Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re off to see the Queen!

It seems like forever since my eldest daughter Kristen and I took a road trip, and our experience celebrating her high school graduation in Japan will always shine brightly in my memory.  But before we get too caught up waxing on the past, it’s high time for us to make some fresh, new international travel memories!

For the past two years now, K has been enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, and after taking the fall semester off to intern with locally-based Anthropologie clothing company, it’s time for her to return to the books this spring as she enjoys a semester abroad.  She’ll be continuing her pursuit of a degree in Film Studies (yes, hear me groan on that one!) with minors in English and Women’s Studies (yes, that was two more groans you heard) at King’s College in London, UK.  For the record, I am still holding out hope that there is still time to turn the focus back and salvage that degree in International Business that her mom and I sent her off to St. Louis to achieve two years ago!

OK, now that I have cleared the air with my personal feelings on career-building decision making, let’s move on to the adventure at hand.  Her classes will be starting early in the first week of January, so my little darling has a bit of a mission in front of her to get prepared, and to add to her stress, everything is happening over the holidays.  The good news is that dad is always up for a road trip, and what better way to ensure Kristen gets off to a great start in this continuing education process (wait….film studies???) than to be there and help her navigate through any logistical challenges that may arise.  It’s her first time in Europe since she was 2 years old, so lots of research was necessary to get things squared away.  We’ll be flying on the 31st of December, and celebrating New Years somewhere over the Atlantic.  Of course the downside of this timing is that poor Michele will be quietly ringing in the New Year with me in spirit alone, but my confidence is high that I’ll make it up to her with a special celebration when I return on Wednesday.

So our adventure starts this morning, and here is where it is obvious that Kristen has inherited a few of her mother’s genes, at least in the travel department.  Our flight from Philadelphia is at 1:20 in the afternoon, so you know I am doing the math, baggage check-in cutoff, time for the parking shuttle, 31 miles down the interstate, yep, we can do this by leaving at 11:15 and really get a good adrenalin buzz going to start the trip and end the year!   But noooooo, that’s not happening today, as K mandates a 9:00 a.m. departure from Harleysville to “not be rushed” at the airport.  “Not be rushed?” I ask incredulously, “where’s the fun in that?”  But she is not deterred, so I begrudgingly agree, and a 9:00 departure it is.

Well of course you know there would be some interpretation in that schedule, so she’s already called me twice and is standing there tapping her foot when I pick her up at 9’ish.  We load her four bags in the van, and start down the road, but wait; I need to make a stop at the bank.  OK, that done, wait, I need to now stop at a second bank.  OK, banking completed, I am out of places to stop, so finally, at 9:58, we are actually heading towards Philadelphia International.  We get to the SmartPark lot and the parking lot Gods are smiling at us, with the very first parking spot open and awaiting us, ensuring maximum exposure for the van advertising while I am gone.  Hmmm…interesting sign, could this trip be blessed in some way?  No, it gets better, as Floyd, one of the regular drivers there, waves and says “Hold on Mr. Valaika, I’m almost done washing the van for you”.  So he pulls up in a squeaky-clean shuttle van, and transports Ms. Kristen and I in our own private shuttle to the airport.

And as we pull up to the Delta terminal, who is there but my good friend and long time Skycap Harold, along with his sidekick Benny, and they come running over to the van and get our bags moving towards check-in.  He asks where the 200 pounds of scuba gear is hiding, and I share our travel plans with him.  What a great guy and a good friend to have in the ‘business’ Harold is.  But wait, for some reason, my over-packing daughter has exceeded the baggage limit for this expedition, and Harold says “geez, I’m not sure here, but according to the computer, it looks like you are going to have to pay an excess baggage fee”.  Well fate continues to shine on us this morning, as Melinda, another friend and one of Delta’s finest gate agents, walks up to wish me a Happy New Year, and Harold tells her of the predicament and she smiles, and says “I’ll take care of this”.  Minutes later, all fees are waived, and now I am really feeling that either this is truly a gifted trip, or, like the proverbial “calm before the storm”, there is some major bombshell about to explode!  Clearly, with the early departure from home, no scuba gear in tow, and an adrenalin level of zero, this is not a normal trip for the Dave-ster in any case!  And we are still over two hours early for our flight!

With the bags checked, we head to security, and I know this is where it will get testy.  Ever since Kristen attempted to sneak her knitting needles and scissors through Salt Lake City security a few years ago, I have been sensitive to her to fully understanding the mentality (and ineptitude) of the Blue-Shirted Army that is charged with keeping America’s skies safe.  Well as a predictable as a lottery drawing with only one ticket in the bowl, guess who gets grabbed for the ‘random second level security screening’?  If your answer was a Valaika, then you’re a winner!  But, get this….it is not me, but my eldest princess who clearly has the look of an international terrorist about her.  So they pull her aside, give her a cursory review, never bothering to ask if she had bags, since I had swept them all off the belt, and we are allowed to pass.  America is safer for sure, and I’m more comfortable flying next to her!

What are we going to do with all this extra time?  Well the Delta Sky Club is calling our names, and we head in, stopping to wish long-time staffer Angela, who keeps teasing me with wanting to learn to dive, a Happy New Year.  She asks where I am heading, and I introduce Kristen to her and share our travel plans, and then amazingly, the entire staff at the front desk blows me away with their familiarity with Kings College, the school K is heading to, and they start talking about the award-winning choir, the school grounds, the famous chapel, and more facts and details than I could ever have expected.  Utterly amazing, and just further proof of what a small world we all live in.  Finally, we’re inside, and we settle down in a quiet area, and K, who celebrated her 21st birthday in September, wants to make herself a drink.  Well she walks up to the self-service bar, and I watch as she is a bit dumbfounded, looking at the automatic drink dispensers and the impressive line up of inverted bottles of libations.  So, like a good dad, I give her the quick skinny on bartending and the proper use of the equipment and technology, and before you know it, she is mixing up her gin & tonics like a pro!  And the best part?  This bar is FREE!

Several rounds later, it’s finally time to board, and we head down to the gate.  We’re whisked to the front of the line, saunter down the jetway, and board our plane and jet off to JFK in New York for our European connecting flight.  A short and uneventful flight later, we touch down in the Big Apple and entertain ourselves in the airport for a few hours before we board for Heathrow.  Last American dinner for K for the next eight months, and she savors her french fries, knowing that the “chips” they try to pass off as fries in England won’t compare to the real McCoy!  A little more quiet time allows us to go over our marathon touring plans, and we’ve got a checklist of the places we plan to hit over the next two and a half days:  Stonehenge, Salisbury, Brighton on the beach, Windsor Castle, Oxford, the white cliffs of Dover, and finally the Imperial War Museum in London (thank you Kristen!).  There’ll be no resting on this trip, and we are pretty pumped up about our adventure.  Our notes are complete, maps are laid out, and we enjoy one last round of libations as we await our boarding call in the Sky Club.

Finally, it’s time…. and once again it’s great to be in front of the line!  We walk on board and are shown our upgraded seats – the new upgraded Economy Comfort seating with 50% more recline and plenty of extra legroom, along with some other benefits in flight – OK so it’s not going to be too bad flying with the common folks tonight!  Woo hoo!

Dinner is served up, and we enjoy some more quality bonding time as I realize how sad it is that she is heading away for eight months – I’m gonna miss my little girl!  We wish each other a happy New Year as we pass through some time zone over the Atlantic, and then grab a little naptime before our arrival at 6:30 in the morning.

Once on the ground, we taxi up without delay, disembark, and pass through immigration with nary a hitch.  It should be noted, that when Kristen identified her reason for the visit to study, the border control officer had to review her paperwork from school and fill out a few forms.  He got to chatting with K, asking her about school and career, and then got to the line on his form where her area of study needed to be entered.   So she told him that she was majoring in Film Study (yes, I groan again) and the guy rolls his eyes says “Really?  Film study?”  I break out laughing, and he asks if that is something you do with a video camera and YouTube, not sure you need a college for that.  He is great, and Kristen gets into it too, finally consenting that the four classes she will be taking during this study abroad are all pretty lame.  At least she’s honest about this!  Of course she had to then tell him about her two minors, English and Women’s Issues, and it just kept getting better.  Funny how “human” a border control agent can be in another country – you’d never get that from the Blue Shirts in America.  Sad, but true.   He even answered a few questions I had about some folks they had in a special corral there – you’d never get that sort of honest disclosure from the TSA.  We finish our business here, grab our bags, pass through Customs, and exchange a small pile of Ben Franklins for the local currency of choice, Pounds Sterling.  The feeling that this trip is blessed just continues to surround us as we head out to grab the shuttle bus to Advantage Car Rental. They share the lot with Hertz so onto the Hertz bus we go, and the driver takes right off with us, another private limo –like experience for my little girl and I.  And the driver cannot be helpful enough, as he shares a lot of local tips and suggestions with us on the way to the lot.  As we pull up to the Advantage gate, he says, “Wait just a moment” and jumps off to run up and see if the office is open yet – it is not!  He runs back to inform us, then tells us to wait another moment, and sure enough, here comes the Advantage guy to open up his office.  The amazing part is that the shuttle driver is a Hertz employee and is just going out of his way to be helpful to two non-customers!  I’m starting to love these people!

Now I use the term “office” kinda loosely to describe the Advantage Car Rental facility.  Keep in mind that Advantage is sort of a second (or maybe third) tier rental car company, so the “office” is in fact a panel truck, with a generator, sliding side door and steps to get in, and a little counter and a sofa inside.  The employee fires up the generator, and suddenly we have lights…then the generator stops and we don’t.  He repeats this a dozen more times while we are trying to get our rental squared away.  First problem – they do not have a record of our rental although it is confirmed through Orbitz and in spite of the fact that I have all my paperwork.  Second problem is – they are out of cars!  Suddenly the “gifted” part of this trip appears to be unraveling a little.

The agent is essentially worthless, offering nonsensical suggestions about what we should do to resolve this – and I realize that we are in a bit of a pickle here.  I am standing here with a confirmed reservation in my hand for a nice sized car and a great rate, but that means nothing here, as he has neither the reservation nor a car for me anyhow.  And worse, we don’t have transportation and we are standing on the corner of the Hertz lot, and Hertz is historically the most expensive car rental company out there when I am searching for quotes.  But we’re tired and our options are limited, so we load our bags on a cart and with the slumped shoulders of a man defeated, I walk over to the Hertz office to see what we can do.

Jirrana, a very friendly agent, greets us and I try to explain the situation to her.  “Of course I can help you out”, she says, “Just give me your license and credit card to get started”.  “Hey before we get into that, how about we look at the quote I have here”, I say, “and see what we can to match or beat this number”.  “Should not be a problem”, she assures me, as she punches away on her keyboard.

Now I know most of us have seen more than our fair share of Hertz commercials, where the punch line for the guy who rented from “the other company” is always ….”Not exactly”.  Well guess what – Jirrana’s hard work and effort produced a rental contract for me that was twice the price of what I had from Orbitz, and for a car two sizes smaller.  I’d call that … “Not exactly.”  She said that is the best she could do, and in her sole opinion, it was a very good price.  I chuckle, and ask if she has Wi-Fi here in the office, so I can go on line and search for a quote.  No, she does not.  OK, can I use a computer here, since the office is completely empty on New Years morning?  No, I cannot.  Nice strategy, but I am not done.  I am really feeling that fate is no longer smiling on this trip.

Of course, my cell phone won’t connect to the Internet here, but I do have five bars, so I call back the states and wake Michele up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and get her to go on line to Orbitz and get me a new quote for a car while I am here. She does and we find one available from SIXT Car Rental for actually less than what I had originally gotten from Orbitz, so I tell her to go ahead and book it.  That done, I walk back up to Jirrana and ask if they would not mind giving me a ride down the block to SIXT, and of course, the answer is no, they cannot do that, they need to take me back to the airport terminal and then I can take the SIXT bus to their lot.  I say “Fine, thank you for everything”, and I am putting my paperwork away and getting ready to walk out to the shuttle when Iwana, another Hertz staffer, walks out from the back and introduces herself as the manager and asks if she can do anything.  I give her the story, and tell her what I am about to do, and she says, “Wait, I think we can make this happen”.  Now bear in mind that I have a $114 quote from SIXT in hand, and the Hertz on-line quote for the same car was $482.  Major, major difference, but heck, I’m game if she is.  So I follow her to her desk, we get chatting, I ask about her unique name, turns out she is Polish, she asks about my surname, I tell her I am Lithuanian, she breaks into a broad smile and says, “So is my boyfriend!  His family is from Vilnius.”   Well lo and behold that is where my grandfather came from, so suddenly the business barriers are breaking down left and right, and when all is said and done, I have an upgraded car for the same $114 price that SIXT quoted.  Amazing to find a little piece of Tijuana right here in London, ready to barter prices on rental cars!  K & I thank our new Lithuanian connection, load up the car, and head to our hotel to check in.

We pull out of the lot, with the “remember – drive on the left side” mantra ringing through my head, and we pull into the hotel lot a short while later.  Too early to get a room, we leave our bags with the concierge, change shirts and undies, and head out to our first destination – Windsor Castle.  First though we need to grab something to eat, and there is a McDonalds right there across the street, so I pop an illegal U-turn and suddenly we’re there!  We pull in the drive thru and immediately recognize that the woman in the car in front of us is having way too difficult a time placing her order.   Finally she gets past the ordering screen and moves forward, so we pull up and order a diet coke for dad and porridge with jam for K – something unique to the UK McDonalds.  Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned woman is having difficulties at the payment window, and finally, she gets into an argument with the guy giving her the order.  The manager apologizes for our delay, and suggests that it seems she is still celebrating New Years with a good buzz still going strong.  Needless to say, I’m glad to see her turn in the opposite direction of where we are heading.  Some people, eh?

OK, time to head off to the castle!  But first, I need to comment on our car.  It’s a Volkswagen Polo, diesel, five speed manual transmission, with the steering wheel on the right side.  It’s a blast to drive, although with the very short throw on the shifter and the left hand shifting, I manage to stall it a few times by trying to start out in third gear.  Getting in and out is a bit of a challenge, as this model was designed around someone a bi more compact than my 6’2”, 270# frame.  But we manage, and we have wheels, so all is good.  Now the highway system is something else, with a distinct lack of road signs, and a somewhat confusing (to a Yank) pattern of overhead signs on their equivalent of our interstate system.  But the best part?  They have round-a-bouts, hundreds and hundreds of them, so this really adds to the thrill of the drive!  Now while this feature might intimidate a lesser soul, I was born and raised in New Jersey the state that invented the traffic circle, so I felt right at home as we zipped in and around each one.  Of course, Kristen screaming, “Dad, you don’t have the right of way” as I accelerated into the passing traffic didn’t help my concentration, but we managed to survive each one, unscathed.  Can’t say that for the other drivers, but it was good for the tourists!  And even better, we opted to have Kristen learn her UK geography by using real maps, you know, the things you fold up in the glove box, and she just did fantastic in her navigation, learning the lay of the land at the same time.  Every trip with Dad is a learning experience, whether she wants one or not!

Well 70 miles and a couple of missed turns later, we park the car in downtown Windsor and walk up to the castle gates.  To say the place is a bit overwhelming is hardly doing it justice – this is medieval construction project on major steroids!  We head in, get our tickets, and opt for the self guided tour, and spend the next four hours just walking around this place, getting more amazed at every corner we turn.  The neatest part is that this is a working castle, not a museum, so all the massive dining halls, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, and galleries are really used on a regular basis, and the Queen Mother spends nearly four months a year in residence here, including extended weekends nearly every month, and a month or more in March and April – very cool.  Of course everything is much bigger than real life, but the amount of artwork, collections and displays truly leaves you in awe.  There is a huge display of clothing donated to the royal family over the years, and Kristen recognized so many of the names and designers I was amazed.  Ditto on the artwork, as she knew more facts and trivia about the artists than some of the castle staff did.  I was pretty dang proud to be in her company as she truly immersed herself in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And the staff was tremendously helpful, answering all the ‘deeper than the average tourist’ sort of questions I usually come up with on a tour like this, such as who are these people that live here (retired soldiers, rank of Major & above, who were awarded the Blue Garter for service to the country), or why are these bathrooms so big (because they get 8,000 plus visitors a day in the summer), or what are these Buckingham Palace-type guards actually guarding here (nothing, they are really ceremonial as the security is handled by all the police with the submachine guns in clear view), or who the heck had all the time and money to build this unbelievable dollhouse in the Queen’s apartment (it was a gift from the nobles…proving that political favoritism was active even back in the early 20th century), and finally, what’s with all the cannons and arrow-shooting slits – was this fort ever really attacked? (Yes, twice, both times by local barons and their followers revolting over taxes and other royal inequities – go figure!).  So we walked away with much learned and a really deep appreciation of the professionalism and knowledge of the staff here, which was proving to be the case nearly every place we stopped on this adventure.

Our plans after that were to head to Oxford and tour that area, but with the rain starting to fall, the sun going down, and me fading from the long over night flight, that thought of driving another 80 miles round trip and heading back in the dark is probably not the greatest idea, so we opt to call it a day and head back to the hotel.  I am hoping I can find someplace local that will be showing the Eagles game tonight on TV!

Well let me be the first to report that US football is not held in as nearly a high regard as that other form of football, so needless to say, none of the local pubs were showing the Birds whooping up on the Redskins tonight, but still good to end the season with another win and with the Birds finishing ahead of the Cowboys in the division!  That was enough fun for today so it’s off to catch some beauty rest before another big day tomorrow.

The weather forecast had predicted rain all day today, but once again, the gods were smiling upon us and we awoke to a bright sunny blue sky and fifty degree weather – perfect for a day of touring more of this beautiful country!  In the spirit of the poet Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep today.

But first things first, it’s out of the hotel parking lot (remember…left side, left side, left side!) and another quick U-turn to head into the local Mickie D’s for another porridge / jam / diet coke order. Kristen’s all over figuring out the myriad of coins and paper bills here (think Monopoly money) and we quickly settle up, and as I’m given my change, I suddenly feel ‘Six pence, none the richer!’  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The first destination on today’s list is the the Royal Pavilion, located about 80 miles southeast of London in the sea side city of Brighton, ranked as one of the top 10 city beaches in the world by major travel guides.  The drive down is lovely, with changing landscapes all along our ways, such a beautiful country this is.  The old architecture, rustic barns dating back hundreds of years, hedgerows between the fields of crops, wooded areas; it just really takes your breath away to be living in a history book.   We pull into Brighton, and drive past some phenomenal cathedrals as we pass through town.  We head right to the coast road, and park along the beach.  Mind you now, this is parallel parking, on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and I manage to ace it, first time.  Kristen is impressed!  But wait…there’s more!  “Check out the cool license plate on the car in front of us,” I tell her.  “Wow”, she says as she figures it out, “These guys drove here from Lithuania!”  How cool is that?

This place is beautiful and you don’t know where to look first!  We walk across the street to the beach, and here we are in for our first surprise – the entire beach is made of large rounded gravel.  There is not a grain of sand in sight!  At first I thought, this is interesting, they put gravel at the top of the seawall, but no, right into the sea it went.  How weird is this?  Not the most comfortable beach to lay on, and man, jamming your umbrella into the rocks must truly suck big time!  Definitely a beach for shoes to be worn, but hey, it’s a beach, so we’re loving it!  We walk along the world’s first and oldest electric railway, the Volks Railway, the oldest continuously operating one of its kind in the world, going into service back in 1883.  There’s at the huge 150 ft tall Brighton Ferris Wheel, offering fantastic views of the town and the beach, and the world famous Brighton Pier juts out hundreds of yards over the English Channel.  Located across the street is the Sea Life Aquarium, the first in the world, built for the British royalty back in the late 1800’s.  A hundred or more small restaurants, pubs, and shops line the street along the beach, and many more are located in the town.  Truly a place to come and spend a few days exploring, but that’s not on our itinerary for this trip.  We snap some photos as we walk to our destination – the Royal Pavilion.

If you were to Google examples of royal excess, this place would come up at the very top of your list.  The Royal Pavilion, the spectacular seaside palace of the Prince Regent (George IV) transformed by John Nash and a team of architects, designers and interior decorators, between 1815 and 1822 into one of the most dazzling and exotic buildings in the British Isles.  The Pavilion houses furniture and works of art including original pieces lent by Her Majesty The Queen and a magnificent display of Regency silver-gilt. The Royal Pavilion Tearoom, with its fabulous balcony, overlooks the Pavilion gardens, which have also been returned to their original Regency splendor.  Originally constructed as a local monument, known as the Marine Room in the early 1800’s. One of the most unique features of the design was the decision to leave the original obelisk domed structures in place and constructed a cast iron frame around their base to envelope the existing buildings and expand upon them.  This was revolutionary and the first time cast iron was ever used in a building structure……ok, ok….the engineer in me gets carried away sometimes!  Anyhow, the entire building was constructed and finished to recreate the look and feel of Indian, China and Southeast Asia, with bamboo, silk, ornate wood carvings and metal castings – you truly feel you are in a different land when you’re inside.  Decorated from head to toe with hand made silk wallpaper, ornate carved columns and woodwork, dedicated rooms for every fancy, the first steam heated kitchen, just about everything you could imagine was in there, clearly with no budgetary limitations whatsoever.  When royalty from other lands would visit, they would typically prepare over 100 main courses alone, just to make sure the visitors had something they liked – they had sample menus saved from some of the events for us to view.  And remember, this was before Tupperware, so the waste just had to be absolutely phenomenal from these events.  Again, we’re talking no budgetary restraints here whatsoever.  Check out more on the website link above to learn about this fantastic place.

And of course some interesting military history to be found here also.  During the Great War (WWl) the British Army was significantly outnumbered, so they drew upon the resources of the vast British Empire and brought in troops from the colonies.  One of the biggest contributors was India, who sent tens of thousands of troops to fight alongside (and when possible, in front of) the British soldiers.  They served in the European theater from the onset of hostilities in 1914 through 1916, at which point they were transferred to Africa and the Middle East campaigns.  During this time though, the army needed to expand their hospital network, and the pavilion proved to be a perfect setting for the East Indian troops.  And just like today, no one could really get along – between the Sikh’s, Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Meat-Eating Muslim’s, and a few more sects, plus the ‘untouchables’ that did the dirty work, the hospital had to maintain nine different kitchens, different slaughterhouses (some animals killed by chopping off head, others had to have the spinal cord left intact, so many religious variations), independent water supplies (they could not even share a tap!) and separate laundries, cremation grounds and more.  It is no wonder they are still fighting amongst themselves today over there.  This was just crazy but neat to see that the religious extremists we see on the news today are hardly new items – these are some deep rooted beliefs and issues at work here.

Three hours (and a hundred questions to the staff) later, we strolled back to the car, and then embarked on a seaside drive along the coast, before turning inland to head towards Salisbury and Stonehenge.  We got a little fouled up in our navigation along the way, and with the sun heading towards the horizon, we decided a potty break at the McDonalds in Southampton would give us a chance to ask some locals for directions.  So we take care of business and ask the staff working the counter how to get to Salisbury, and you can immediately tell from the expressions that these guys were probably not candidates to appear on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.  They mumbled amongst themselves, and then finally the one who appeared to be the leader of the pack says, “That’s pretty far away.  We’re not sure how to get there.”  Mind you now, it turns out we are 21 miles from Salisbury, but this collective group of young folks in this village have not only never traveled that far from home, but have no concept of how to get there either.  Geeez!   We’re about to head out the door to figure this out ourselves when one fellow comes up and says “I can help you”. Although he cannot give us directions all the way to Salisbury, he can, however get us to a town that is nearly ten miles up the road, and he knows there will be signs for our destination to be found there.  We get in the car, and Kristen comments, “That was unbelievable.  I go to a school 1,000 miles from home, and here, you’d have to circumnavigate this country to get that many miles on your odometer.  Amazing that these people we asked have never left the village!”   I concur, but at least we are pointed in the right direction, these crazy Americans, and with true international explorer spirit, we’re going to make it to Salisbury and beyond!

Back on the road, we make it over the horizon to the new land beyond, and find ourselves rolling into the lovely village of Salisbury.  In addition to our sightseeing, we have a few assignments to complete during this condensed visit.  Kristen needs a local cell phone, and a hair dryer.  Argos, the UK version of Circuit City, has been recommended as the place to go, so we’ve kept our eyes open for a location during our drives.  Suddenly, on the opposite side of the ‘dual carriageway’ (divided highway) we spot on, so time for another U-turn and we find ourselves pulling into the lot.  Into the store we go, and knowing we are like lambs in the woods here, I grab the first staffer I see and ask if he could help us out.  “I sure can’”, he responds, “Just give me a moment.”  So we mull about, and sure enough, Dan, our newest British acquaintance, is true to his word and comes out to find us.  We explain what we are looking for in a phone, and he walks us through the process and the plans and we end up with one that will work.  As I am wandering the store, he’s put the sales charm on K, and she ends up not only with her hair dryer, but a straightener and a few other things too.  But wait, the phone we got appears to need a SIM card, and they are out of stock.  “Hold on,” Dan says, as he bolts out the front door of the store.  That was odd, I am thinking, but he’s back in a minute and says, “OK, I went to the Car Phone store at the other end of the shopping center and checked – they are open and they have the SIM card.”  Talk about service above and beyond, I guess it helps that Kristen is cute – I should take her shopping with me more often.  So we finish up our business here, and walk down to the Car Phone store, only to find that today, the day after New Years, is a bank holiday, so they cannot process credit card sales. Now someone surely missed the mark on that one, we laugh, and head back to the car.  Fast forward – turns out there is a SIM card packaged with the phone, so we end up with service before the night is over.

Back on the road we continue into the village, where the highlight is the Salisbury Cathedral, at 404 ft tall, it is the tallest church in the UK, and more impressive than that, it was built as a fast-track project, completed in only 38 years, in 1320.  We pull the car over along the massive structure, get out and walk around the beautiful grounds, snap a few jillion photos, and finally we move on to find a parking spot, as K has chosen a restaurant from her guidebook for us in this town – the Haunch of Venison.  Not sure where it is, so we pop our head into a local convenience store and ask, and a friendly woman says, “I’m walking that way, I’ll take you.”  You cannot ask for a more helpful, friendlier, more interactive experience than we have encountered at every step along this adventure, and it’s not over yet.  We walk along with our new friend, chatting about the town and other matters, and sure enough, she points us right in the direction of our destination, which, by the way, she recommends highly also, and points out it is an original English Pub, not like these chains they have today! We like that!

This is arguably the oldest hostelry in all of England, and it’s really a hole in the wall sort of place.  They have been open and operating for 700 years, since 1320.  That is almost incomprehensible – makes you wonder if one day someone will find themselves sitting in a  TGIFridays or Chili’s and thinking back over the last 700 years of serving the public…..NOT!   Anyhow, back to today…tourist test number one is getting in the front doors, which are spaced so closely in the tiny foyer that only one person can get in at a time, and you have to close the one door behind you to make room to open the next one.  Obviously, they have no real fire code requirements here!  But we’re finally in, and the eyes are on us – they don’t get many Americans here.  This place can hold maybe 16 people max, in two little areas, that are not even connected, you have to go back outside to get from one corner of the bar to the other.  A cute little fireplace, some locals with their dogs, a pewter-topped bar (the only one in England, it is pointed out by one of the locals), and an array of beers on tap, none of which, for anyone who knows my tastes, that I’ll enjoy.  But K does fine, sampling a number of the local stouts and brews, each with a story behind it.   They don’t start serving meals until six, so we’ve got nearly an hour to hang in the bar.  It’s kinda funny, one person says something to us, then another, and finally nearly the whole bar is talking to us, asking questions, telling stories…they truly don’t get a lot of outsiders here!  We do find out that they have had American visitors in the past, mainly during the Second World War, when there were numerous airfields built around the town, and the US airmen’s presence is noted in the old B17 radio cabinets that now serve as bases for some of the taps at the bar – pretty darn cool to see!  We’re really enjoying ourselves here, learning of the local history, local events, political views, culinary recommendations and more, and keep at it until K’s stomach rumblings become obvious – her last meal, other than this morning’s porridge – was a bowl of soup from room service last evening.  She did inherit her dad’s eating habits, once a day if needed, and doesn’t whine about missing meals, which makes her a perfect traveling companion for me.  For dinner K goes with a stuffed squash, about the size of a football (American-version) and I choose the trademark, haunch of venison.  My meal is delicious, with local venison filets prepared just right, along with all the sides.  Great dining choice, Kristen!

Well we’ve got a ninety-mile ride to get home in front of us, but with two days of wrong-side driving practice, it’s a cakewalk, even with the round-a-bouts and sometimes difficult to understand traffic signage.  We pull back into the Sheraton at midnight and put our heads down for our final rest before K heads off to school in the morning.

Tuesday morning comes and it begins with a celebration – it’s my birthday!  It’s raining and dreary out, a perfect day to conclude the fun part of the trip and get down to the more serious purpose – to deliver Ms K to school.  We’re up early, fueling up the car at the local “petrol” station, and then working our way through rush hour traffic to her dorm residence.  Her navigating skills again prove to be pretty good, and dad is pretty cool about when we miss turns and need to backtrack, so it’s a positive experience overall.  She meets the woman in charge of housing and her room is not quite ready, so we hang for a bit in the student hall.  Another young lady arrives, a native of Hawaii who is attending college in Boston, and she is here for her semester abroad also, so K immediately bonds and the two of them strike it off well.  Seeing she is in good hands, it’s time for me to head back to the airport to return the car and catch my flight, so I bid my #1 princess goodbye and get back on the road for my last run.  Car is returned without a glitch, and I shuttle over to Heathrow.

Well the gods of fate continue to shine on this mission as the good folks at Delta upgrade my seat to first all the way home, a perfect way to celebrate a most wonderful start of the new year.  Life is definitely good!

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

A 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!

On to the Maldives!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all Folks!

Scouting Report from Bonaire – Amy & Brian’s visit

Note: This blog entry is brought to you by Amy & Brian Dunn, members of the Indian Valley Scuba diving family!

Well after Brian spent the last 18 months recovering from Achilles Reattachment and Knee Surgeries – we were both itching for a vacation and had the urge to submerge!  We spent the last few months of 2010 trying to decide where to go….We have done a bunch of Caribbean diving to date in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Bermuda, Cozumel, St.Lucia, Caymans, Tulum and of course with IVS/Amoray in Key Largo……

But once we heard all the great comments and feedback from Dave, Bev, Brian, Roy and Butch regarding last summer’s IVS Trip to Bonaire – we had narrowed the list of destinations fairly quickly to between Belize and Bonaire….then the direct flight from Newark and more great feedback from Brian at the Shop convinced us to book a week in Bonaire staying at the Harbour Village Beach Club (http://www.harbourvillage.com/)  The holidays brought the Dunn family some much needed new dive gear and it was clear that Santa had stopped at the IVS Shop to gather regs, computers and other goodies to fill the stockings!

So now we had the reservations and new gear but since it had been a while since we had been in the water we took Bev and Dave’s invitation to share some pool time with them at the Harleysville YMCA one Thursday evening.  There we took the opportunity to practice some skills and familiarize ourselves with our new equipment (especially the Epic Dive Computers.)  Satisfied and wet we stepped out into the 11 degree weather confident we were prepared for our trip now just 3 weeks away to Bonaire.

Fast forward to our departure night of Friday February 25th……..we took a red-eye direct flight from Newark Airport to Bonaire.  With the one hour time difference we arrived in Bonaire at 5:30am Saturday morning.   Upon arrival we quickly got our checked baggage and headed out to be greeted by the agents booked for the airport transfers by the concierge at the Hotel.  15 minutes later we were pulling into the gates of the resort and being escorted to a temporary room they had set up for us to relax in until we could check into our Beachfront Suite at 11:30am.  Amy and I relaxed from the overnight flight for a few hours and then headed to breakfast.  By 11:30am we had checked into our suite and taken delivery of the pickup we had rented for the week.  Now we figured we should head to the on-site dive shop – Adventure Diving and introduce ourselves.  After getting all the paperwork out of the way, and a tour of the shop, we were given a mandatory educational overview of the Bonaire National Marine Park.  That completed, we were issued our Park Passes (Good for One Year and at a cost of $25).  We scheduled our mandatory check out dive with the shop for the next morning (Sunday).  We spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the famous private beach at Harbour Village before relaxing in the room and having wonderful Duck Dinners at La Balandra which is the main restaurant at the resort.  Below are 2 shots of the room and view from balcony.

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Interior of Harbour Resort Hotel Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Balcony View from our Harbour Village Room

Sunday breakfast was filled with good food and anticipation of the excitement the days’ activities would bring.  First, we headed to the Dive Shop and were shown both our “day” and “night” locker spaces  – then we were issued our weights and headed for our check out dive to the house reef which contains a small wreck “ Our Confidence”  shown below in just 50 feet of water…..

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

The Our Confidence Wreck off Harbour Village House Reef

After that we headed out in our rented pickup to get the lay of the land and familiarize ourselves with the maps and some of the dive sites that had been recommended both by IVS crew and in a great book “Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy”  (http://www.infobonaire.com/bsdme/)  Our first stop was at the dive site called 1,000 Steps (having just dove the house reef – we decided to head down to the site and snorkel.  Tons to see whether diving or snorkeling!  Reef is beautiful, current minimal and many turtles, barracuda, eels call this spot home!   From there we motored along doing a loop of the Northern Half of the Island.  That evening we ate a great Argentinean steakhouse called Patagonia.  The steaks were paired with a fine Malbec – delicious!

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

Our Rent A Pick Up Truck/Dive Tender

The next day (Monday) we headed to breakfast then the minimart to stock up on lunch fixings (Raisin Rolls, Peanut Butter & Jelly etc.)  Then we threw some tanks and our gear in the truck and headed to the dive site called Andrea One which we had scoped out on the previous day’s drive.  This dive was nice to be able to drive right up to the shore (see pix below) and has a pretty easy entry but we missed the sandy slot and had a more challenging exit.  This dive has a short swim to the buoy and great reef….we saw many blue faced trumpet fish, green moray as highlights.  After this dive we decided to drive around the entire South end of Bonaire and take note of more of the many Marked/Unmarked Dive Sites.  We dined that night at a wonderful little French place called Bistro de Paris.  Reservations are recommended as it is a quaint small place but the food was awesome..for example the Belgian Waffle Appetizer complete with shredded Duck Breast and Whip Crème topped with a Black Cherry dressing was so unusual  – had to be tried and was truly enjoyed! 

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Gold Spotted Moray Eel

Tuesday morning found us headed to the South side of the island and to dive site called Margate…..lots to see there as far as reef and fish life!   Easy entry and exit and just a short drive to Windsock where we sat on the benches on the shore and enjoyed a picnic lunch….afterwards we headed for some snorkeling back at the Hotel’s House reef and prepped for the night dive we scheduled for that evening.  The night dive was great with us entering via the sandy beach at Harbour Village heading out to the Wreck and then off to the reef to see eels, tarpon, barracuda, parrot fish, lobsters, angel fish, nurse shark and unfortunately a large lionfish (which we reported to the Dive Shop the next morning). 

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Orange-striped Triggerfish

Wednesday we decided to take a sea kayak over to Klein Bonaire.  The trip took just a few minutes and once we beached the kayak we did some snorkeling the choral there is beautiful and we saw a green sea turtle just as we were leaving.  Once back at the resort we had lunch and Amy joined the afternoon boat dive from Adventure Diving.  There were 12 divers in the group and the dive site was a quick seven minute  boat ride to the far tip of Klein Bonaire.  The drift dive was beautiful, relaxing and included the highlights of seahorse, spotted eel and puffer fish.  Amy also got to witness first-hand the removal of a Lionfish that was spotted by one of the Dive Guides.  That evening we dined at a great seafood restaurant at the Marina called “It Rains Fishes” – al fresco, great food and pretty location at the Marina for sunsets!

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Sunset from Harbour Village Marina

Thursday brought us back to the South Shore of the island to the dive site “Invisibles” .  This is an easy entrance/exit with a brief swim to the buoy.  Then it is down to the reef….tons of fish including large schools, many Trunk Fish – saw a friendly green sea turtle there as well! 

Smooth Trunkfish

Smooth Trunkfish

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

Green Turtle at The Invisibles

That wrapped up our diving on this trip to Bonaire…..we spent the last day relaxing on the beach,  taking in the Spa and having a celebratory Chef’s dinner on the balcony of our suite!  We really want to thank Dave and everyone at IVS as we appreciate everyone’s comments, feedback, tips and recommendations that helped us pick this overdue vacation!   We really enjoyed it and will be back to Bonaire hopefully with the IVS crew in 2012!

 Thanks for letting us share our adventure!  Hope to see you all soon!

Brian & Amy Dunn

Becky DunnBrian Dunn

Space Shuttles and Deep Wrecks – a perfect combo!

Post by David W. Hartman, PADI Instructor, IVS South, Key Largo, Florida

February has been a steller month for weather in Key Largo. The month ended with the best weather of the winter: sunny skies, light winds, low 80’s at night and low 70’s at night. The light winds and calm weather made for great dive conditions with blue water on the reefs and light currents on the deep wrecks. Four people from Indian Valley SCUBA’s network of friends made it down to Key Largo February 24-27, 2011. Judy Mullen and Deborah Knighten drove down from Savannah, GA and Tom and Lisa Cinciripini joined the group from Souderton, PA just around the corner from IVS HQ in Harleysville.

Goregous Sunset over Blackwater Sound viewed from Amoray Dive Resort

The trip started with a rare opportunity to watch the Space Shuttle launch right from Amoray Dive Resort. I met up with Tom and Lisa for a few beers and completed the needed forms for the weekend ahead. The Shuttle launch did not go in the direction required to be seen in Key Largo but it was fun meeting up with Amoray crew and Tom and Lisa and we watched a beautiful sunset as we discussed our dive plan for the upcoming weekend.

IVS Crew ready to board the Amoray DiverFriday morning at Amoray Dive Resort started late due to boat maintenance. On the agenda was two dives on Molasses Reef in the morning and the wrecks of Siegel Grove and Benwood in the afternoon. 80 degree sunny weather made the low 70 degree water temps tolerable for us locals. At Molassess Reef, our first dive was at the Aquarium which had good viz but a bit of surge leftover from winds from the previous day. The large spurs of coral kept us protected from the surge as Tom and Lisa and I enjoyed easy navigation around the Southwest corner of Molassess Reef. On dive 2, The Amoray Diver moved over to the Winch Hole area to dive North Star and Eagle Ray Alley. Conditions on the center of Molassess Reef had less surge and better visibility. Tom and Lisa started their busy training weekend with the Peak Performance Bouyancy Adventure Dive of their PADI Advanced Open Water course. Both Tom and Lisa were hovering machines and made the fish jealous of their buoyancy skills. Judy and Deb were on their own just out fun diving to enjoy the wonderful dive conditions. Hard Coral grows over an Orange Sponge on Molasses ReefThe afternoon dives started with our first trip to the Spiegel Grove. IVS weekends always include a heavy dose of diving the now famous artificial reef know as LSD-32 USS Spiegel Grove. The 510 foot naval ship intentionally sunk by local dive operators and tourism officials in 2002 never disappoints. The entire group stayed together on the dive on the Spiegel as we had a nice easy excursion outside the wreck from the midship-superstructure mooring ball (#6) back to the starboard crane and then up to the bow and back to the mooring ball. (aka-The Sue Douglass candy ass tour). Tom and Lisa stayed down a little longer to complete some skills for their Deep Adventure Dive-a requirement of their Advanced Open Water course-and for a quick swimthrough of the wheelhouse and radar room. Decent viz and NO current made for a fantastic introduction to the Spiegel Grove.

Day Two of the Indian Valley SCUBA February weekend called for more excellent dive conditions and spectacular weather above water with sunny skies and light winds. The group had an early start on the Amoray Diver due to an scheduled sunset cruise for a wedding Saturday evening at Amoray Dive Resort.

Our morning dive sites were Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks and Minnow Caves at North Dry Rocks. Key Largo Dry Rocks was a bit murky but no current and no divers from other boats. Perfect conditions for Tom and Lisa’s underwater navigation Adventure Dive. After some serious practice on the boat, Lisa nailed the underwater NAV skills. I must say after Lisa’s trepidiation on the surface with a compass, I was a bit surprised to see her emerge from the murky water coming right at me on the both the “reciprical navigation” and “navigate a square” exercises. Great job to both Tom and Lisa for fine excution of all their underwater navigation skills. Deb and Judy at Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry RocksThe entire group did get to meet at the Christ of the Abyss statue for some improptu photo opps. Tom and Lisa completed their Advanced Open Water certification on the next dive on Minnow Caves at Key Largo Dry Rocks. We had a great dive circumnavigating the high profile spurs of the reef and checking out the fish in Minnow Caves-sorry just grunts…no glass eyed minnows on this dive. Congrats to Tom and Lisa on the AOW certification and now on to bigger and better cert dives!

The afternoon dives included a first time visit to a Deep Reef called the Ball off the Wall and the ever popular City of Washington wreck both in the Elbow Reef area. Ball off the Wall was an excellent sloping reef starting at a 50 foot plateau and leading to steeper drop off to an endless sandy bottom at 100 feet. The wall is covered in huge barrel sponges with plenty of reef fish around having no problems thriving in the deeper water of the outer reef. Our dive off the Elbow on Saturday was my fist time diving Ball of the Wall to the drop off despite seven years of living in Key Largo. We did see one Lionfish but Tom, Lisa and I made a bad attempt at Lionfish cleanup in the Keys. Plastic garbage bags do not work very well underwater to catch Lionfish. Lisa completed another certification dive toward here PADI Deep Water Speciality. It was so cool to see how much a plastic water bottle empty and full of air compresses at 100 feet. The second dive of the afternoon was the ever popular City of Washington Wreck on the shallow inner reefs of The Elbow. Capt Dan gave an excellent briefing of the 100 year old wreck (see video below) and we had excellent conditions on the shallow spread out wreck. Tom completed the second dive of his PADI Wreck Diver Speciality and did a fine job mapping the City of Washington that is spread out in pieces over 400 feet on the ocean bottom. Congrats to our group and the Amoray crew for a record early finish to our dive day. The boat was back at the dock at 4pm in the afternoon so Amoray could prepare for the wedding at the resort later in the evening. Saturday night called for the traditional cocktails and barbacue at Club Dave (my house) for the group to enjoy stories from our two days of diving together and to review pictures from the trip on the big screen.

Another fun filled weekend with Indian Valley SCUBA is in the books and the group definitely finished on a high note. Sunday’s dives including a visit to Pickles Reef with stops at the swarms of fish at Snapper Ledge and the shallows of Pickles Wreck. Snapper Ledge was as fishy as ever with teams of grunts, goatfish and of course snappers!! Our group ran into a couple of different types of eels in three different locGreen Moray Eel eyes a Spiny Lobster while a Spotted Drum stand his groundations-2 Green Moray and 1 Spotted Moray. Tom did a nice job of natural navigation tracking a wide perimeter from the mooring line of the Amoray Diver. I was happy taking pictures of eels as Tom lead the way and acted like he knew where he was going. Pickles Wreck is always a fun dive but a bit shallow for the surge we experienced underwater. Excellent viz and blue water made the dive worth the “roll” underwater at 15 feet of depth. I tracked a course for deeper water and ran into fields of purple sea fans along the way. Our group found some really interesting deeper profile reefs east of the mooring line reminiscent of the drop offs outside of the Elbow-location of numerous IVS lobster dive excursions. Tom and Lisa completed their PADI Boat Diver Speciality and another morning a great diving past by to prepare for a serious afternoon of wreck diving.

The afternoon of diving was the traditional double deep wreck finish with the USCG Duane and USS Spiegel Grove. The Duane was the first dive of the afternoon and a unique dive profile for the group so Lisa could meet her Deep Diver Speciality requirements and Tom could practice his wreck skills for his Wreck Diver Speciality. The Amoray Diver moored up to the Bow ball of the Duane and our group descended down to 107 feet at the bow, checked out air and gear and proceeded to descend upside down along the bow of the Duane to the sand at 124 feet….SO COOL!!!! Bow of the Duane by Polina ReznikovOur “Bow Dive” was not the normal profile but we were on a mission to complete Lisa’s Deep Diver certification with approriate deep dive profiles. The Bow and Hull of the Duane are covered in Orange Cup coral which make diving the Duane so majestic. The ship is one of the best wreck dives in the world. Our group continued down the starboard side of the Duane ascended to the main deck level at 107 feet and then to deck 2 level at 90 feet to tour around the towering Crows Nest. We make our way to the Duane’s wheelhouse and then exit the lookout level on top of the wheelhouse so Tom can practice his wreck reel skills at a manageable depth of 80 feet. Tom did an excellent job and then it was time for the group to ascend down the front superstucture of the Duane and back to the our mooring line at the bow. After a nice slow ascent, Lisa was required to breath for 8 minutes from an alternate air souce (we used a stage bottle) at a depth of 15 feet. Lisa and Tom did a wonderful job on the dive as did the rest of the group and we were now off for another dive on the Spiegel Grove.

The IVS group stayed on the “bow theme” with the Amoray Diver mooring up on the bow of the Spiegel Grove. The bow ball is the underatted mooring on the Spiegel Grove and a fantastic way to start your dive on the wreck. After testing Lisa’s limits of wreck penetration with the Anchor Winch Room, our group ascended to Level 01 (Service Level) of the Grove to check out the Mess Hall, Cafeteria Serving Line, The Machine Shop and of course the world famous Snoopy (we rubbed his nose). No Well Deck excurions on this IVS trip but the group did get a bird’s eye view of the well deck from the ceiling hatch in the maching shop prep room. After a solid tour of the Service Level of the Spiegel, our group ascended to the top level of the superstruture (Navigation Level) for Tom to lead us on a wreck penetration tour of the Wheelhouse and Radar Room running his brand new wreck wheel with proper tieoffs and technique. Tom was flawless but next time Tom, please do not dismantle the wreck to find a good tieoff point! Excellent Spiegel dive and a fantastic way to complete some impressive PADI certifications: Wreck Diver for Tom and Deep Diver for Lisa. (See video below for a similar tour of the Spiegel Grove filmed by IVS SCUBA Instructor Carlie Adams).

All dives of the IVS Key Largo weekend were memorable and thanks to Judy Mullen and Deb Knighten for joining the group and congratulations to Tom and Lisa Cinciripini for a busy weekend of dive courses completing their Advanced Open Water, Boat Diver, Wreck Diver (Tom) and Deep Diver (Lisa) certifications. Use your new cards well Tom and Lisa. We look forward to seeing the IVS group at Amoray Dive Resort April 1st for another action pack Key Largo dive weekend.