbags, squatters and grave robbers who have visited these places before us.  So many of the mummies were actually discovered elsewhere, cause it was a common Egyptian ‘smash-and-grab’ tactic to pop the top off the coffin, throw the mummy over your shoulder and run like hell.  Then, once you’re in your safe place, you rummage around on the dead guys corpse and hope to find all the jewelry that legends have it he was buried with.  But in some cases, the last guys to close the coffins made sure that all that gold wasn’t going to waste, and it never ended up in there in the first place.  Sort of like inner-city paramedics stripping wedding bands and jewelry off unconscious or dead victims as they transport them to the hospitals – yes, sad but true.

Finally we have had our fill of dead guys holes, so we head back out, survive the bazaar once again with wallets and money intact, and jump back in the van. We pass back out of the valley, passing the Valley of the Queens next door, and a few other significant temples and building sites, some intact, some restored, and many in ruins.  We run back up to the hotel to grab a quick lunch, get our bags, and head out for Part II of the world’s fastest cultural tour – the East Bank!

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatchepschut in Valley of the Queens

This is the last day all of us will be together, as Dave will be flying back to America tomorrow while Afifi continues on with me to the Sinai Peninsula.  After all these cultural tours and my many questions, Afifi mentions to Dave H that he is really looking forward to this upcoming week with me…mostly cause I will be underwater most of the time!  Nice.

Stop number one on the afternoon tour is the famous Temple of Karnak, located smack-dab in the center of Luxor.  This is a huge, and if I mentioned huge before, then this is the hugest huge temple structure.  It was really the cult center of ancient Egyptians back when Luxor was the capital of civilization.  There are hundreds of towering carved columns here, obelisks everywhere, stonework, sacred rooms and chambers, a special ceremonial & spiritual pool, and more, of everything mentioned above.  This place, if I have not mentioned it yet, is huge!

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

Afifi El Shimy and I in Front of the Main Pylon Wall of Karnak Temple

We come upon the Holy Scarab statue – legend has it you dance around it seven times and your wish comes true.  Yeah, right…but wait, there are a couple of German girls going round and round….go figure, these guys are from the land of the Maypole Dance, so it’s not too big a stretch.  The rest of the tour ends uneventfully and we head back out to the van for a drive-by of a few more sites on our way to the airport.

The most impressive is the ceremonial causeway, a virtual super-highway built to connect Karnak to Luxor Temple.  It is a couple miles long probably 200 ft wide, and all hand placed stones, with zillions of carved statues lining each side.  These guys clearly had too much free time on their hands!

Sinai or bust…

We get to the Luxor airport now for our flight to Cairo, where we’ll bid farewell to Dave and then continue on to Sharm El Sheikh for some more diving and educational touring.  Here the skycaps are just a gang of un-employed guys with a few shopping carts, so we take good care of them and our bags are delivered safely to the counter.  Once there, we know we are in Egypt again as Afifi has to argue with the counter staff, and involve a supervisor, and negotiate my extra bags (they wanted $700 in extra baggage fees!).  End result: Team Afifi/Dave 1, Egypt Air 0.

An hour after takeoff we touch down at Cairo International Airport, and taxi to a stop.  There are just a few jetway ramps here so the norm is to park out on the tarmac and unload into buses for the ride to the terminal.  Once there we have some time, so we do some promotional videos for Learning Through Travel, interviewing me, Afifi and Dave, with some good infomercial sort of discussions thrown in to promote tourism and travel in Egypt. Finally it’s goodbye to Dave, and he goes and collects his bags.  Rami will be meeting him here and escort him to his hotel, and he’s got a morning flight back to the land of the red, white & blue.  Afifi and I kill some time in the terminal before catching our connecting flight to the Sinai, landing at the Sharm El Sheikh International Airport just north of the city.

What a pleasant surprise awaits me there – it is Mohammed Ali, our driver, who Afifi has sent from Cairo to be our transport here for the week.  Very nice to meet a new/old friend here in this land so from home!  We roll into the town of Sharm El-Sheikh, and what an eye-opening experience this is, so vastly different than any part of Egypt we have seen so far.  Think ‘South of the Border’ meets ‘Las Vegas’ – this place is pure neon and glitter!  Mile after mile (OK, kilometer after kilometer) of hotels and resorts and golf courses and aqua parks, and even casinos – if you are looking to play then this is the right place!

But before we get into all that, let’s look at a little history.  Back in the late 60’s the Egyptians needed some money to build a hydroelectric dam at Aswan on the Nile, and approached their international friends for some help with the financing. The story has it that England, France and Israel all said that it was a good idea and they would bring their checkbooks to the party.  But when it came time to pony up, the big buys balked, leaving the Egyptians without funding for their dam project.  “Well we can fix this”, they thought, decided to take possession of both sides of the lucrative Suez Canal.  Yeppers, that’ll show ‘em!

Well needless to say, but some ideas definitely look better on paper, and this quasi-military action fell into that category.  It was not long before the powers that be decided to take back the canal and open it up to the world.  That certainly did not sit well with the leaders in Cairo, and they stewed on it for a few years before deciding to act.  Now while it was indeed a novel idea to invade the Sinai and Israel – let’s just say this proved to be not one of their most well thought out plans.  As history would show, they failed miserably and quickly, hence the incident being known forever as the Six Day War.  To help ensure a little advance warning the next time Nassir decided to send his tanks Eastward, the Israeli’s help on to the Sinai and occupied it.  They took advantage of the place, and guess what – they built some settlements!  What a surprise!

Finally, fifteen years later, a major international peace conference, the Camp David Accords, was held, and Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt.  Of course there were a few restrictions; for starters, there was to be no Egyptian military presence on the peninsula. So you get one guess who got to hold that bag and expense to ensure this land was not up for grab – yes, the United Nations, and primarily the US, have been here “defending” this border ever since.  Sense a financial fleecing here?  Someone should revisit this idea and end this taxpayer-funded negative cash flow!

But I digress…all this touring and typing has my whistle a little dry, so I say to Afifi, “Hey, let’s stop at one of these little supermarkets and I’ll get some drinks for the room”.  “OK”, he says and instructs Mohammad to stop at the next one.  We pull to the curb, and I jump out and say, “Give me a minute here”, and Afifi says, “Wait, they will take advantage and overcharge you in there, let me come”.  OK, no sweat, and the two us head into the store.  I grab a few Diet Cokes and a water or two, and we put it on the counter.  Of course, nothing has a price marked, and everything is done a little hand calculator, so who knows what the real price is at any point in time.  The clerk announces the total in Egyptian Pounds, and Afifi says, “Do you have any Egyptian money?”.  Well no I don’t, so he pulls out his wallet and says he’ll tae care of it.  But before the transaction is completed, there is the customary arguing and verbal exchange for some negotiated discount, and then he pays the adjusted new amount. Whatever – that sort of shopping experience is so alien to me; just tell me what it costs and I can decide if I want to buy it or not.  We walk out and I offer to settle up with him later.  But they had no beer in this store, so I say, “Let’s go next door for some brews to go.”  We go in, I grab some Stella’s and Sakara’s, we put them on the counter, out comes the calculator, some more negotiation, Afifi’s wallet is out again, and we’re done.  So we’re walking out to the van, and out of the blue, Afifi turns to me and says, “So who’s your daddy now?” I just about bust a gut, this coming from such a relatively low-key guy.

Finally, we pull up to our ‘crib’ in Sharm, the Radisson Hotel, and Mohammed honks the horn at the front gate.  And as typical with most of the major hotels here, the driver hands his ID over to the security guard, and we sit quietly while another officer does a quick walk-around with the highly-trained (yeah, right) bomb sniffing dog and we pass the tail wagging test!  To the reception area, and Afifi takes care of checking me in.  The front desk manager has a ‘special offer’ for us, in light of all the business Afifi brings them, to upgrade my room.  Only hitch is I might have to “walk a little” to get to it.  Heck, I’ve been in hotels before, how can I go wrong with an upgrade.  And a little walk could be a good thing.  So I accept their offer and we complete the check in process.  One of the staff pulls up in a golf cart and shuttles me, along with my baggage, to the room.  I note we are riding at a pretty good clip for about five minutes, and it’s all downhill…that should have been a hint, eh?  We finally arrive and the room is indeed nice, with a view right over the pool and the Red Sea – very nice!

Sunday morning dawns and I pack up my dive gear in my mesh bag and head up towards the reception area for breakfast.  Remember that “little walk” thing?  Thirty freakin’ minutes of uphill climbing and zigzagging through this immense resort facility and I finally arrive, huffing like a steam engine, at the front area of the hotel.  Into Mohammed’s waiting van and we are off!  We pull up to the guard house, collect Mohammed’s ID, and pull out to meet a van from Pharaoh Dive Center, our operator of choice for the next couple of days.  It’s a twenty-minute ride to Sharks Bay harbor, where we will board our boat for today’s diving.  There I meet Pharaoh Dive Center owner Osama “no, not THAT Osama” Roshdi, and my fellow divers, Maria and Verresch Dufraing from Antwerp, Belgium, and Sebastiano Dallago and Paula Sangiovani from Bergamo, Italy, a small town about 50 km north of Milan.  The five of us have our own 110 ft long dive boat for the day – sweet!

But before we can board we have to have our group together and Osama needs to request permission for the boat to dock.  I take the opportunity to snap a few photos in the harbor, but when I shoot a few of the security area, the cop in charge gets pretty livid about having his photo taken and demands that I delete it.  OK, sure, I can do that…good thing I shot 3 or 4, so I delete the lousiest one.  He is satisfied, and we avoid another international incident.  Now that gets me to wondering, what would a cop have to hide, not wanting his photo taken….hmmmm….was he perhaps one of the club-swinging, crowd-busting camel riders from the recent protests in Cairo?

Enough of that theory, it’s time to board, so the boat pulls up to the dock and we walk out to greet it.  We climb aboard and meet the crew, but wait; here comes a few guys in street clothes following us aboard, talking to Osama.  OK, they are police of some sort, and they need to see ID’s for everyone on board.  I don’t have my passport as I left it in the van with Mohammed and Afifi, but Osama says, “Just show them your diving card”.  I do, they pass it around, it evidently passes muster, and the cops collectively agree that they have completed their mission today and national security is intact, and we can finally head out to sea.  To be honest, these guys make America’s TSA agents look like rocket scientists – it’s obvious they don’t have a clue what they are looking at, they never counted how many bodies were on board and if that number matched the number of ID’s they had, you get the picture.  As far as the ID is concerned, it has to be something “official”, like a government issued passport, or maybe a library card.  They all carry the same weight with these guys – amazing.

The captain fires up the engine, and then, to my complete surprise, he fires up another engine!  Whoa – so unlike our previous day boats this puppy has twin diesels!  Unlike most diver operators around here who lease privately owed boats each day, Osama actually owns this boat and another smaller (60 ft long) one.  That gives him an upper hand in controlling where we are going and when we are leaving, both important attributes in avoiding crowds of divers.

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

Huge Sea Fans at Jackson Reef, Straits of Tiran near Sharm el Sheikh

We motor out past hundreds of other yachts and commercial vessels in this busy harbor and start our way up the reef line.  Today we head north to the Straits of Tiran, off Tiran Island, which is the home of a large UN military base.  It’s taboo to come too close to the island or especially ashore, so we will dive on some of the many pinnacles that ring the island.  As we sail along the reef, we pass quite a few hulks of sunken and half-sunken vessels that have crashed into the reef and been left to decompose in place, doing whatever additional damage to the reef that may involve until the sea has absorbed the wreck.  Unlike the US and other areas, there is no agency here that would address such things as reef protection and removal of sunken boats from them – sad but true.

We are actually diving in the Gulf of Aqaba, which is that part of the Red Sea that lies between the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula and the western shores of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan.  We will start our dive day from a moored position so we head to one of the two moorings along Jackson Reef.  There is one boat already there on the other mooring so we tie up on the free one.  These are actually double moorings, so the boats tie up bow and stern parallel to the reef edge.  We are still tying in when another boat pulls up, and ties alongside the first boat, “raft-style”.  Wait, here comes another, and another – soon there are four boats rafted together on the other mooring.  I turn and look and here is another boat coming our way, and they pull up alongside us, then another, sow within the course of perhaps 25 minutes a total of seven boats have descended upon this reef to discharge their divers!  Kinda like Molasses Reef in the Keys on a busy Saturday in the summer!

While I am taking this all in I start to hear a sound coming across the water….I listen hard, sure enough, I hear it again, clearer and louder….it’s someone calling out “Hello Dave Valaika”.  What the heck, here I am about 8,000 miles from home, and who the heck is calling my name?  Well it turns out to be one of my Scubaboard compadres by the name of ‘Crowley’ who had been following the blog and knew where I was diving today, so he brought his boat from Sinai Divers out to dive near us – what an amazingly small world it is indeed!  We connect, have a laugh, and make a date to meet up for a beer (or two or three) later tonight in town.  Cool!

So we get to gearing up, and Osama is going to dive one-on-one with me to show me the best parts of one of his favorite reefs.  As we dress he looks over at me and says, “How deep do you want to go?”.  Wrong question to ask, I am thinking, but I’ll play along “Let’s see what we can find”, I respond.  OK, that settled, we finish gear up and splash.  From the moment we hit the water it is clear why this is one of his favorite reefs – there is an unbelievable array of colorful healthy corals and swarms of fish everywhere I look.  We cruise along, working our way down the wall, and I am thinking how thankful I am that Osama has brought out these fat 15 liter (108 CF) steel tanks for me, and that I chose air as my mix of choice just in case opportunities for some nice deep-ish drops like this came up.  We continue to drop to an undisclosed depth, and spend nearly an hour enjoying the reef around us.  We start our deco with a minute at 70 ft and slowly work our way back towards the boat and up to the surface, coming up with nothing but smiles after one fantastic narcosis-enhanced dive.  Welcome to Sharm El-Sheikh!

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

Masked Butterfly Fish on Tom's Reef, Straits of Tiran, Sharm el Sheikh

We relax on board for a bit, enjoying some ‘Sinai time’, as the crew works on lunch.  You have to be patient to dive here (yes, I can’t believe I said that either!) but soon we are called to eat.  Today we have a few selections to choose from the enormous spread the crew has prepared – salad, some other sort of local salad, fresh baked pita bread, meatballs, fried chicken, hamburgers, stew, pasta, rice, fried sweet potatoes, soup, and a couple of other things that the crew could not explain well enough through the language barrier to make me feel confident enough to give them a try.  Plus the best part – Osama has Diet Coke aboard!  Woo hoo!

After lunch there is time for some of the crew to enjoy a nap, while the rest of us sit and enjoy a truly international political discussion.  It is pretty interesting to hear how different the views are on world politics and events from folks who hail from different corners of the globe.  We had Belgium, Egyptian, Italian, and American points of views and commentary of so much of what was going on around us.  Today is an interesting day as Mubarak’s trial for crimes of corruption begins on this first day of the Egyptian workweek.  He was arrested at his home here in Sharm a couple of weeks ago so that really opened up a lot of discussion on Egyptian standards and customs.  But it was really interesting to hear Maria and Verresch share some stories of their recent vacation in the Tunisian border town of Djerba, where they were suddenly surrounded by about 250 refugee Chinese workers who walked across the Libyan desert to Tunisia to escape Ghadafi’s violence and madness there.  They had no food or water for the past two days, and the hotels in Djerba put out a big spread – really heartwarming to see how the people of the North African nations are pulling together to help each other as the region goes through this period of political upheaval and change.

And it turns out that Sebastiano works in a handicapped community in Italy, and noticed my IAHD-Americas Dive In Festival t-shirt.  We spoke at length about the programs and how the members of his community would benefit from the opportunity to enjoy scuba diving experiences.  Look for a visit to Bergamo in my near future.

Finally, finally we can dive again!!  Yes…I was jonesing to get back in the water!  Osama is sitting this one out for some crazy reason (I’m thinking the blood coming out of his right ear after our dive might have been a sign), but my gills need moistening!  So I buddy up with Verresch and Maria, and in strict accordance with PADI standards, I make the second dive shallower than the first, limited myself to the official Egyptian depth limit of 160 ft – yes I know, what a rule follow I am!

I have to take a moment to compliment Osama on being such a savvy businessman and owner of such a class operation.  He owns his own boats, which gives him a lot of control over dive site selection, departure times, and most importantly, customer relations as it involves his crews.  All of his guys are really friendly, open and personable, and they make it feel like family to be on the boat with them.  Everyone acts like a professional, and there is no yelling or screaming here. Of course, Osama being an Egyptian helps too, but still he has chosen a good team and done what is necessary to keep it together.

So what better way to celebrate a great day of diving than a few cold ones with friends at the pub?  I have arranged to meet Crowley at Champions sports bar so Mohammed drives me over and I head in to a decidedly non-Egyptian atmosphere.  I sit down at the bar, they pour me a tall draft, and before I even inhale half of it, there is Crowley coming in the door.  He’s from the UK, an has been teaching here in the Red Sea for about 8 years now, with some interim stints in Australia and a few other places.  We sit and chat and shoot the shit for a bit, and a couple of his friends join us for some fun and laughs.  All too soon it is time to call it a night, and I head out to Mohammed’s van and he whisks me back to the hotel.  It’s “lights out” about two minutes after my head hits the pillow, and I sleep with a smile looking forward to another great day of diving coming tomorrow.

Monday now and it’s time to dive the famous Ras Mohammed National Park area on the south side of Sharm El-Sheikh.  This area is highly rated and a must-do dive in nearly every guidebook you pick up on Red Sea diving, so the excitement is high.  We’ll be diving again with Pharaoh Divers who did such a great job yesterday.

I call for the golf cart at 7:30 (the heck with that ‘little walk’ nonsense) and meet Afifi and Mohammed in the reception area.  Grab a quick breakfast from the sumptuous spread the hotel restaurant offers, and we head out.  We drive to Travco Harbor, which is a few miles south of yesterday’s departure point, and closer to the Ras Mohammed area.  Osama truly runs a first class operation here and has thoughtfully moved the boat during the night rather than make us have a longer-than-necessary boat ride today.   Through security, and I am reminded “No Pictures No Pictures No Pictures!!” so I only get a few discrete shots!  In keeping with the general inconsistency of the security process here, we are not required to show any ID at this harbor.  Go figure.

We wait in the ‘holding area’ while Ligia, our dive leader today, requests permission for our boat to approach the dock.  Here we meet the rest of today’s team, including a couple from the UK and a Brit taking his open water class.  Again, five customers and 110 ft of boat – not too crowded!  Finally permission is granted, and we walk on down to board the boat.  It’s a relatively short ride out of the harbor to the dive site, and our plans are to actually do a drift dive here, starting at Anemone City and then swimming past Shark Reef.  We gear up, gather on the swim platform, the captain toots the horn, and we drop.  The reef opens below us and the viz is as we have come to expect here, forever!  I buddy with Verresche and Maria again and we start along.

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

Clownfish at Anemone City, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park near Sharm

The first impression of the Anemone City portion of this dive site is really good, with huge carpet anemones and oodles of clownfish swimming about.  Lots of colorful soft corals and life here, and it’s tough to take it all in.  We could have just spent our entire dive here with a camera, and in retrospect, we should have!  But swim we must, so we cruise along, and at some point Verresche turns off into the blue, with Maria following.  Who am I to argue, so I go along, and what we are doing is crossing an open area to get us to the next pinnacle, which is Shark Reef.  We spend another forty minutes cruising along here.  Halfway along we pass by the wreck of the Yolanda, a small freighter that was evidently carrying plumbing supplies and sank on the reef, cause the sea floor is littered with piles of piping and hundreds of porcelain toilets and sinks.  Interesting, but once you’ve gotten over the novelty of an intact toilet on the sea floor, the rest get pretty boring.  Ho hum….move it along.  One thing I notice here is that this reef is in a period of rebuilding, with all the basic hard corals that originally built the pinnacle structures essentially dead, and now serving as a rocky framework for all sorts of new soft corals, some sponges, and some young hard corals.  Very much like a Key Largo reef to be accurate.  I hate to judge too quickly, but I am not overly impressed with Ras Mohammed, at least not yet.

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Blue Spotted Stingray at Jolanda Wreck, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We move the boat a bit as Ligia needs to make her “instructatory dive” with her student.  After some initial confusion on my part, I learn that this is Egypt-speak for an Open Water Discover Scuba Dive.  We head towards a mooring area, and it’s raft up city again, as we pull up tight to two or three other boats already moored there.  These Egyptians sure are sociable here, cause they like to keep the dive boats close!  She splashes with her student and we get some additional chill out time for de-gassing.  You have to be pretty dang relaxed diving here, cause they sure like to move at a leisurely pace.  Clearly, we need to adjust that for our upcoming IVS trip!

Instructatory dive over, it’s time for the lunch spread to come out.   I didn’t think the crew could out-do yesterday’s feast, but I am wrong.  The variety, quantity and tastiness of the food are truly amazing and no one will lose any weight diving here.  And of course we enjoy some leisurely off-gassing time, which of course means we are missing potential bottom time, so the net result for a nitrogen-addict like me is that I will have to plan this next dive ten feet deeper to make up for the stress!

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

Sheer Coral Walls at Ras Ghozlani, Ras Mohammed Nat'l Park

We finally move to our second dive site, called Ras Ghozlani, still in the park.  A little confusion between the captain and the crew, but eventually we hit the desired drop spot, and over we go, again this being a drift dive along the reef.  A pretty area, with scattered coral heads and coral clusters, separated by white sandy areas in between, it makes for a pleasant dive.  We keep this one shallow, 100 ft max, for an hour.

From there we head back in, and make pretty decent time with this twin-engine boat. Osama is waiting for us dockside, and we get our gear unloaded and into the van.  But before we go, he has a surprise in store for me!

Water Rescues & Hyperbaric Chambers…

“Let’s take a little walk”, he says, and we head a few properties down the street.  We stop, and with a wave of the arm, he announces we have arrived, at the Sharm El-Sheikh Water Rescue Team headquarters.  Technically called the Red Sea SAR-Med Center, this is a pretty cool and very vital operation, responsible for ALL water rescues and emergencies in the entire southern Sinai area.  We meet Mostafa Nabil, and the takes us out back where he shows us their souped-up Zodiac boats, loaded on trailers and ready to be launched and underway in under 10 minutes.  We head inside and he shows us the radio communication system, medical clinic and everything else needed to help ensure the health and safety of the water sports loving public here.  It is interesting because the facility was built with private money and gets no assistance from the government, in spite of the number of tax dollars paid and jobs created by the scuba and water sports industries.  One hundred percent of their operating budget comes from donations and insurance company billings.  But, as our host points out, close to half of their rescues and emergency calls are from locals, who typically are not insured so they perform more than their fair share of charity work. It’s just really great to see such dedicated people who are here in the event that they need to be called upon.

I thank Osama for that pleasant surprise and begin to say goodbye, but he says, “No, we are not done!”. OK, cool, I’m still in, and with that, we walk across the street to a building under construction, with a low white building next door.  As we get nearer I can read the sign; it’s the Hyperbaric Medical Center! Well how about that, I think, this just keeps getting better!

So we walk in, and there ready to greet us is Dr. Adel Taher, the founder, designer, director and chief medical officer for the center.  Osama introduces Afifi and I to him, and we sit down to chat.  The talk, naturally, turns to hyperbaric medicine, and within minutes he and I have connected with mutual friends throughout the diving medical community and the hyperbaric medicine associations also.  Another example of an extremely small world, and how the web you weave in life can touch upon so many other connections that you would never imagine.  He knows the guys at the University of Pennsylvania’s team, and at DAN, so the bonding is again, immediate.  And on top of that he designed his chamber system, which of course is right along the lines of what I have done over the past thirty years of my engineering career, so we are talking valve choices, regulators, system redundancy, etc etc etc like a couple of excited school boys.  I sense he doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors that have such a handle on not only what he does there, but also how he does it.  I look over and Afifi is rolling his eyes – this darn American knows everyone!

And this entire hyperbaric medical center is his baby, from concept to daily operation.  As an avid diver and medical professional, he saw the need for a treatment center in the Sinai with the exploding growth of the diving industry.  Me worked his connections to get through the local political traps and secured the land for his clinic.  Recognizing Egypt as the “Land of Unfinished Construction Projects” that it is, he knew that he needed his system to be designed so that the locals could not sabotage his plans with excuses, delays and shoddy workmanship.  Also recognizing the complete lack of maintenance support and funding for spare parts available the system needed to be able to operate with multiple component failures without jeopardizing the patient undergoing treatment.  In his own words, it needed to be “Egyptian-proof”.  A pretty tall order, but Dr. Taher was up to the task.

He started by designing the entire center around using standard 40 ft shipping containers, which could be easily transported to the site and interconnected by his own staff.  Like a modular home, the first three containers sit side-by-side, with the reception and examination area in the first, the chamber and treatment area in the middle one and finally the complete piping, controls and gas storage system in the third.  Additionally a fourth container contains redundant emergency generators to keep the process going through a local power loss, which is not uncommon at all.  He had the system built in the US, securing donations and funding from a variety of sources and personal connections, and then had it shipped to the site, which he had already prepared.  The containers arrived on Friday and by Sunday afternoon the chamber was fully operational!  That in itself was a tremendous feat and all the credit is due to Dr. Taher.

But it gets better!  In addition to his redundant valve, piping and control design, he can operate the chamber fully automatically, or eve with multiple failures, in the manual mode, ensuring that a patient being treated will be guaranteed service without interruption.  And his tinkering is not limited to the mechanical realm – he added a booster system and helium lines to the system so he can experiment with chamber treatments using high helium blends which have proven to be more effective for treatments than a standard Oxygen or Nitrox mix.  He is also seeing very positive results in treating other conditions, such a Cerebral Palsy, using his custom blends and high gas pressures.  The downside is that these treatments are considered “alternative” and as such, not covered by insurance, so the lack of funding limits the development of these new and exciting processes.

But the clinic is doing well, and currently Dr. Taher is installing a twelve-place treatment chamber from Germany, with individual gas mix feeds for each patient and a fire suppression system, which is really cutting edge in chamber designs (and helps avoid an Apollo-like incident).  He showed me the system, which is partially installed in a new building he put up, adjacent to the original clinic.  It looks great, but I took one look at the smoothly bent stainless lines, compression fittings, neatly routed conduits and the overall general finish of the installation, and said to him, “Are you using local contractors for this work?”.  He laughed, and said, “Remember what I said earlier?  This is being installed by crew from Germany – it’s obvious isn’t it?”  We laugh at the mutual understanding and appreciation of professional contracting and workers who take great pride in everything they do and touch.  Enough said.

And yes, there’s an IVS label on the chamber to let the world know we were here!  Can’t forget that finishing touch!  As we are getting ready to leave, he says he has something else to show me, so we walk out to a garage he has out back, and Dr Taher proudly shows me his motorcycle collection.  I am not surprised that he is a motor head also, another trait of that left brain thinking process.  But wait, “What’s this?”, I ask, eyeing a couple of older models, painted in olive drab.  Sure enough, it’s a 1942 BSA WM40, built during the war years and exactly the same as those that are stacked for eternity on the Thistlegorm, the most famous wreck here that I am not going to be able to fit into my dive plans this week, sadly.

Well sensory overload complete, Osama still wants to show me his dive center, so we jump in the van and head over there.  Another grand tour, he introduces his staff, all of which have been with him for years.  He’s got a great operation, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center, complete with everything you need to teach every level of scuba programs.  He has a large well-maintained rental inventory, a redundant compressor system, and all the other accouchements that make it a place you want to hang out at for a while after your day of diving.  Very nice indeed.

Ready for a little Dahab-ing…

With all this extra touring and diving-related sightseeing, Afifi decides to keep us here at our hotel an extra night rather than drive up late to Dahab.  For starters, you can’t drive the coast highway after dark, for security reasons.  So while I have been gabbing with all these folks, he has already moved our checkout to the next morning, and we’ll plan to get on the road early to Dahab.

And like I have not had enough surprises this week, he asks if I would really like to dive the Thistlegorm, because he can arrange it.  Well is the Pope Catholic?  “You betcha”, I answer I a heartbeat.  “OK, let’s do it”, he says, and we start looking at our options.  I am supposed to fly from Sharm back to Cairo Friday night, so we’re thinking a couple of long deep dives that day might not be in my best interest.  But wait, he has Nitrox, can Afifi move my flight back?  That doesn’t look good so Afifi calls the next place I am going on my tour, to see if we can shorten that by a day to get back here.  Well no, they have a calendar full of great stuff for their special guest and now we are coming in mid-day rather than being there first thing in the morning, and yes it will really rock the apple cart if I try to cut a day out of there.  So that doesn’t sound like we want to mess with that!  Then the phone rings, and Afifi’s office has managed to move my Friday flight back to 9:30 at night, so we are good.  Friday it is!  I’m gushing as I thank Osama for his efforts, and Afifi for making mountains (or pyramids) move!

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at another market and I let “Daddy” take care of my alcoholic beverage needs for me – it’s good to have a “Daddy”!

Of course because we stayed in the town an additional night, and now are leaving, Afifi has to go down to the local Tourist Police station and get my “get out of Sharm El-Sheikh” card – friggin’ amazing to have so many petty rules and BS in place in a country that otherwise seems pretty modern.  More on that topic later for sure!

We check out of the Renaissance and enjoy an early morning 100 km hour-and-a half ride up the eastern shore to the town of Dahab. I take the time to attempt to update the blog, but we are in the land of the asphalt speed bump, and no town has more than Sharm El-Sheikh, so a few thousand typo’s later, I give up and enjoy the view. The ride and scenery is beautiful, in a desert barren wasteland sort of way.  All traffic on the coast road needs to be registered with the police so they supposedly know who is out there – of course, in reality, they don’t, but it sounds good.   As we enter the highway to Dahab, we come to the control station – OK, really there three-in-a-row control stations.  Step one, about a dozen soldiers and an equal number of Tourist Police, and we show them our permission slip to travel the coast road.  They want to keep it but Afifi argues NO and we get it back – not sure what that was all about, but again, the “rues” here are truly negotiable guidelines!  OK, we move up 75 feet to station #2, maybe a half-dozen Tourist Police all slinging AK-47’s and 9 mm side arms, and one sticks his head in the drivers window, does the customary handshake with Mohammed and Afifi (skips the obvious infidel, me) and we are good to go.  Go another 75 feet, where the army has a dozen more heavily armed guys in helmets standing around, and we give them a wave and pass through.  Maybe they are scaring some one, but I really don’t get a strong sense of unified national security here.

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

Camels Roam Freely on the Coast of Dahab....Old School Egypt!!

As we pass through the desert we begin to see actual Bedouin camps, shepherds and herds of animals in the fields.  I have no idea what these animals exist on for feed.  Talk about some primitive living, man there is nothing here!  OK, except piles of litter – the concept of a landfill or trash collection has not made it here yet, so you can imagine the result.  There is some scattered greenery here, indicative of some recent rain this winter, and one of the hazards here is flash flooding, since he ground is so porous when it rains it just runs, wreaking havoc and danger everywhere.  Of course we pass through two more police checkpoints on the way – help me understand – there is only one road, and one way in – how could these subsequent checkpoints ever discover anything different than what the entry points found?  Maybe a lot of tourists skydive in, I don’t know, but there must be some reason other than government job creation, dontcha’ think?

The IVS Adventure Tour bus finally rolls into the quiet seaside hamlet of Dahab.  The word Dahab actually means ‘gold’ which came from the effect of the sun shining on the waters surface and the industrial base is 100% travel & tourism dependent.  It had early historical significance due to its location as a port near Saudi Arabia and a good harbor.  Today there is no airport or ferry service so the only way in is via the highway, and there are only three of them that get here!  There are only five hotels here (that meet western standards) in this town so the crowds are non-existent. We pull into our home du jour, the Iberostar Dahab, and they are a bit less paranoid here, with no dog sniffing of our vehicle.

Our host here is Andreas ‘Andy’ Tischer and Hans Langer, owners of Dive In Dahab.  We met Andy last week when he came over to El Qusier to dive with us at Roots Camp, and the bonding was good and immediate.  He came here in 1998 from Germany and opened his dive center with partner Hans Lange and the business has grown steadily, helped in no small part from his partnership with a German travel agency.  I will be one of the first Americans to grace his operation, so the pressure’s on for me to leave a good “typical American” impression.  I’ll be doing my best indeed!

Andy meets us at the hotel ahead of time (remember, he is German) so I need to hustle and get ready – no rest for the weary here!!  We follow him out and he has a few stops planned.  The first, and most impressive, is the hyperbaric chamber, where he introduces me to the doctor, gives me a complete tour, and makes it clear that they are here to assist if needed and called upon.  It’s very comforting and very great to see that safety and health so high on his list of priorities.  From there we head towards the other side of the harbor, on dirt roads, and end up on a very long straight road to the beach – turns out this was the Israeli military air strip during the years of occupation.  Here we visit Miracle Lake, basically a Sinai version of Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, with a dozen of more endemic species of critters found here and her alone – neat to see!  We take in a fantastic beachfront view of Andy’s ‘House Reef’, stretching about 4 miles down the coast and 100% accessible and dive-able.  Impressive to say the least!

We head over to the dive center and Andy personally introduces me to every one of his staff members, with a genuine smile and a sincere handshake exchange with each.  I meet 21 year old Matthias, who is here doing a six-month divemaster candidate internship, and Angelika, a 34 year old neurosurgeon from Köln, Germany who is here taking her digital underwater photography course from Andy, both of whom will be diving with me the next few days.  Overall the staff here at Dive In Dahab is like family for sure, a real different sort of operation than so many of the other operations here.  There is no caste system and everyone pitches in.  The team energy is high, and Andy assures me that is anyone starts so exhibit slacker qualities, the team either fixes them or votes them off the island, the sense of solidarity is that strong.  He gives me the complete tour, triple compressor system, classrooms, barbecue and socializing area, even where the all-important “deco beers” are kept on ice!  No “Daddy” needed here!

From there we walk over to Marine Biology lab that Andy and Hans have constructed next door to the dive center.  It is a completely self-contained research facility, built with private funding and support from several universities to conduct marine biology and similar programs for research and educational venues.  I meet Dr. Marc Steinegger who is currently working on doctoral thesis in marine animal behavior with the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland.  His particular area of study is cooperative hunting, such as that exhibited by goatfish as they work sand patches alongside each other, kicking out prey and then directing it towards their neighbor’s mouths.  He has an entire marine eco-system set up complete with underwater video recording systems here in the lab, and he demonstrates the behavior for me by dropping a small crab down a pipe into the tank. Sure enough the goatfish gather around and take turns batting at the crab with their barbels until he is popped out of the pipe and eaten by one of the fish.  It’s funny but we witness this behavior often on the reef and never truly recognized that it was as organized as it is between the goatfish.  Part of the practical aspect of this study is that although cooperative behavior, and hunting, is often observed with mammals such as coyotes and dolphins, it was never thought that fish, further down the evolutionary chain of development, were capable of such advanced behavior.  Pretty cool to see live and being documented right here!

The lab also hosts educational youth camps year round, with students from ages 10 to 18 coming to spend two to six weeks on site, working in the lab, the lake, and the ocean to learn more about the ocean and all that goes on within it.  Check out the lab’s website to learn how you might get involved with this great endeavor!

After that exciting portion of the tour, Andy takes me out to me meet my driver for today, Salem Hassan Hamdi.  Salem, like all of Dive In Dahab’s drivers, owns his own nicely kept Toyota pickup.  After experimenting for a few years with a company-owned fleet, Andy decided to hire a team of drivers, each of who own their trucks and who take very nice care of them.  That solved a lot of maintenance and expense issues and raised the bar for guys who want to drive for Andy.

Salem is excited; as his wife is due to have their first baby in the next day or two.  He has a pretty decent command of English, so he shares a bit of his life story with me.  His wife comes from a big family, and he tells me how great their wedding was, with over 2,000 guests coming to the wadi, and a dozen camels and fifty goats slaughtered for the feast.  He tells me how excited his friends were, with the traditional display of joy, firing thousands of rounds into the air from their AK-47 automatic rifles.  I point out how that can be dangerous, with all those bullets falling back down from the sky, and he says yes they know that, so they angle the guns down now and don’t shoot them straight up.  Ah, evolution at work! I’m thinking you just don’t want to be at the party next door!

Andy is really excited about the diving he has to offer so it’s time to get this party started!  Our first site will be right out front on his house reef; at a site he calls “The Islands”.  We are planning a “normal” dive, 60 ft max for 60 minutes max, with clockwork like precision on the navigation, depth and timing – what else would you expect from the Germans?  Andy, Matthias, Angelika and I wade in from the beach until we hit a hole about 4 ft deep, where we don our fins, and then drop right vertically down into a cavern that leads out to a sandy area inside the outer reef.  I love a dive that starts off with an adrenalin rush like that! This site is a series of coral pillars and structures, with huge crevices and valleys between, and a vertical profile of about 40 ft.  It is stunning to put it mildly.  There is so much variety here and healthy corals that is beyond description.  Andy takes me out to an area that was until a few years ago used by local dynamite fisherman, and the destruction to the reef structure is so apparent, with gaping holes in the pillar corals showing how they were blown apart by the indiscriminate blasts of the fisherman.  Thank goodness that has ended, and thanks to the overall health of the surrounding reef, this area is recovering at am amazing pace.  It is truly beautiful what nature, unaffected by man, can do to cure our sins.   We surface exactly 60 minutes after we went in….are you surprised?

OK, now that we have that “normal” dive behind us, it is time to ramp it up a bit!  We drive up the road a little bit to a site called “The Canyon”.  This is a little north of the center of town, and another beautiful site.  Before we go in, Andy asks me if I have a light.  Well yes I do, showing him my OMS canister light.  “Very nice”, he says, as he pulls his canister light out of his bag.  “Is that an mb-sub?” I ask, and he replies, “Yes it – seven years old and only serviced once!  They are the best in my opinion.”  Well what a small world, once again!  I tell him that mb-sub founder and designer Michael Bienhaus is a personal friend and he tells me that is who personally serviced his light for him when he went home to Germany.  I then explain to him that we are the North American distributor for the mb-sub line, and he is blown away.

Alright, dive industry group hug over, it is time to get wet!  Here again we walk on in, and then drop down the face of the wall, to a depth of 200 ft, where we enter the bottom end of a narrow cut in the reef.  It is not quite a cave, being open at various times to the sky, but at other times closed over completely.  We follow the sloping floor towards the shore, finally exiting at around 50 ft.  Way cool indeed!  Such dramatic scenery and views, with a bright overhead sun filtering down through the holes in the roof, really make it a surreal dive.  The narcosis probably helped a bit too!  Once we emerge, we re-connect with the other two, who did not come down to the depth with us.  Angelika is taking photos for her class, so Andy works with her while Matthias and I swim alongside.  What’s this swimming towards me, some sort of flounder?  No, by golly, it is an electric ray, just cruising right over to check me out!  According to most books, they have a charge of about 400,000 volts, but he is so cute, I am thinking, “How bad can this hurt?”  No, I did not carry this experiment any further forward, but must admit I did put it on the bucket list!  We finally surface after 50 minutes of bottom time, again smiling ear to ear with what we just experienced.

It’s lunch time now, so where better to eat than at the local Bedouin restaurant on the beach?  There are plenty of them here, with little huts with pillows and low tables (no chairs in this culture!) and an offering of local coffees, tees and food.  The place we choose is one of Andy’s favorite, and the owner puts a nice spread out for us, a rice-based dish with chicken, lamb or tuna in it (plus some unknowns for me to pick out).  It is perfect after our dive, and we are refreshed.

In fact so refreshed that we are good for a third dive!  We head to the middle of downtown Dahab, right on the water, to an area known as “The Lighthouse” after an old navigational aid that used to exist here.  We pass by about two dozen dive retailers, none of which offer dives or training (part of the unwritten law here, kinda like the Dahab mafia).  Then we get to the waterfront.  There are 54 dive centers in Dahab, and I think about 52 of them are located on the properties that ring this harbor area call the lighthouse.  Andy explains that this site offers year round access even if they are having storms and that most of the local training takes place here.  There is also snorkeling and swimming, plus a few other water sports.  OK, I am thinking, the Dutch Springs of Dahab!

Well I could not have been further from the truth!  The moment we put our heads under water, there was a snake eel looking up out of the sand at me!  Cool!  We swam a little further out, saw more cool stuff, crocodile fish, pepper and giant moray eels, a big octopus, shrimp, crinoids coming out for the night and opening up on the reef, and so much more.  We came upon a nice commemorative plaque that the local dive association had made and sunk in memory of the martyrs of the January 25th revolution, and that was pretty touching – ok, well except for the part where they spelled Egyptian wrong!  But I got the drift!  We explore the wall down to 150 ft, but Andy needs to head up early, as his Uwatec is giving him 13 minutes of deco obligation (versus zero for my Cochran) so we spend the second half of the dive in a “same ocean buddy” sort of mode.  We surface together after 55 minutes and it’s nothing but high fives all around for another great dive!  Back to the dive shop to rinse the gear and Salem takes me to the hotel, where I decide to relax a bit before dinner with a brew at the bar and a little blogging.

The bartender and bar manager come over and talk to me, asking where I am from.  When I tell them America, it is handshakes and smiles all around.  They are thrilled I am here (how come I don’t get that same reception at the Harleysville Hotel?), and upon learning that, keep filling my glass to the delight of a couple of Polish girls on holiday having a party of their own at the other end of the bar, flirting and smiling. I am like a prisoner here, with the Muslim bar staff doing their best to lead me down a road of potential international debauchery – I need to get out of this place!!  Whew, I manage to finally escape unscathed, bid my goodbyes to everyone, and head up to my room to crash.

Technically, we’re still diving…

Wednesday morning and it’s time to meet Andy at 7:00 for an early start.  We have a technical dive planned for later this morning but we want to get a base-loading of nitrogen in the tissues first before we start throwing helium in – all part of my never-ending DAN medical research.   We dive in at a site at the very far north end of the road (if you call it that) known as The Bells, adjacent to the world-famous Blue Hole, which we will dive a little later today.   This is a beautiful remote area with crystal clear water and viz forever.  One of the most interesting features is actually ashore, where the towering bluffs along the coastline here are actually made of coral skeletons, pushed up by tectonic plate action from the bottom of the Aqaba Gulf some 80,000 years ago – just another wonderful example of our earth at work!

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

The Entrance to the Bells Just North of The Blue Hole

OK, focus back on the water now Dave! We slip into a crevice that drops out down and out to the reef at about 150 ft, and from there we work our way south along the outside fringing reef that makes up the seaward side of the Blue Hole.  I drop down to about 220 ft and work my way along, slowly decreasing the depth as we head south.  Over the top of the Blue Hole reef we go and then a nice blue-water swim through the center of the hole to cap off a great 38-minute dive.

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

The 80 Foot Long Chute of The Bells...very impressive!

Now we head back to the dive center to grab the rest of my gear for a “real” technical dive with Dahab Divers.  There we meet Tom Steiner, the owner, his assistant Audrey, and two students that are looking forward to completing their TDI Extended Range program this morning.  We get our gasses analyzed, and run the dive plan through Deco Planner software.  My bottom mix is 18% O2 and 30% Helium, so we plan our maximum depth, deco stops and total run time.  I have two 80 CF sling bottles of deco gas; yes a bit of an overkill, but you know how they’re thinking – “new guy, might be a heavy breather!”  One contains 32% EAN and the other 70%, with gas switch depths of 120 ft and 40 ft planned.  We drive back up to Blue Hole and holy smokes we get caught in the morning “traffic jam” as herd after herd of camels are being led down the road to greet the tourists arriving from Sharm, eager for their hour-and-a-half camel ride up the coast to the little fishing village of Ras Abu Galum (named after the cactus-like plant that can hold vital water supplies for years in between rains).

It’s pretty funny seeing the camels that are not kept in pens, as they have a rope tied between their two front legs.  This limits their range, so you don’t have to look so far when you are collecting your camels.  I am thinking a fence or a leash might be an idea, but don’t want to scare the locals with thoughts of innovation!

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

e Blue Hole in Dahab-Just Like on Belize but this Hole is Shore Dive

Finally we are at the dive site, and I have driven there in Dive In Dahab’s pickup truck with Ibrahim, a driver who has worked for over 12 years with Andy – you gotta love that long-term workforce stability!  There are close to a hundred vans, pickups and jeeps all lined up along the shore, all in the traditional local color of WHITE – how on earth are we going to find our technical diver friends?  Wait – of course, here they come, in the all-BLACK pickup!  True techies to the core!  It’s funny, all of these guys have additional lead strapped to their tanks, and I am feeling a bit under-dressed.  They ask what I need in weights, and I say none, and they are amazed – how can you maintain your buoyancy?  I don’t know, just watch me I suppose!  Sorry, I should have given them a more technical answer, but hey, it’s me!  Weighting chat over, we gear up and I buddy up with Audrey while Tom takes his two students in tow.  The plan is to drop in inside the hole, descend to about 170 ft or so, and pass through the dramatic archway that leads out to the open sea.  Unfortunately the viz inside is not as great as it was outside this morning, but still we drop, and Audrey and I enter the archway.  Looking at the depth and the potential for dis-orientation due to narcosis, it is no wonder there are a line of memorial plaques along the seawall remembering many of the divers that have perished here.  Funny thing is, most of them are Russian – must say something for that vodka consumption during surface intervals that is a common practice among them.

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Traversing the Arch in the Blue Hole with Plenty of Tech Gear in Tow

Audrey and I cruise down to 210 ft then work our way further south, spending 15 minutes at the depth before beginning a slow ascent.  My Cochran shows a first mandatory deco stop at 90 ft for a minute, but that is due to the helium in the mix, not the nitrogen.  We switch gasses at 120 ft as we work our way up the reef, and then continue to zig & zag back & forth, slowly ascending, off-gassing as we go, until our second switch t 40 ft.  From here we can swim over the top of the reef to the inside, and now enjoy the view from the other side as we spend another half hour floating along.  I take advantage of this time to do a little Project Aware work, accumulating quite a pile of water bottles, coral-choking towels, and various other bits of debris in my arms before finally, at the 60 minute mark, we surface.  Great dive and a great team to dive with, even with that black pick up truck!  As we break down our gear we do a bit of chatting, and wouldn’t you know it, but Audrey spent two years working in King of Prussia, 10 miles (14 km) from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing!

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

The Coral Covered "Saddle" of the Blue Hole

Andy and Angelika have been diving alongside us, albeit at a shallower depth, as she continued to work on her underwater digital photography skills.  We connect after the dive and head back to the shop to re-arrange the gear and get another dive in.  I really love this guy’s passion for diving, and am truly looking forward to introducing him to more of the IVS family of divers.  Our final location for the day is Um El Sid, a great easy shore entry on the far south end of Dahab, technically outside the city limits and located in the Nabquec National Park area.   We decide to keep this one shallower, no reverse profiling for David today, so 160 ft is the max depth, and we work our way up and along the reef from there.  Lots to see, huge gorgonians, schools of Red Sea Bannerfish, clown fish, jumping which was really tiny shrimp, lionfish (it’s OK, they are natural here) and more.   Finally, 50 minutes later, it is time to head to the land of the mammals again, and we call it a day.  Not too shabby at all, three dives, about 600 ft of total depth and three hours of bottom time – life is good!

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Emperor Angelfish at Um El Sid in Dahab

Hans & Andy decide to throw an impromptu barbecue tonight at the dive center so it’s time for a quick shower, arrange my growing locks, and throw on another low-key Hawaiian short to blend in with the locals.  I invite Afifi to the party, but seems he has been a bit busy today; visiting the Tourism Police station three times already to get “permission“ for me to travel back to Sharm tomorrow night.  Hold on a minute while I climb onto my virtual soapbox here – I have been in Eastern European countries during the 80’s and early 90’s when communism was still in vogue, and the way the game was played was you secured a visa to visit the country, and once there, you could enjoy yourself, spend money, and see the land.  And this is from the real big guys with real big guns.  Here we are with a bunch of AK-47 toting camel-riding cops and they are so friggin’ paranoid about one stinking tourist traveling back down the road 60 miles to where I was already approved to be that they need the president to approve my ‘permission slip’ – but wait – there is NO president.  What a friggin’ circus this is for a so-called National Security program – these guys are afraid of their own shadow and tell me, where do these forms we file “in triplicate” ever eventually end up????  Heck, even the TSA could trump these guys!

OK, back off my soapbox now, Andy picks me up at that hotel and we head to the party.  There I meet a bunch of Dive In Dahab’s guests, and they have put on a nice barbecue spread.  Burgers (meat source unknown, but definitely not pork), baked potatoes, salads, veggies, and all the fixin’s.  We have a great time and I really enjoy this social aspect of this particular dive center – it’s got sort of a “Cheers” atmosphere from the TV show where you want to come and hang around. Finally, enough burgers and beers consumed, I head back to the hotel, steering well clear of the bar and the Polish girls!

Thursday and Andy has planned a day of boat diving for us.  Early get-together at the dive center, load the gear, and we drive from there over to the town dock, or jetty as they are called here.  This is a much smaller harbor than any of the previous ones we have visited, with about a dozen boats in total, and a two-man security force, one plainclothes cop and a uniformed Tourism Police officer.  We have our Egyptian version of a “hall pass” in hand, our permission slip, so we pass on through, with no ID’s, bag checks, or any other sort of security procedure – gotta love the consistency!  We board our boat, the Romy Star, another 80 ft twin-engine nicely finished day boat.

Forty minutes later we arrive at our dive site, Gaber El Bint, where we anchor and plan to do two dives.  We have a few other passengers on board, so Andy will be briefing the entire boat, then diving as my buddy.  He draws another typical highly detailed dive site plan, with divemaster-candidate Matthias watching intently as the master’s hand works.  That is another compliment to the depth and detail that Dive in Dahab put into their training programs – each DM candidate is required to maintain detailed logs, site maps, and time/depth graphs for each dive they do here.  This is just one aspect of how Andy truly prepares his candidates to conduct themselves as true professionals wherever their scuba career takes them.

With the boat secured on the mooring, we head on in to begin our dive, starting in the northward direction.  There is a truly dramatic drop-off that is just screaming my name, so answer I must!  I drop down and spend the first 10 minutes cruising at 200 ft, then work my way back up, finally enjoying the return leg to the boat on top of the outer reef at 30 ft.  One more phenomenal dive and another greater 50 minutes under the sea!

A little break time and relaxing on board, and for this second dive Matthias is going to be my dive guide, with Andy observing.   OK, as we gear up, I realize that this “supervision” will fall under what PADI terms “indirect”, meaning that poor Andy is too chilled to get back in the water!  Major woos!  Matthias & I head in, and get another great 60 minutes underwater while enjoy the southern end of the reef down to 100 ft.  We also conduct a bit of a Project Aware dive here at the end, collecting a dozen or so plastic water bottles and other bits of trash & debris off the reef.

Another great day boat lunch is served up and we fill our bellies while warming up in the sunshine on this perfect day.  We’ve got one more drop planned today, so we head back north towards the town to do our drift dive at a site called Shahira.  The boat captain drops us a bit north of the reef we intended to cruise over, but you know what?  The viz is forever, the water temp is good, there are no currents and we are diving – life is good!  A little more Project Aware work, and another 100 ft’er, with 40 minutes of bottom time to add to the logbook.

Back to the dock now, unload the boat, back to the dive center to rinse gear & say goodbyes (plus enjoy that mandatory deco beer or two), and then I get whisked back to the hotel, rinse off, and pack my gear (loosely) for the ride back to Sharm El-Sheikh.

Time for one more great wreck…

Permission slip in hand, we roll into Sharm and head directly to our hotel for the night, the Concorde.  Our stay here will be very short, which is unfortunate, because this might be the nicest hotel / resort we have stayed in yet.  Really nice, huge multi-level dining area, live music and shows, nice rooms, great grounds – but except for a quick dinner with Afifi, it is all for naught, cause I have a 6 a.m. show up time at the dock for our final day of diving on the Thistlegorm.

Mohammed and Afifi are up and ready to drive “Miss Daisy” to Travco Harbor for our departure.  It’s a little early for security, so they just sleepily wave us through, all the way to the dock.  Nope, no passports or ID, no permission, just basically “have a nice day”.  I am sensing the supervisor must come on around 8:00 and I am sure it gets sticky after that.  So, terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells – the early bird gets the worm here!

We board another nice day boat, but this one is even better than all those before it – it has a steel hull, along with twin engines, which gives it an actual cruising speed in excess of ten knots – woo hoo!  I am thinking about water skiing here today!  I meet my dive buddy for today, Pharaoh Divers’ manager and technical diving instructor, Yann Vautrin, a Frenchman from the Brittany area.  He’s been in country nine years primarily focused on technical diving and training for Osama.  He sees my gear, complete with an extra clip or two, and some color, and comes over and thanks me for not being a ‘cult-based’ (wink wink) tech diver.  He just spent a week with a group of them; all dressed identically in black and one-piece harnesses, and basically described them as serious wanna-be’s hell bent on suicide. Nice!  They were aghast at the fact that Yann smoked, chastised him for it and went on about how it violated the cult philosophy and rules.  But, he said, they had no qualms about downing more than their fair share of beers, and acting upon the results, at the end of each day of diving.  Just funny to hear that perspective from an unbiased third party.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour ride to the wreck so we enjoy a nice breakfast on board on the way out.  And I re-unite with an old-new friend, Ligia, the Instructor from Pharaoh Divers, who is also on board and leading a group of divers on the wreck.  Our plan is to let the recreational divers splash and then go about setting up our gear.  As they are nearing the end of their dive, we’ll go in, hopefully having the entire wreck to ourselves while everyone else is up doing their surface intervals.  Of course we are counting on few to no other boats here, but with our early start and the fastest boat in the harbor that should be the case.  Yann tells me that sometimes during the busiest summer seasons there may be upwards of 25 boats, with 30 divers each, out here diving this wreck – not a thought that excites me for sure!

A little history about our dive site – The Thistlegorm was a British transport ship, just built in 1940, and was sailing from Cape Town, South Africa, full of munitions and supplies for the British troops in Egypt who were, at that time, getting their tea-drinking butts kicked by the Axis armies.  It was attacked at anchor in October 1941, by German dive-bombers operating out of Crete and who were actually searching for a transport ship with 3,500 Australian soldiers aboard.  Good for the Aussie’s as they were not found, but bad for the crew of the Thistlegorm, 8 of who died during the attack and sinking.  The boat went to its watery grave before it could get it’s cargo unloaded, and came to rest in an upright position on sand at 110 ft.  In spite of a fire on board during the attack, the ship, first “discovered” by Jacques Cousteau in 1956 (like no one knew it was there?) is virtually intact, as is the cargo, which includes small arms, ammunition, grenades, a couple of tanks, two locomotives, a few trucks and all the other standard war goodies you find on these sort of wrecks.  It was approx 500 ft long, and has grown a little over time as some sections have opened up or spread out, but essentially it is the size of the Spiegel Grove, just not so “sterile”.

We get about to analyzing the gases, and as requested, we have 36% for a bottom mix and 50% for our deco gas, so my plan of reducing my nitrogen loading prior to a couple of long international flights is looking good.   As we pull up to the wreck site our prayers have been answered – there are no other boats here!  We gear up and splash, and can look right down at this great wreck below us.  We drop down, get oriented, and then head off into the sand to the port side.  Sure enough, just as Yann predicted, we come upon one of the steam locomotives that was blown off the wreck by the explosion, coming to rest a couple of hundreds yards from the wreck, sitting upright and pretty in the sand.  Strange to see it sitting there, but it is picture perfect with great viz and a bright sun lighting things up from above.  The current is fairly strong so we pass on heading further away from the wreck, and work our way back in to explore it.  By now we are alone as all the other “survival divers” have exhausted their air and have gone up on the boat.

If I may take a moment to digress, as a diver who travels quite a bit and gets to see a lot of other folks diving, it is as obvious as day and night when divers are well trained and confident in themselves, their skills and their abilities.  That is always the case with Indian Valley Scuba divers and it is so refreshing to see those same traits exhibited by other non-IVS divers elsewhere.  Today’s divers on our boat did not fit into that category at all, hence my “survival diver” comment.  I call them that because it is amazing that they actually manage to survive dive after dive, and keep coming back to the sport to roll the dice again.

OK, back off the soapbox, the dive is fantastic from beginning to end.  We explore every open space above and below the decks on this wreck.  Row after row of light and heavy trucks, cases upon cases of Enfield rifles, airplane parts, hundreds of motorcycles, locomotives and rail cars, ammunition, and plenty of other cargo.  We see at least three different species of Nudibranchs, a colorful flatworm, a huge crocodile fish, the biggest scorpion fish I have ever seen, eels, and a blind shrimp meticulously cleaning the hole it shares with a goby, using it’s antenna on the goby’s tail to let it know the coast is clear or not to come out of the hole with trash & debris – pretty cool.

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

Coal Tender on the Deck of the WWII Wreck of Thistlegorm

We surface after an hour-plus at 100 ft, and come back on board just as the rest of the gang are jumping back in for their second tour.  The main salon smells good as the crew is getting lunch started so we’ll have some good eating this afternoon for sure.  As soon as the recreational divers re-board lunch is served and it is another winner.  No one loses weight here while diving!

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

BSA Motorcycles Lined Up in Cargo Hold #1 of Thistlegorm Wreck

We head back towards the port, and there seems to be a certain sense of urgency as the ship is making good headway heading into the docking area, weaving between the lines of boats tied up or idling blowing the horn like a cab driver, and just generally showing a bit more urgency than I have come to expect here.  We are being waved into the dock, then waved off, then waved to dock at the end so the captain is pulling it in alongside another boat, which is great, but we are backwards and cannot get off the boat.  The captain figures that out and we move again, dodging other 60 to 100 ft boats all doing the same thing.  Well it turns out that there has been a law since the Six Day War about boats navigating on the Red Sea after 5:00 in the afternoon, so if you are caught out you get hammered with a fine.  So none of the boats want that, so it’s a mad rush to touch the dock before the bewitching hour.  The Tourism Police commander, so obviously absent this morning, is on duty and in fact standing right on the dock, acknowledging the boats as they come in.   What a circus, and so unnecessary – these guys need a unified scuba industry association to get together and get some of these antiquated laws fixed!

But before we disembark, Yann tells me he has a surprise for me – this is like Christmas every day here with surprises!  He has co-authored a book on the Thistlegorm and wants me to have a signed copy.  But he has already called in to the other author to bring a copy to the dock, meet me, and sign the book together.  I am touched by this gesture, and know that I have made the right contacts for Red Sea adventures on this trip.

One last look at security – lots of it…

Afifi and Mohammad are awaiting me in the parking lot, so once we get our book signing out of the way, I jump in the van to head to Cairo.  We have opted (wisely) to blow off the flight tonight, and since Mohammad was already driving to Cairo with the van, I suggested that we just ride with him.  Healthier for me, cheaper for Afifi – everyone’s a winner.  As we leave Sharm, we pass through a major security checkpoint, and Afifi tells me to make sure I have my passport and travel visa ready because these guys will be checking it.  We pull up, and get the customary wave from the collection of soldiers and cops there.  That was interesting, I note to Afifi, and question why we needed the passport out.  He said normally they would have gotten up and come to the car to check out papers – I am thinking the operative words here are “gotten up”.  No one is expending any more energy than they need to at these security checkpoints. In fact, over the next 500 or so kilometers, we must have passed through another twenty of them without incident.  I ask myself out loud, “Is anyone really fooled into thinking anything is getting done here?”

But as we approach the Suez Canal, there is road construction, so they detour the traffic to a short stretch of road that is, in Afifi’s words, “Army territory”.  Whatever that means, I am not sure, but we pull up to a couple of old 55 gallon drums in the dark, and there is one soldier in uniform and one cop in street clothes, who stops the van and asks who we are.  Well hell’s bells, we are the traffic that was just diverted fro the road construction, I want to shout out to him – but I refrain.  So he takes the drivers ID and our “Get our of Sharm” permission slip and gets on his cell phone, shouting into the hone and carrying on like we had the stolen nuclear devices in the back of our car.  Then he is at the window shouting at Afifi who is shouting back, and then he is shouting on the cell phone again – so friggin’ unnecessary so subjective is this whole security process.  Finally some conclusion is reached, our ID is handed back, and we continue.  At each of these stops when asked who is in the back, they simply say “an American” and that satisfies whoever is asking.  I question Afifi about what a “bad” nationality would be, and he can’t give me a clear answer, so I wonder what is the point of asking at all?  It’s back to that Mickey and Goofy thing again.

As we get even closer to the canal here is another checkpoint with a scattering of Egyptian army armored vehicles here to frighten the weak of heart.  We are directed to pull off into a parking lot, where again, so supervisory type questions our driver, and a pair of foot soldiers open the sliding door of the van and stare me down.  Guess they were waiting for me to blink or something, that would have given me away for sure! One is holding a mine detector – yeppers that will work well on a steel vehicle – rocket scientist he is not!  The other says something to me that I don’t understand, so I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t speak Arabic, so he says something else, also not in English, I shrug again, then finally it clicks and he asks where I am going.  Well my little gun-toting genius, friggin’ Cairo, where else does this road go, is what I want to say, but I limit it to “Cairo”.  We must have passed the test cause he smiles, waves goodbye and closes the door – that was one tough test for sure!  Can you sense that I might have exceeded my checkpoint congeniality limit by this point in the trip?  We continue on our merry way, through the Suez Canal tunnel, and into Cairo, where I am staying at the Iberotel at the airport.  Time to re-pack the bags, post the blog and get ready for my flight home in the morning!

What a fantastic week this has been, not only from the cultural and social aspects, but the diving has been phenomenal – 28 dives logged, all but six of them deeper (or a lot deeper) than 100 ft, with five deeper than 200 ft, and 1,520 minutes of total bottom time – I am so loving the Red Sea! And looking forward to coming back in 2012 & 2013!

So I get up and check my email for any late breaking news, and guess what – there’s something here from my friends at Delta Airlines! Yes, there might be yet another surprise on this never-ending adventure.  I open it up and am, to say the least, shocked!  My 7:35 a.m. Air France (a Delta partner) flight to Paris will now be leaving at 10:00, and, they note, with my 1:55 arrival time at Charles de Gaulle airport, I may miss my 1:40 connecting flight to New York.  May???  Not sure what you’re smoking in your shisha, buy I know if I land fifteen minutes after my connecting flight is taking off, then I have missed it.  So thank goodness for Skype; I dial up Delta and get a Medallion desk representative on the phone.  “Hmmm,” he says, “I’m not sure why they did that. Yep looks like you are going to miss your flight, but they re-booked on the same flight the next day”.  Well not that a night in Paris doesn’t sound inviting, but I’ve been away on this adventure for 14 days already and it is time to go home before everyone forgets who I am.  “Who would be paying for that night in Paris”, I inquire, and he says, “I’m not sure.  Delta didn’t change this ticket”.  Great, now they are going to fight over me.  “Look”, I say “what other options do I have to get to America today?”  Well we run through a lot of possibilities, but this late in the day, Philadelphia is not looking good.  So he rebooks me on a Cairo/Paris/New York/Philadelphia itinerary, and agrees Delta will put me up in NYC tonight, and I can catch my flight to Philly in the morning.   I can decide once I get to JFK if I want to rent a car and head home tonight or just relax and get there in the morning.

So my escort Romi calls and I give him the news and we adjust our morning a little.  Time now to enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel, then we all pile into Mohammad’s van for one last little ride, to the airport.  Romi gets me inside, past the outer security ring, and the inner one, and to the ticket counter.  He picks the friendliest French girl at the counter, and I can see why his friends’ nickname for him is ‘Romeo’. The ticket agent re-issues my tickets, takes all three of my 30 kilo (70 pound) bags, gets me aisle seats with no one sitting next to me, and stamps my credentials for admission to the Air France lounge at the airport.  OK, not bad for a morning that showed all signs of starting off terribly.  I hit the lounge for a bit, then head down, take the bus to my plane, and get to enjoy (endure?) another 4½ hours of French-flavored service – oh boy!

Now I’m not one to bitch, but let me tell you, the “Let them eat cake” mentality did not die with Marie Antoinette* 250 years ago, it is alive and well with the flight attendants that Air France employs today.  If you miss your beverage service cause your eyes were closed, it is like pulling teeth to get them to pony up a complimentary drink.  Ask for another?  You’d swear they were paying for it themselves.  Note to travelers – avoid Economy Cabin service on Air France flights if at all possible, or pack your own snacks for onboard.

Penmanship, and how it threatens Americas borders…

We finally land in New York, clear immigration (but not before being chastised for not using good penmanship on my customs declaration, so I had to wait while twiddle dum asked me “what town is this?” “what state is this?”, etc as he felt the need to painstakingly re-write the answers and fill in the blanks on my form, knowing full well that you simply hand this card to his brother, twiddle dummer, on the way out, and they never, ever go anyplace other than the trash.  But he is satisfied that this important national security process is complete, and I am given the green light to come back home.

Next step – with neatly filled our customs declaration form in hand, I walk over to claim my baggage at the carousel.  Jockeying for position with all the other bag grabbers that feel a need to crowd the belt, I snag one bag, wait a little while, grab another, and wait for the third.  I wait, it’s easier to see the bags on the belt now cause the crowd is thinning out, and I wait…yes you got it, no soup for me today!  Bag #3 is M.I.A.  Here’s a friendly-looking gal with a clipboard, so I walk up to her and she turns to me and says, “Are you missing a bag with a claim ticket ending in 0138?”  Her intuitiveness amazes me, and she continues, “I’m looking for it too.”   OK, that doesn’t necessarily sound good, but I play along.  Turns out that bag came up missing on the manifest when they matched up passengers and luggage on the flight from Paris, so they’ve got an APB out on my bag.  “Head over to the Air France office when you clear customs”, she says, “and I’ll meet you there.”  OK, fair enough, I do as directed (I am such a rule follower) and hand my neatly filled out form to the robot who is working at customs, he slaps it, without even glancing at it, on the huge pile of other blue customs declarations forms, and says, “Have a nice day.”  I just shake my head again…

So I saunter into the Air France baggage claim office, and meet Gabrielle and Heftzi.  In pops the girl with the clip board so I’m ready to start the battle, but no, there will be none of that here today.  All the customer service that Air France has surgically removed from their flight attendants, has been implanted into the staff here in the baggage service office!  These guys are amazing, and since I sense I am in a good place, I mention that one of my bags that did arrive has been somewhat man-handled by the folks on the ground and damaged.  Well while Gabrielle works on my lost bag issue, Heftzi comes out and says let’s see your damaged bag!  The line is starting to form a little bit but these two ladies stay focused so taking care of me, and before you know it, my missing bag has been found (or course it was found in Genoa, Italy – don’t ask!) and my damaged bag claim filed, and they tell me they will watch my luggage and give me directions of who to go see to get fed and out up in a hotel for the night – first class!  I’m feeling pretty good here, so I head upstairs and meet with Roberta at the Delta/Air France office, and explain my predicament.  She shakes her head and says “yes, Air France has a habit of doing this; changing flight times and screwing Delta’s customers with connection.”  But she takes care of me, gets me a nice room at a local Doubletree Hotel, gives me $30 worth of meal vouchers for dinner, and leaves me with a smile.  I go down and get my bags which have been under the watchful eyes of Heftzi and Gabrielle, they point in me in the direction of the Air Train that I need to take to catch the hotel shuttle, and it’s farewell to all.

I roll my cart across the street and take the elevator up to the train platform and I’ve got a few minutes to wait for the train.  I notice a group of women that are in need of some help; it is obvious from how they are asking folks there in the train station and not getting the answers they need.  I sense their frustration and ask if I can be of some assistance.  Well, it turns out they are here from Germany, actually on their way home from a tour of China, and are in the same situation as me, being stuck overnight here in NY.  They don’t understand their directions and no one wanted to step up and help, so ambassador-at-large that I am, I decide to see what I can do.  Well over the course of getting them on the train (same one as me) and to the hotel shuttles to their lodging, we chat, and they are divers also, and talked about the Red Sea (they have dove it) and in fact are going to Bonaire a week after our trip in June.  They take a photo of me with them for their memory book, and head off to their hotel.  What a small, small world it truly is!

Well my shuttle is here, the pillow will feel good tonight, and I’ll be home in the morning.  What a most wonderful adventure this has been!  I can’t wait to back.

The end!

*Note:  This statement is historically inaccurate, was actually said 100 years before her by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!!!

Formula H2O Racing – Round II – IVS doubles down!

And so it begins……back from our recent Andrea Doria mis-adventure, diver Mark Hughes hails once again from Flagstaff, Arizona to get another heapin’ helping of the IVS kool-aid. This time our mission is a mixed one…what started out as a simple technical trip to dive some deep wrecks off Key West has now morphed into all that and more. Turns out the the second Wreck Racing League sanctioned Formula H2O scooter race is planned for this very weekend also. What’s a dive team to do? Short IVS answer: All of it!!

IVS Team leader and Wreck Racing League board member Dave Valaika, just arriving back from his recent Lady Gaga concert experience, learned of the timing of the new event, and immediately contacted Mark and asked if he wanted to combine our planned tech trip with some competitive scooter racing and the reply was solid YES! OK, that sealed the deal, so no it was time to go to the strategy room and figure out how we can better our times in the first event, where Joyce Kichman and Dave finished 6th and 4th respectively. We had come into that event like babes in the proverbial woods, using stock scooters, wearing standard fins, wearing a BCD…we had no idea what to expect. Well we do now! So, hmmm….thinking, thinking…… you know, if we rafted the scooters together, streamlined the driver a bit more, and had a little more time for practice, we might be able to kick butt here! Our strategy is simple – do whatever it takes to end up in the winners circle!! OK, enough said, let’s get to work.

So out come the cocktail napkins and the pencils, sketches fly off the paper and before you know it, we have a design, to take two Hollis scooters, plus a small breathing tank, and build a frame that ties them nicely together in a tight, streamlined package. All we need to do is build it now, and for that, Mark arrives a day early in Harleysville.

Now let’s get this straight here….Mark is actually having dental work done this week in Fort Lauderdale, but he jumps on an airplane, flies to Philadelphia, and ends up in Harleysville, where, after all is said and done, we’ll depart from and drive to…you guess it…Fort Lauderdale. “Huh”, you ask? Crazy? Yes….Very much us? YES! So he flies in late Tuesday evening, and gets a good nights rest in the dorm to prepare for the build.

Wednesday a.m. dawns bright and blue in the center of the scuba diving universe, and we kick it off with a design meeting at the shop. Once we go over the plans, tweak the design a bit, verify dimensions and create a bill of material, Mark is off and running to Home Depot and a few other local supply houses to gather our parts and raw materials. He finally arrives back at shop with his shopping list completed, and here’s where it gets a little crazy (if you don’t think it is already). Mark walks in the front door and stops in his tracks when he spots Bob Szalburski, who is in getting some O2 fills for the upcoming St. Lawrence Seaway trip. Well hell’s bells, Bob & Mark both attended an advanced wreck training class taught by Richie Kohler at Conch Republic Divers in June. What an amazingly small world we live it, and it’s even smaller for the IVS diving community! Bob from Wilkes Barre, Mark from Flagstaff, re-uniting right here at IVS in Harleysville!

By the time he has gotten back the shop is abuzz with activity, with several customers being taken care of, and our Discover Scuba Diving team just returning from working with the troubled youth at New Life School, where we conduct several DSD’s each year to help promote positive activities and a way to channel a lot of energy in a productive direction for the young men who attend this alternative educational facility. Today’s team was led by IVS-instructor Carlie Adams, and included Felix Gryn, Bill Bobwicz, Kyle Rosenberger, Chris Rich, Steve Holak, and Joyce Kichman. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community and hopefully help to turn the lives of these young men towards a good direction.

At the same time, the classroom has morphed into a surgical suite, with Beverly nearly on her back and foot up on the table where Brian is drawing on his professional training as a Physician’s Assistant while he studies a classic PBT injury – that’s Post-Bonaire Trip! Now we all know the Loggins’ like to put their personal signature on some of our trips with lower appendage trauma; anyone who saw the pictures from Butch’s lacerations on the Australia trip will concur. But today we are looking at a potential imbedded sea urchin spine in Bev’s heel, and Brian laments that he is lacking the tools to properly perform an exploratory procedure. Well gosh, who might be able to help here? Hmmm, how about we turn to IVS’s Emergency First Response Instructor Trainer himself, Dave? Fresh off conducting an instructor level class this past weekend, I whip out my, er, medical kit and lo and behold, there is a complete set of surgical knives there for Brian! Well with tools in hand, the procedure moves along smoothly, and before you know it, Bev is minus one urchin spine, the wound site has been drained and cleaned, she is bandaged and put back on the line, what a good soldier she is! Nice work Brian!

So Mark manages to carve out a small bit of real estate for the scooter project build, and starts to gather the tools needed – radiac chop saw, power drills, hammers, files, wrenches, t-squares, socket sets, saw horses and more. The service area suddenly takes on a different persona, more along the lines of “Orange County Chopper” meets “Jacques Cousteau”. Mark plays Paul Jr, the son, while Dave takes on the role of Paul Sr, making sure that Jr. understands what we’re building here today! Complete with colorful language, and the occasional thrown tool and slammed door, the set is perfect.

Eight long hours later, Mark announces the birth of little Hollis II, siamese DPV twins joined at the housings. They are beautiful, and we hope to have the birthing photos up on the gallery soon. Yes, we cleaned the mom up first – why do people put those sort of pictures there? Sorry, I digressed. In any case, they weighed 106 pounds at birth, and measured 29″ long, with a beautiful ebony finish – how’d that happen?? The lab results have not come back on the gender verification as it appears there are no outward indicators to guide our judgment. They were listed on the birth certificate as Baby H-1 and H-2 for now to avoid any psychological trauma later should our early parental intuition be mistaken. They are quickly taken from the parents, photographed, and loaded into the truck for safe transport to their first ocean visit.

Now time to start mixing some gas for our first planned dives, the USS Wilkes Barre, a former naval cruiser sunk in 240 ft, and either the USS Curb, a naval tug sitting at 180 ft, or the USAFS Vandenberg, on the bottom with a max depth of 145 ft. We plan to dive the Wilkes twice, back to back, with a minimal surface interval, so even with an aggressive deco schedule, the Curb might be pushing it for our O2 limits. So we opt for the Vandenberg. Gases will be Trimix for the first 2 dives, 18% O@ and 41% Helium, with 50% and 100% O2 for the deco gases. Dive three will be on nitrox, so we go with 27% to allow us to play safely all the way down the sand. So six sets of doubles and a dozen stage bottles are filled, and this is just for our first day of diving? What is it with Mark? Every single time I dive with him we end up looking like a major gas storage facility as we load up the truck.

OK, tank filling and gas blending done, it’s 11;00 p.m. now, so maybe it’s time for Dave to pack. I toss gear into a couple of bags until I hit the 40 pound mark, and that’s usually enough stuff to go diving. I am going to have to start taking this more seriously soon! Just kidding, we have everything we need so we jump in the shower (separately, thank you), rinse off and finally, at the bewitching hour of midnight, begin the 23 hour, 1,400 mile journey to our first stop in this weekend’s adventure, Key West. Our boat will be beckoning us first thing Friday morning, so there is no time to waste. We climb aboard, fire up the truckster, and motor on down the road. I take first shift, letting Mark unwind after his busy and productive day, and he curls up on the seat for a little shuteye. I get us nearly to Delaware but Mark is restless, so i true Tom Sawyer fashion, I “let” him drive (how’s that for reverse psychology?) and I start writing the blog. Cool.

So we get started and I decide to catch a little sleep before my driving shift comes up. I have such a hard time falling asleep in strange places – NOT – so I am zonked out completely in a heartbeat. My peaceful slumber continues as the miles click on by and I am enjoying sweet thoughts of wet and wonderfully wild things to come, when suddenly I am jolted awake by a very bright light in my face! Mark is rolling down his window, the truck is no longer moving, and there is a cacophony of flashing red and blue lights all around – not a good thing! I am stretched out, reclining in the front seat, I can barely see the eyes of Trooper ‘Napoleon’ standing alongside the truck and reaching up to get Mark’s paperwork. I lean up and say “what’s up” and he shoots me a very stern look – weird for sure!

He has Mark’s license now and he is pointing out, with great prejudice, how things are done differently here in Maryland than they might be done in Mark’s home state of Arizona. Not sure the relevance, but maybe his mom abandoned him early on and moved out there or something. In any case, I also think they don’t think they allow sphincters to dress in cop uniforms and run around in Arizona either. So I am listening to him, and I squirm around trying to get a better view. Now, have you ever wondered what might happen if Sergeant Carter from the Gomer Pyle Show were to marry Tammy Faye Baker, and they had a child – this would be him, standing alongside the truck right now.

He is accusing Mark of traveling at 84 mph in a 65 zone, and he somehow measured this as Mark approached his cruiser, which was also traveling southbound, from behind. Now, most of you don’t know Mark, but you do know Ray, so you know how an old guy drives. There is no way Mark does 85 anything, and I know from a few road trips already with him that this is pretty solid. So my BS meter is way up in the yellow as the diatribe continues from our little trooper. He finishes, at the same time the spit stops flying out of his mouth (yes, I know, gross) and goes back to his patrol car with our paperwork. Mark and I chat about the lunacy of the moment, but defer from greater action cause there is no way this is going to get any better with any input from us.

So after a bit, he returns, and starts reading off what he has ticketed Mark for, including driving with our fog lights on. At this I say “you’ve got to be kidding” and his head spins towards me, like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, and he shouts out “You will NOT interrupt me!”. I want to ask, if I did, would he lose his place and have to start over? But I deferred, as difficult as that was for me, I felt it the best way to avoid being fitted in a lovely new orange jumpsuit this evening. So he finishes, Mark ends up a few hundred dollars poorer for the experience, and both of us are in need of a hug. We shake our heads in disbelief, and I note that here’s a guy who, when he retires from the State Police, has a clear second career opportunity with the TSA. [Bet you thought they wouldn’t get mentioned here!].

I drift back asleep, somewhat scarred from the trauma, but manage to drift back into dreamland. Morning beckons and the sunlight is streaming in, as ‘wild man’ Mark announces it is time to change drivers. So we stop, fuel up, and switch positions, and as I drive us across the border into North Carolina I glance at the GPS and what does it say? 999 miles to go – well doesn’t that inspire a drinking & driving song about lots of Coors Light on the wall! Well I stop myself from singing, letting my buddy rest, as I quietly listen to some classic tunes such as 1966’s ‘Happy Happy Summer Days’ by Ronnie Dove, and ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie’, the 1967 release from Jay & the Techniques, who just happen to hail from the Lehigh Valley – how cool is that?

899 miles to go now, and I look over at my buddy and he’s curled up and sleeping like a baby in the front seat. He must be dreaming little Officer Napoleon thoughts cause he’s smiling and kicking every now and then. It’s so cute, it’s too good to pass up, but the camera is behind me. So what to do? OK, I wake Mark up, have him retrieve the camera, and then send back to sleep, so I can finally balance the camera across the steering wheel and get the shot I want for the gallery. Mission accomplished!

800 miles to go now, and I look at the odometer, and it reads 66,666 miles – ruh roh, is that an ominous sign or what? I shiver, but it passes. Duly noted though! Finally, 700 miles to go, and thankfully Mark is up, cause it it time for the morning headbanging session as I crank up some Nickleback and Metallica loud enough to feel the soundwaves on your skin. Ah, a road trip with Dave! We enjoy some of the great sound that the 10 speakers put out, running through an array of my favorite rock acts (except Lady Gaga, Mark doesn’t like her stuff). As we approach Savannah we give IVS instructor Randy Rudd a call, but he is offshore today working for NOAA on the research vessel Nancy Foster, so no lunch date available. Sadly, we pass through Savannah with no stops!

So now Mark’s stomach is growling so he feels compelled to stop, and I give him carte blanch to pick his favorite – Dairy Queen! Like a little kid he skips to the counter and orders a triple mocha chocolate chip Blizzard with extra mocha – this boy’s gonna be a little jacked up for the rest of the day! I fish some pickled eggs out of the jar for the ride and we’re about to head out when some commotion catches our eyes – the whole time we have been there a young woman has been perusing the candy aisle, picking up various things and putting them in her purse. Not at all discretely, in fact pretty brazen, and I’m thinking they must have been out of shopping carts, and she’ll just pay for that stuff when she leaves. Well silly me…..this is a crime in the works, and right before our very eyes, she shoves the last of her sugar fix in her back, straightens up, and walks right out the door. Mark and I look at each other in utter amazement – the clerk starts screaming and shouting, other people start running, and we’re thinking it is probably a good time to get this show on the road! Gotta go….buh bye!

With only 500 miles to go now, Mark re-takes the pilot’s seat. Last chance for a power nap for me, and I take it. I awake, and have plenty of texting and email still to go, and sadly, in spite of that DQ caffeine fix, Mark comes up short on stamina in the driver’s seat. OK, I’ll take another shift, but I still have work to do! So Mark attempts to settle in for that last bit of sleep, but as he sees me setting my laptop on the console, tucking my phone into my pants leg, setting my eyeglasses on the dash…clearly yes I will be driving, but that is not the only task going on! Mark’s eyes start to look like a couple of pie plates, wondering how much of that focus is actually on the driving aspect, and his grip on the door handle tightens up. “Relax my friend, it’s all good”, I assure him. In between text messages the phone rings, and it’s Capt. Chris Norwood, the owner of Florida Straits Diving, our operator for tomorrow. ” Here’s the condition update”, he says, “2 to 3 knots of current inshore on the Vandenberg, all the mooring balls are under water”. “Well”, I ask, “what does that mean for the Wilkes Barre and Curb?” “Probably even more current, it will be a real challenge to get on the wreck and get down”, he says, and offers “if you want to cancel the charter for tomorrow it is OK”. I turn to Mark, and ask him his feelings on the conditions. He looks at me, and says “we’re here to dive”. That seals it, if we need our scooters to actually descend against the current, so be it – we’re diving tomorrow. Mark is certifiably crazy, and I am here to keep him out of trouble this weekend. More importantly, Mark will holding onto a $4,000 IVS scooter, and no way are we losing that puppy this weekend! So, plans settled, we motor on, finally arriving for dinner at the Paradise Pub at 9 o’clock pm, exactly 21 hours after we left Harleysville. Our favorite barmaid Antoinette is awaiting, all smiles and hugs for couple of her favorite friends (OK, hugs for me, and I introduce Mark!). Dave Hartman, the face of IVS-South, joins us for dinner, and after some good belly laughs, we retire to Casa Hartman for the night.

Friday morning comes and Chris gives us the call from Key West – current still appears to be ripping but Mark is undeterred, and we prepare for the last 100 miles of our southern journey. We check on the ‘children’ who we left on the chargers for the night in the truck, and it appears that we may be victims of sad case of SIDS – one of our baby’s won’t wake up! Mark is next to her, talking, pleading, touching, nurturing, all to no avail. What could it be? Why us? They looked so good last night. Why is fate so cruel??? I sense his sorry and sadness, and ask him to compose himself and step aside, let daddy take a look here. I examine closely, checking for any sign of life or apparent cause for this sad situation, and as my fingers trace our baby’s wiring, it becomes apparent to me……Mark has hooked up the battery charger to the motor, not to the battery! You can hear me shaking my head and rolling my eyes here, can’t you? I correct the mis-wiring, the charger light shows “happy”, and our baby is back with us. Tragedy resolved. Note to self – when it comes to wiring, Mark is not the sharpest tool in our shed!

A tasty breakfast is enjoyed at one of our favorite local establishments, the Key Largo Conch House, and I’m starting to feel like a ‘kept’ man – Mark buys my breakfast for me! Shaking off those strange feelings, we start down U.S. 1 to Key West together. Wait….is that ominous or what? For the record Steve, Mark is my ‘dive’ partner, not like Bill Z’s partner, OK? Enough said…..the day is picture perfect, not a breeze in the air, the sky is blue, the sea is azure, how absolutely beautiful it is for our ride to Key West. Mark drives, Dave blogs, emails & texts…not a bad combo. Ten miles into our trip, the truck is silent except for the gentle rhythm of tapping figures on my keyboard, when “POW!!” the AC power inverter plugged into the dashboard explodes. The cabin is rapidly filling with smoke and we are ready for the oxygen masks to drop down. I am glad I am sitting in an emergency row and I’m ready to pop open the door and slide out like a disgruntled Jet Blue flight attendant. I manage to fight through the confusion and the screaming passengers – OK, knock it off Mark – and get the device unplugged. Whew! Emergency over…for now!

After that, the rest of the trip is almost anti-climatic, just beautiful views and no traffic at all. We arrive at the marina at 2:00 and as we are turning into the driveway, I spot something hidden down in the grass. Immediately, I am thinking, Bev so loves when I pick things up for her on trips, and so what have I found here? A nice spanking new shopping cart for her! She will love it for sure, and I can cross that bit of sensitivity off my ‘to-do’ list for the weekend – Bev has a gift! And, talk about an instantaneous return on investment – we put our new cart right to use humping our gear down the dock and onto the Lucky Dog, our vessel for this afternoon. Finally loaded, checked and ready to go, we head out at 2:30 p.m. for our first morning dive. Harbor traffic is light, and the views are pretty as we cruise along.

Making 30 knots across a dead calm sea, we arrive onto our first dive site in less than a half hour. The depth finder picks up the huge profile of the Wilkes Barre, rising nearly 100 ft up off the bottom at 240 ft. We drop the grapple, along with 300 ft of line and a 24″ dia. marker ball overt the side. Down, down it goes into the blue as we hopefully catch the wreck. But no, the current isn’t going to cooperate at all. It’s pushing us at over 2 knots already on the surface, and the grapple hook blows clear off the wreck, sailing across the uncharted bottom. Suddenly we see the marker ball drop under, and we know the hook has snagged something, and the strong current is now stretching the line out downstream. We motor over and pick up the ball and try to get the hook to come free. Nope, so it is snagged, so Capt Chris runs the engines forward, away from the direction of the snag, and the hook comes free, at least momentarily. So he begin moving forward, trying to keep the hook sailing above the bottom. All is going well until there’s a loud snap, the boat shudders, and the marker ball floats free to the surface, leaving our 300 ft of line and the grapple down with the fishes.

Well that sort puts the kibosh on the Wilkes dive, and with this current it would be dangerous to attempt to hot drop and find the wreck,in spite of its massive size. So on to Plan B, the Curb, at 180 ft. We head over, locate the wreck, and drop a sand anchor alongside, so Mark and I will scooter over to the wreck once we make it to the bottom. We drop in at 5:30 p.m. for our first morning dive…yeah, yeah…..and need to use our scooters on full power just to make it forward to the anchor line. Wow there is a bit of current here, and other than the anchor line there is no reference at all in the water. Down we go, nothing, nothing, nothing, here is the sand approaching…hmmm..no wreck yet. So I turn and wait for Mark..waiting, waiting….geeesh! Mark is having some difficulty managing his scooter, so not sailing as smoothly for him as hoped. He gets there eventually, and I signal that I am going to run a reel out to see if i can locate the wreck. Mark follows, and sure enough, I find the wreck about 100 ft away, just far enough in the slightly murky and dark water that it would be easy to miss. We tie off, making sure we have our ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ back to the anchor and our boat, and begin to explore the wreck. As we head towards the stern, we are greeted with a huge nurse shark, easily 10 ft in length, returning to the wreck after a busy day doing whatever sharks do all day. I spot a lionfish, but recognizing I am diving at 180 ft on trimix with two stage bottles and a scooter, I wisely decide it would not be cool to get nailed (again) so I pass on attempting to capture him. We turn and ascend slightly towards the deck level at 165 ft, and are immediately surrounded by 3 huge goliath groupers, and I mean huge..we’re talking 8 plus feet in length for the two larger ones, and junior is probably 6 feet long. They are interested enough in us, and clearly not intimidated, so they swim around us and keep circling, checking us out. They are completely surrounded by baitfish, so they are just like a huge cloud of biomass moving with grace through the water. It is truly surreal, and of course a little narcosis goes a long way towards helping achieve that sensation.

We find a nice hole in the side of the wreck and Mark feels the need for penetration, so he starts to poke around inside. I follow him in, get alongside, crank up the scooter, and motion him to follow me if he dares! So, here’s where the story gets complicated, and we’ll give it to you as seen by Mark, as well as Dave.

Mark’s version:
Looking at my gauge, and seeing 900 psi of back gas remaining, I am thinking maybe we should turn the dive here. Let me recall, we had 3,500 to start, Rule of Thirds, turn the dive at 2,300, one-third remaining…yep, that’s it! So ok, you say, I’m at 900 psi so I have kinda missed that 2,300 psi number, and a lot of other ones that followed! But I’m thinking, Dave is leading us in the general direction of home, of course penetration into a new wreck aside, it still was kinda towards home So, I’m in! It’s not a huge wreck, how far can this possibly go? In fact, I can actually see a little light streaming in ahead of Dave from above. So we’re in the engine room, and I realize that hole in the ceiling is waaaaay too small swim through. So I signal to Dave that it’s time (OK, way past time) to turn the dive, and I am outta here! I interpreted Dave’s look as acknowledging my signal, and turned and left the room through a very silted out door, into a even more silted out room after that. Remembering the portholes I spotted on my right as I entered this space, I instinctively moved to the left on exiting and sure enough found the portholes and the opening. Got out, turned around and looked for my buddy behind me, but alas, I was alone. Now I’m at 500 psi, at 180 feet, wonderingi what would be the most appropriate action at this time. I start back in to look for Dave, realize this is insane, remember Dave’s words “Self Rescue is Number One”, and act upon them – I hope he is proud of me! So I re-exit the ship, get up on the deck and start towards the line and see Dave squeezing out the hole, with a little less equipment than we went in with. Everyone is accounted for, it’s time to head towards the reel tie off and find the anchor.

Dave’s version:
New guy that Mark is, he bites, and follows along – silly man! We make it in through multiple rooms and passageways, finally ending in the engine room, which has only one door in, and a very small hatch overhead that opens to the deck. I am in the room, and notice Mark is signaling frantically, so I turn, with a “what do you need now” look, and he signals that is time to turn the dive, in fact it is way past time to turn the dive. He has been so enthralled with the dive (and perhaps the narcosis) the he somehow failed to pay proper attention to his gas usage and it is high time to skedaddle on out of here. So he turns, perhaps a bit too quickly, and quicker than I just typed that he managed to create such a shit storm of silt that I could not even see the doorway out of the room. Nice, I am thinking, wondering about my buddy selection. OK, it’s supposed to be his learning experience, but how the tables have turned. Like Helen Keller on scuba, I find the doorway he has disappeared into, and as I poke through, the viz becomes even less, if that is possible. No sweat, there is a small hatchway to salvation, so while we all have one day when it will be our time to go, and it is not my day today. So I move to the hatch, and check the dimensions…..OK, time for a little Jenny Craig moment here, need to slim down a bit. Let me unhook my scooter, yep, that fits, pass it through the hole, Now my first stage bottle, now my second. Note to self – they are filled with 50% and 100% oxygen mixes, and putting them back on in the improper order would no doubt have catastrophic results. Almost can fit out now, check my gas supply now, still looking good, so I slip off my backplate, pass my double 100’s out the hatch, keeping a firm grip on my 7 ft hose, and now I think I can fit out the hole! Hands over my head, everything on my svelte form sucked in tight, I am able to squeeze on through the hatch and make it out to the deck – whew! I collect my gear, put my backplate back on and resume normal breathing, and drag the rest of it over to where I figure Mark will be coming out, yep there is a huge cloud of bubbles, looks like an over-breather there for sure! Yep, it is, and he’s in a bit of a hurry, but I ask him to verify that my stages are back on properly, and he does, quickly, as he passes by me in a bit of a hurry. Yep – I like to teach that ‘self rescue is number one’ and here is a perfect example. So I signal him it is time to go and save himself, and I lead him back over the side of the wreck and find the reel line tied off, which Mark had very nicely marked with a nice strobe on our way in.

Mark’s version of the last of the dive and the ascent:
So I get to the reel tie-off on the side of the wreck, check my gauges, 250 psi, this will work, start to untie the reel, then realize it is fouled with the fishing line, realize that my regulator is starting to breathe a tad hard, check my back gas again I am at 130 psi, take one last look at Dave and signal “that’s YOUR reel, and I am outta here!” So I boogey on over to the anchor, and being my ascent, monitoring my gasses all the way.

Dave’s version:
I laid the line, so protocol says that Mark should be responsible to untie the line and feed it to me as I reel it up. He starts, sees that the line is fouled with some monofilament, realizes his not-so-good gas situation, turns to me, signals that this is my problem, as his is bigger, and leaves me. So I untangle the line, make sure nothing else is left behind, and work my way back to the anchor, picking up the strobes and lift bags we have there, and start my ascent. Mark is gone, and I can only hope he is above me somewhere, but my first decompression obligation stop is at 90 feet so I can’t go up to find out. I being my ascent, with a 2 hour deco obligation showing, and figure we’ll talk about it on the surface. With required stops every ten feet it will be a while, but eventually I reconnect with my buddy at 20 feet, and now I know he is safe and sound, and hopefully a lot wiser with regards to his gas planning!

We finally make it back to the surface, and though the use of the oxygen-rich deco gas mixes, our total run time is only 85 minutes. Once on board Mark suggests that perhaps it is time to hydrate, so I take the hint, reach for the blue mountains, and we call off the rest of the dives for the day. Wise move, we’ll hit it again tomorrow!

We stop at the No Name Pub on our way home, only to find that the kitchen just closed. Holy smokes, help us out here! OK, the barmaid makes us up a couple of salads. Mark finds the dollar bill wallpaper interesting to say the least. We enjoy our light snacks and head on back to Key Largo for the night.

Saturday morning the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. – time to get ready to head north to Fort Lauderdale and the Formula H2O Wreck Racing League event. We arrive at the host operator, South Florida Diving Headquarters, at a timely 7:30 for our 8:00 a.m. departure – perfect! Truck is unloaded, gear is set up, waivers signed, and we’re off to sea. More fantastic conditions great us today as we are joined by an ever-expanding cast of who’s who in the scuba industry, including videographer David Ulloa and his lovely companion Dee McHenry, owners of Valeo Films and Undersea Expeditionary Video Services, ABC Sports director Dave Sirak, ‘Father of the Vandenberg’ Joe Weatherby, Sarah Monahan, who is currently producing her own scuba-based adventure series, ‘Going Down’ , Mike Stone from Key West, cave diving expert Mike Ange, and a few others. We’re also joined by Nathan Cruz, a wounded warrior diver who served on a Chinook aircrew in Iraq before being wounded, resulting in a number of injuries. He worked with IAHD-Americas pro Kurt Clifton from Chicago and was able to obtain his diving certification last year – way to go Nathan!

So we’re heading out, and as we pass through the harbor entrance, we enter the zone known as “small world”. There happens to be a group of scooter-racing free divers on board, lean, mean & fit, looking sharp in their skin-tight free diver suits. One of them, an attractive young lady, walks up to me and asks “Are you Dave Valaika?”. Well, it’s tough to dodge that question, and my mental Rolodex is spinning wildly trying to place her. She states the obvious, saying “You don’t remember me, do you?” The blank look in my eyes must be obvious, as she thrusts her hand out to shake mine, announcing “I’m Erin Magee!”. Well it turns out I was instrumental in some early career development for Ms Magee, recommending her to my friends at Florida Keys Dive Center, and then working with her there in booking our group trips. She has blossomed nicely since then, moving right through scuba training to instructing and then on to apnea (breath hold) diving, and currently is the U.S. National record holder in constant balance free diving, with a certified depth of 233 ft. Here’s a little video of her achievement. What a small freakin’ world we do live in!!

We get to our race location, the wreck of the Tracy, an artificial reef sinking right off Pompano Beach, sitting upright in 70 ft of water. The organizers give us a thorough briefing, and the divers splash, heading down with scooters and cameras of all sorts, to the wreck. We’ve got a start / finish set up, some chicane turns, and some great conditions to get some ‘canned’ shots to blend in with the actual race shots tomorrow. Mark seems to be dogging it with his scooter, I am lapping him on the wreck, wondering what he is doing….saving battery power?? Meanwhile, I work with Nathan Cruz, Elizabeth Weatherby, and her daughter Natalie, getting all three of them on scooters (and going faster than Mark!).

So we spend 45 minutes on the wreck and it’s time to head up. The girls signal they are going up, and I start to follow them up the line..there are little Polish voices in my head, telling me something is wrong….finally, I recognize the accent, it’s the Zyskowski brothers, trying to save me from an embarrassing moment – we are on the WRONG LINE!!!! I signal the girls, we MUST go back down, they look confused, I give them the “trust me” signal, and we head on back down to the wreck. Once there, I lead them to the right line, and for today, the mooring ball names will remain unchanged on the Tracy wreck – there will be NO ‘V’ ball.

So we make it back to the boat we started from, and I query Mark about his less than powerful performance with the scooter. Before I say more, there’s an old joke, where a slightly dim-witted fellow buys a chainsaw cause he heard it would help him cut trees down faster. A week later, he brings it back to the dealer, and tells them it is no faster than his old saw and ax. The dealer takes it back to the service area, and sharpens the chain, assuring the customer this will be much better. A week later, he is back, again complaining about the performance of his new chain saw, and again, they re-sharpen the chain and send him on his way. Finally, one week later, he is back, adamant about getting a refund because this chainsaw is no faster than his ax and handsaw, and the dealer says to wait here, we’re going to check it out right now! He calls the service tech up to the counter, and the manager explains that the chainsaw isn’t cutting any faster than the man’s ax and handsaw, and asks the service tech to check everything while the customer waits in the store. The tech takes it back to the service area, pulls the cord and fires up the chainsaw to test it, and suddenly the customer is right up at the counter, asking the manager ‘what’s that sound?”. Well, today’s post-dive debrief with Mark was a parallel to that story, cause when I asked him why he didn’t use high speed, he looked at me and said “there’s more than one speed?”. Again, shaking my head here, and I ask our readers to look back above, where I used the sharp tools and the shed analogy!

So we motor over to our second site, and our training goal for this dive is to get our racer familiar with ALL THREE speeds of his scooter! So we splash, and enjoy a great dive on the Copenhagen, a coal carrier from Philadelphia that sunk here in 1900. Mark shines, traveling in first, second AND third gear on this dive. There may be hope for us tomorrow yet! The dive is nice, nestled against the reef in 12 to 30 ft of water, lots of life, lots of wreckage. Good way to wrap up the day.

We head back in, offload, and travel down the road to the hotel, which is located right on the beach here. We gather around the pool for a good debrief of the days events, and finalize the plans for tomorrows actual race. There are 38 divers registered for the event so it should be a crowded field indeed. Plenty of ‘paint trading’ to look forward to! The rules have been tightened up, so we need to “enter the water” with at least 80 cubic feet of air, and emerge with a MINIMUM of 500 psi on our gauge. OK, our modified scooter system only holds one 40 CF bottle, so we strategize…we’ll sling a second 40 CF bottle, and drop it right at the starting line! Not only with that streamline us, but it will also help ensure that at least one of our tanks has 500 psi left in it – mission accomplished on both counts, and once again, in true IVS style, the ‘RULES’ are re-recognized as merely guidelines!!

And we have a bonus, the folks from the Discovery Channel are here filming our meeting and our pool demo’s for a program in the works. Very cool, adds a nice touch of Hollywood to our day. After all the festivities begin to wane, so does the crowd, and we call it an early night and retire to get ready for the big event!

Sunday now, and it’s Showtime! Mark has diligently assembled our dual-DPV sled, with our two Hollis machines bolted together along with his minimal gas supply. We keep the covers on it as we load the boat at 7:00 a.m., adding a bit of suspense to an already energized morning. Dean Vitale is here with his Pegasus thrusters, and he has raised the bar by strapping three of the machines to his tank! The free divers are here too, and they are planning to run the race as a relay, with new ‘drivers’ swimming down to take over the machines in tandem as they circle the wreck – pretty cool. And Mark, sensitive guy that he is, has brought out some chalk to write his girlfriends name on the side of his scooter, so he gets on his knees and writes, in big white letters, “DED”. “Ded”, I ask “isn’t your girlfriend named Deborah?” “Oh geeez”, Mark responds, as he begins to erase that last letter and change it to a ‘B’. Talk about confirming the ‘sharp tool – large shed’ observation above!!

As might be expected, there is plenty of ‘trash talking’ on board the racer boat, with “current champion” Dean Vitale milking his position for all its worth for the last few minutes of his reign (hopefully!). We’ll see how his three Thrusters work to save his title now! Meanwhile, the rules committee is looking closely our scooter and talking about a rule that would limit the amount of non-factory hardware allowed on a scooter. Hmmmmm. Looking at the Pegasus / Indian Valley Scuba competitive machines, Elizabeth Weatherby coins the phrase “Snap-On vs Strap-On”…..nice!

So we arrive on site, ready to go, but we have the Discovery Channel here with us, and in true Hollywood fashion, we have to wait. OK, and wait….and wait! The course is being re-set as the current has changed over night, and some new features have been added. And of course they want to get some good video footage before everyone gets in and trashes the visibility. So we wait…until finally it’s 10:00 and time to roll! So everyone suits up, point-of-view cams are turned on, scooters are lowered into the water, and the racers, photographers, officials and spectators all enter the water. Down to the wreck we head, and everyone takes their position. Going back to those rules/guidelines, one of the disqualifying factors would be if a racer surfaces with less than 500 psi remaining in their tank, so a few have taken to unscrupulous means to beat this. One fellow has his aluminum 80 pumped up to 4,400 psi! In in order for Team IVS to best avoid this, I have “air-hog” Mark enter the water last, and breath off my long hose until he is at the start line, where he switches over to his on-board gas supply. I take my position on the wreck, and the race timer begins the countdown, two minutes, one minute, Go! Go! Go! they are off in a blast of bubbles and silt.

Around and around they go, jostling for position through the curves, blasting down the straight-aways, nailing each other with propwash to slow the competition down, trading paint in the turns – whatever it takes! The recreational scooters are running three laps while the expedition and modified classes are running five. It is major traffic around the wreck as the pack stretches out, and it is obvious from the first lap that David Ollua is blowing everyone away with his Submerge scooter and side mounted 40’s. He is absolutely screaming! Mark is not looking too shabby later as he struggles a bit with his trip but when he gets it pointed right our machine really hums. And the Wreck Racing League has its first pile-up, as someone (name withheld to protect the innocent) passes Marissa and his octo hits one of her props, so she promptly spins and crashes right into the side of the wreck! No emergency personnel or rescue divers needed, she brushes it off, and resumes the race, eventually ending up with a second place finish. When all is said and done, there are a couple of very close finishes that will require video review to confirm.

Finally, it’s all over, and we head back up, exhausted but smiling, another great Wreck Racing League event under on belt! One quick stop for a second relaxing dive on another wreck and we motor back to the marina. A little gussie-up period and we meet for the awards ceremony, where all have gathered for one last celebration and the presentation of awards. Turns out Team IVS has moved up in the standings in a larger field to take 3rd place! Way to go team!

To celebrate, we decide to stop at a local Outback Steakhouse, which happens to be my personal favorite and counters Mark’s Dairy Queen choice earlier. We enjoy a nice dinner, and when the check comes, Keelan our server is asked by Mark to separate the bill, and to help facilitate this, Mark has noted next to each item on the bill #1 or #2, with one being him and two being me. Keelan looks at him a bit askew, says “this is kinda different”, looks at me shaking my head, and figures there’s no support here, they obviously must do things a bit differently in Arizona! We get it sorted out, settle up, and head back south to Key Largo for our last day of diving on a wreck to be determined early tomorrow a.m.

One last night at casa Hartman and we awoke to another beautiful Keys morning. First order of the day is sneaking outside and through the woods to photograph a huge crocodile that is sleeping on the dock. Like Steve Irwin, I slowly creep up on the beast, snapping away with my camera, until my hand is on his tail, and, like the lionfish, I am wondering how fast he might be able to spin around and how likely it might be that as 600 pounds of thrashing crocodile changes position on this floating dock that I might find myself in the water with him…..wisely, I opt to remove my hand and leave the alligator wrestling for another day. And as I make that fateful decision, my phone rings loudly in my pocket, and the croc lifts his head to see what the ruckus is! Whoooops…..backing on up now, the dock is yours, Sir! It’s Antoinette on the phone, and for those of you who frequent the Paradise Pub with us, you’ll recognize her as our favorite beer-maid there. She has been asking me for some time to take her diving, and finally I broke down (yes, sensitive moment) and said I’d take her this weekend while we were there. So she calls and says she is ready, has her mask & fins and is waiting for us to pick her up for the day. So I gather Mark, we pile into the truck, head over to Ms A’s, and finally arrive at Amoray Dive Resort. Now I had taken the time yesterday to call Ms Amy Slate herself and find out what the boat plans were for this morning, and she told me it was a two tank reef dive. Well Mark is still hyped up over getting to dive some big wrecks, and we still have two sets of double 100’s with trimix in them, so I toss out an idea to Amoray – “hey, what do you say about doing a 3 location trip, starting at the Spiegel Grove and then on to a couple of reefs?”. Keep in mind it’s not for me but for Mark – again it’s that sensitive side, yes I’ll do another dive for my buddy. Amazingly, the folks at Amoray agree, and we load up the boat for our three dive excursion! Woo hoo!

We arrive at the Spiegel and from the site of the mooring balls being somewhat submerged I am sensing we have a bit of current to deal with. But, we’re here to dive, so dive we must! We begin to gear up, and as Mark removes his shorts to get into his wetsuit, Antoinette looks over, and turns to me and asks the obvious…..”Is that really a Speedo he’s wearing?” “Yep, that’s my buddy”, I reply. Mr. Sexy and I finish gearing up and we splash in. The current on the surface is bordering on horrendous, so I struggle up the line, hand over hand, until I reach the mooring ball, and realize I am at about 10 ft of depth now, the ball is pulled so far under! The conditions remain consistent all the way down to the wreck, but once there, we are able to hide behind the structure, drop down to deck level, and have a really enjoyable dive penetrating the wreck and touring all over the innards. We surface 50 minutes later, and begin the short journey over the Benwood.

I have given Antoinette the reader’s digest version of the DSD briefing on the way out, so now I quiz her a bit on key points, she assembles her own gear under my watchful eyes, and performs a great first-time pre-dive safety check. I am sensing a ‘natural’ here, and as we giant stride into the water I am thankful the half mile difference from the Spiegel made all the difference in the current – there is none here! So we slip under the clear blue water, and Ms A enjoys a great first dive experience. She ends up seeing stingrays, cleaner shrimp, eels, scorpionfish, lobsters, and the rest of the usual cast of characters. What a fantastic way to get introduced to the sport of scuba diving.

Dive #2 for Antoinette an #3 for the morning is at Christmas Tree Cave, where again the conditions are superb, and our newest diver wanna-be excels again. We turn a corner and she ends up face to face with a nice size Goliath Grouper, and that ices the cake. Back on board, she confesses – “I want to get certified!” Look for her sporting a shiny new IVS cert card in the near future!

Back in town, Mark & I clean up, pack the truck, and head north. Two a.m. and we drop him off in St. Mary, GA, where he is getting his Evo Rebreather certification from Richie Kohler, and I journey the final 1,000 miles to home. Gosh, I miss him already!

But, like crack cocaine, you can’t get enough of the IVS Kool Aid, and Mark calls me as I am driving on Tuesday and tells me to save him a spot as our scooter driver in the next Wreck Racing League event, scheduled for Oct 2 in Key Largo. And the scooters are already back in the machine shop, being modified just a bit more for our next race. Sweet!