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

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

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

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

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

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

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

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

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

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

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

The Sphinx..no other words needed!

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

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

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

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

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

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

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

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

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

Luxor Temple

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

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

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

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

Deir El-Bahri Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

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

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

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

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

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

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

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

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

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

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

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

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

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

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

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

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

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

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

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

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

 

Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

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

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

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

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

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

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

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

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

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

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

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

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

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…

The Allure of Lobster Mini-Season

Part IV in our Six Part Blog Series is by David Hartman of Key Largo, Florida

Every year the Florida commercial lobster season ends on March 15th and reopens in early August 1st for traps and harvesting.  This little break gives the lobster population a chance to spawn, tend to their eggs, and create the next generation of tasty crustaceans.  It also is a time for lobster movement, often from deeper waters, to the shallower reef systems inshore, where food is plentiful and the habitat offers a lot of great hiding places.  The last Wednesday and Thursday of July every year are reserved for recreational divers and boaters to get first dibs on all the spiny lobster that have been spawning all spring and summer before the commercial fisheries set their lobster traps.  This very special time of the year, as far as the lobster hunters are concerned, is called the ‘mini-season’!  For two days people from the around the country descend down to Key Largo to try their best efforts at catching Florida Spiny Lobster.  Although anyone with a Florida fishing license and crawfish stamp can hunt for lobster Aug 6-March 15th, most non-locals come down only for mini-season.  Late July in Florida is a recreational divers Mecca and a frenzy unmatched on the local waterways and reefs during the rest of the year.

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

For the past seven years, customers of Indian Valley SCUBA (IVS) have traveled from Harleysville, Pennsylvania to Key Largo to take part in Lobster Mini-Season.   The size and popularity of the IVS Lobster Mini-Season group has grown steadily over the years starting with just a few people in 2005 to a full boat of 24 divers the past few years.  IVS combines the two days of Lobster Mini-Season with the group’s usual weekend of Reefs and Wrecks dives with Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, and also adds a two-day Florida Keys Wreck Trek from Key West to Key Largo option at the beginning of the week to round out a complete week of summertime diving.  The 2011 Edition of the IVS Lobster week included 17 divers on the Wreck Trek, 24 divers for Lobster Mini-Season and over 30 divers for the Reef and Wrecks weekend. The diving conditions all week were a bit windy but manageable for the IVS team.  Catching lobster on the shallow reefs off Key Largo was a bit challenging on the bumpy conditions but smaller recreational vessels stayed inland to avoid the rougher seas of the outer reef which meant more lobster to catch for the courageous IVS crew.  By Thursday evening, Team IVS captured 172 legal sized lobsters in two days of Mini-Season shattering the group’s 2010 record of 107 lobsters and providing the bounty for fantastic annual feast at the Key Largo Conch House.

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

Forty-Five Attend the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast at the Conch House

The Conch House, established in 2004 by Ted & Laura Dreaver, started as the Key Largo Coffee House, and quickly established itself as a great place for a good breakfast.  In no time at all, they expanded to lunch & dinner, and at the same time, changed the name to the Conch House to better reflect their all-day fare.  Today, with the addition of daughter Stephanie, and sons Justin & John, the family owned Conch House is one of the best restaurants in the Upper Keys due to the establishment’s unmatched combination of ambience, unique culinary delights and friendly service.  Most often, it’s one of the family members who takes care of you while dining at the Conch House.  For the annual IVS Mini Season Lobster Feast, the staff of the Conch House graciously takes in hundreds of lobster gathered by the IVS crew and cooks up tasteful dishes of lobster cerviche, lobster fritters and of course broiled lobster tail with drawn butter…Hmmmm!!  For the 2011 IVS Lobster Feast, the Conch House served up over 150 lobsters with no leftovers to spare.  Forty-five hungry people attended the lobster feast including the complete weekend contingent of IVS Reefs and Wreck divers, the owners and staff of Amoray Dive Resort and a few local friends who dive with the IVS crew.  Everyone at the annual lobster feast ate like kings and had a fantastic time.  The warmest appreciation and thanks go out to the owners of Amoray Dive Resort and the boat crew of the Amoray Diver for making another successful IVS Mini-Season possible.  Plus, a big thank you goes out to the professional staff of the Conch House for once again putting together a wonderful annual lobster feast.  See you all again next Lobster Mini-Season!

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

Part II in our Six Part Blog Series is by David Hartman of Key Largo, Florida

Indian Valley SCUBA arrived early in South Florida to take in the sites and some serious wrecks prior to Lobster Mini-Season arrives on Wednesday and Thurday.  David Valaika headed to the Dry Tortugas for an adventure excursion on a private boat to dive some deep wrecks.  Sue Douglass, Bev and Butch Loggins, Brian LaSpino, Jesica Tyre headed to South Beach for some R&R. Bill and John Zyskowski arrived in Key Largo Saturday night to get a head start on the Indian Valley SCUBA Wreck Trek-Lobster Week by taking a private all day wreck charter with IVS South’s David Hartman. The Z-Brothers Wreck Trek included three dives on the Spiegel with lunch and a gorgeous dive on the Duane to end the all day affair. Excellent conditions on both wrecks plus sunny skies made for a fantastic dive day.  The highlights of the Spiegel dives included the “Belly of the Beast Tour” of the Pump Room and Aft Engine Room, The Ulimate Tour with the “Chute” Snoopy, Galley, Mess Halls and Machine Shop and pressing some shirts in the ship’s Laundry Room.  A special thanks to the Captain Pete Lacombe (The Mustard King), Divemaster Justin and Keys Diver II for taking good care the Z-Brothers team.

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

Read More on the IVS Wreck Trek in Part III of the Blog Series……..

Warming up for the Keys Invasion – Dry Tortugas Tech Diving

This is Part I of a Six Part Series on “Team  IVS Invades the Keys”

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

The IVS Truck Loaded for Our Extended Trip to the Florida Keys

Well it’s late July, and we all know what that means – time for Team Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys for our annual lobster mini-season event and lobster festival dinner!  This year we’ve made the trip even better, by growing it to include three days of nothing but wrecks before we hunt, and then a Wreck Racing League event after the festival.  Heck, we’ve even thrown in a day of cave diving to round out the nearly two weeks of Florida diving we have planned

But before we get into all of that – let’s not forget how weather and traffic teamed up in perfect harmony to destroy my chance to dive the Andrea Doria last week.  I am still hurting inside from that “non-trip”, and this is made worse by the fact that I have to walk around the huge pile of scuba cylinders custom blended and tagged with Trimix in the garage, that we had prepared for that trip.  Where and when will I ever use all this great gas, I think to myself each day as I gaze with teary eyes at the pile of tanks.

Fate is a funny thing, sometimes our friend, sometimes our foe. So, sensitive soul that I am, consider how I felt when the phone rang and it was my good friend Joe Weatherby calling from Key West, to let me know that a private tech charter there had just gotten a cancellation from one of the members, and they asked Joe if he could recommend anyone and thankfully he thought of me. But of course, before he could commit, he needed to see if I was available.

“Three days on a private 43 ft Bertram yacht diving and spearing fish on some of the most famous technical wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, and the spot was mine if I could make it  down.  “OK, OK, when is this scheduled”, I asked, and Joe replied “next weekend, July 21-24 – can you make it?” Wait a minute, I am thinking, that is the four days before our upcoming Wreck Trek in Key West….so just to make sure, I ask Joe to repeat himself.   Yep, those are the dates, but he has to know if I can make it, and if I have time to blend gas for it!  “Let me look at my schedule for a micro-second”, I say, and then “Count me in!”

I ask you, what are the odds that a diving opportunity will come up like this, with dates that dovetail into our already arranged trip perfectly, and to wrecks that require the exact same gas that I have blended in the garage.  Is there something I am missing here?  I pinch myself a few times, and immediately begin making the necessary adjustments to my travel plans! This will work, just need to move a few things around, get packed, and head down a bit earlier, with an expected departure at noon on Wednesday.  That will allow me to have plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing drive south – so unlike me!!  Well keep reading to see how well this part of the plan / fantasy worked out.

The crew that is putting this adventure together includes Zach Harshbarger, a USAir pilot that owns a yacht in Key West, Steve Moore, spearfisherman supreme and owner of Keys Mobile Diving, Kenny Rad from the Great Lakes, John Herrera from Boca Rotan, and Laura Pettry from Lake Worth.  Joining me and this select group will be Michele Highley, who was already on board to drive down with me for the Wreck Trek.

The plan is to motor out to the Dry Tortugas for four days of technical diving and spearfishing, visiting such great wrecks as the Araby Maid, the Rhein, and the former WWII German U-Boat S-2513.

We’ll have two boats, Zach’s 13 meter (43 ft) Bertram Trojan as our mother ship, with it’s roomy 17 ft beam and spacious galley and cockpit, along with Steve’s 23 ft Glacier Bay catamaran will be alongside to serve as an alternate dive platform and chase boat for the spear-o’s.  In order to conserve the smaller boats fuel, the plan is to tow it out behind the Trojan for the nearly 100 mile run out to the Dry Tortugas.

Well plans are one thing, execution is another.  For starters, what was I thinking when I said we’d leave at noon?  I’m finishing up mixing a few bottles of gas in the morning, then starting to get my gear together, when I remember I need to get an IVS newsletter out!  Yikes!  So to the computer I go, shift gears, put my “creative helmet” on tight, and type away, sharing Amir Stark’s fantastic Bonaire movie, Randy Rudd’s NOAA award, Rob Tenilla’s ride to cure cancer, and a few more tidbits of timely news.  If you don’t get the newsletter, you can subscribe to it by clicking here!

So finally that is out, and now I need to help Ray with a few Nitrox fills for a customer. Then Bev has something I need to look at, Brian has a few questions, the contractor who is painting the house needs some time with me…you get the picture!  I am thinking I should make it a practice to just sneak out quietly during the night!

Eventually the truck is loaded to the hilt, 38 tanks of various gasses on board, tech gear, sidemount gear, lobster gear, more gear…for some reason I can hear the voice of Captain Quint from Jaws, saying, “We’re gonna need a bigger truck!”  And look at the clock on the wall – it’s 7:00 pm!  That’s almost noon-ish, and using the same math as America’s major airlines, I consider it an on-time departure!  Only 22 hours to go, and we’ll be in Key West!

Well the trip is uneventful, and we make good time, finally arriving in Stock Island, just outside of Key West, for a pre-departure dinner with the group at the Hogfish Bar & Grille.  This great little restaurant is right in the marina where our condo is and coincidently where the Fish Happens and Keys Mobile Diver are docked.

We enjoy some fresh grouper that Steve had shot earlier in the day, and start to load the boat.  We put most of the tanks and gear on the Trojan, to keep the Mobile Diver as light as possible for towing.  Let’s just say, that when we are done loading that we have one impressive pile of tanks on board!  Personal gear is brought down, we draw straws for the bedroom assignments, and start to settle in and prepare to begin our journey.  This is perfect – what could go wrong now?

Oooops!  Starboard engine fires up, but Port engine does not want to crank for nothing!  Not cool, considering we are planning to spend the next four days alone on the ocean with no support in sight.  So as is so typical on an IVS trip, the engine hatches are opened, tool boxes brought out, and the crew assumes the characteristic “head down, butt high” position of men on a mission!  It appears that perhaps the problem is as simple as a dead battery, but it’s a little late at night – it’s 1:00 am now – to get any parts, even in Key West.  So we call it a night, and bed down dockside to await the morning and the opening of the local ships chandelary.

The sun wakes us up and we re-check the nights work – yup, it still won’t start.  OK, with that confirmed, we get some breakfast and Zach heads over to West Marine and picks up a new battery.  Installation is not too big a job and even Michele is in the engine hatch helping get the job done!   Finally we test our work and shazam! We have two working engines!

We’re pretty sure we’re ready now, so we throw off the lines, and slowly motor out the channel.  Once outside, we rig up a tow line from the Trojan to the Mobile Diver.  Now I hardly consider myself a sailor (as anyone salutes my personal navigation marker in Key Largo), but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express one night, and I am sensing the tow line is a little light for the job.  Reassured by the crew that it’ll do the job, we head out, and sure enough, at 7 knots, it is doing well.  But as soon as we begin to open the throttle up a bit, ‘Zing!’ there goes the line flying by, putting an end to that tow rig configuration.  We leave Steve on his boat to put another rig together and we crank up the big Detroit Diesels and start making good time on our trip.  The plan is for Steve to catch up to us along the way and we’ll re-visit the towing concept there.

The sea is as flat as you can ask for, the sky clear blue, and the sun just shining down on our boat as we motor past schools of playful dolphins on the way …ah the life of a sailor indeed!  Of course, without all the deck swabbing & plank walking parts!  Our plans are to make way directly to the Araby Maid where we will tie up for the night.  Steve has caught back up to us, so now, at towing speed, that equates to about 12 hours to make the 94 mile run from Key West. With our delayed departure due to the battery problem, that puts us on the wreck at about 9:30 this evening, a little late and a little dark to think about that being our first dive of the trip!  Usually better to get the bugs out on something less than 200 ft deep, night dive on a natural wreck covered with nets and fishing lines.  So, what to do!  Wait, John remembers he heard of a wreck called the Night Lady, a wooden fishing boat lost in a storm many years ago, that happens to fall almost directly in our path. Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “shazam, shazam”, we have a plan.  We’ll stop on the wreck, get the gear wet, and be in good shape for our technical night dive later!

We locate the wreck 64 miles out from Key West, sitting in 110 ft of water.  It hardly shows up on the depth finder so we are not expecting to see much left of the wreck.  But dive we must, and we head in, to practically unlimited visibility and 86 degree water.  As we descend, we hit a thermocline at about 80 ft, and a “vis-o-cline” too, with very cloudy water the rest of the way down.  I get a few pictures in the less-than-ideal conditions, and kill two lionfish, but am unsuccessful in feeding either of them to the four huge Goliath groupers that are following me around.  Oh well, this is all I have to offer them today, so they can find their own dinner!  Meanwhile spearfishers John & Laura nail four Mango Snappers and a grouper, so we have dinner for tonight!  We get in a good 20 minutes of bottom time and a nice easy ascent back up to re-board and get on our way, to the Araby Maid for the night.  Good way to start it off!

We fire back up, tie the Keys Diver in for the rest of the ride, and continue our journey.  John & Laura go about prepping our dinner, with a whole plethora of fresh fish offerings, including ceviche, sashimi, and grilled fish – this is living large!  The grille is fired up, and dinner is served enroute.  We are loving this!  We enjoy some cocktails as we work our way towards our tie-in tonight, with an anticipated arrival of 11:00 pm.

Here’s a great shot of our two captains enjoying cocktails and conversation in the bean bag chairs on the bow as we sail into the sunset…I don’t know, but why did I just think of those darn Cealis commercials?

As we head into the night, Zach cranks up the music on the boat’s surround-sound system, and then the Kracken emerges!  No, not the mythical Nordic creature made famous by the Johnny Depp movies, but rather Kracken, the dark & potent rum!  At this pace the disco ball will be dropping from the ceiling soon here!  And we still have dives to do tonight!! It’s not easy being “good” with this crowd, but you can see here I am as studious as ever, working on the blog for our readers.

Finally the engines slow down as we approach the GPS coordinates of the 3-masted wooden schooner Araby Maid, sitting upright in 215 feet of water since colliding with the SS Denver in 1902 and sinking directly to the bottom. Steve and Kenny climb back aboard the Mobile Diver and we cut them loose to get an accurate location on the wreck.  They are carrying a grapple hook with a few hundred feet of ¾” line attached and a 36 in. diameter float.  Attached to the bottom of the float is about 20 ft of additional line, and another small float with a small loop tied in the end of it to grab with the boat hook and loop our main line through.  Did I mention that this line between the main float and the small one was negatively buoyancy, in fact, substantially negative?  More on this coming up!

So it’s 11:30 now and the boys in the small boat have dropped the hook and believe they have snagged the wreck.  They back away, and now we maneuver the large boat into place to make the tie in.  I am on the bow, boat hook in hand, peering down into the black water with no moon to provide any illumination at all.  Needless to say, this was looking like it was going to be a bit of a challenge.  There was a bit of a wind blowing in a different direction than the current, so it was doing funny things to how the balls were floating as we approached them.  It took us several passes to get us in alignment with the balls and anywhere close enough for me to get the hook on it.  Did I mention the hook was black?  And remember that negative buoyancy of the tag line?  Well the result of that was the line dropped straight down from the big ball, and then looped back up into the bottom of the small ball, giving you absolutely nothing to snag with the hook except the small 6” loop on the small ball itself.  With the black water, black sky, and black hook, this was no easy matter for me to snag the loop, but finally I succeeded and we were able to tie off.  Our celebration was short-lived, as we realized that we were in fact NOT tied into the wreck, but simply dragging the anchor across the sand at a decent clip.  Once this became obvious we untied the line, the guys brought all the gear back on board, and we repeated the process once again.  So at 1:00 a.m. the radio crackled to life as Steve reported that they had hooked the wreck once again, and we could tie up to the line.  So we approached, dealing with the same wind/current issues, blackness, negatively buoyant lines, etc.  We made a couple of passes and I missed the loop not once, but twice, as the ball drifted from one side of the boat to the other.  We were idling, and the wind shifted again, pushing us sideways towards the balls, when suddenly the little ball disappeared, and the next thing you know the big ball is coming towards us at way too fast a pace.  That can only mean one thing – yes, the small ball and line must be bonding with our propeller shaft….ruh roh!!

We quickly shut down the engines, but the damage was done.  Zach and I jumped in the water and began sorting out the mess.  The first thing we did was tie off the main line going down to the hook, so we could work with slack line as we cut & untangled the mess.  As we tied off we noticed the GPS was indicating we were still making about a knot and a half, so we were dragging the hook again.  Go figure.  So into the water I went with Zach, and we spent the next two hours dicing and slicing and avoiding getting beat by the bouncing boat overhead and getting stung by passing sea life and avoiding slashing our own hands with the knives in the dark.  Finally at 2:30 in the morning it was mission accomplished and we set the big ball free to be picked up by the Mobile Diver, cleared all the line off the propeller and prop shaft, and climbed back on board.  We had now drifted about 4 miles from the wreck, dragging the anchor the entire time,  so an executive decision was made – the anchor from the small boat was not large enough to hold the big boat in place!  So enough of that, we ran over the Araby Maid for the third time, dropped our 60# anchor and 350 ft of chain and line, and hooked in solid.

So at 3:00 a.m. we made an executive decision – we were going to pass on our dive tonight and save it for first thing in the morning.  Probably a wise decision, but at least we made it here, in spite of all the challenges thrown our way!

The morning sun came shining down on the crew, scattered about the boat in various sleeping spots.  Beanbags on the deck, sleeping bags in the cockpit, the couch in the salon, and the bedrooms too.  After our late arrival and the additional in-water work we did during the anchoring process, no one was exactly jumping up and heading in for a Bonaire-style ‘Dawn Patrol’ dive.  Breakfast was made up, and we starting setting the rest of the gear up for our morning dive on the Araby Maid.   Upon checking the GPS, we discovered that we had drifted approx.. ¾ of a mile during the night, dragging our anchor across the sand.  So the first thing on the agenda was to pull the anchor, re-position, and drop again, hopefully right on the mark.  We reset the anchor, and let out about 400 ft of line to help reduce the chance of dragging again.  Some gear movement between the two boats and finally everyone was ready. Zach & I went in from the mother ship, but Steve suggested that just in case we were drifting again, that he drag us over with the current line to the marker ball.

Well let’s just say that some plans definitely look better on paper than in life, and this in-water dragging fell into that category.  The extra drag from the four bottles we were each wearing, managing free-flowing reg’s due to the current as we motored over, and the extra physical stress of holding on to the line as we bounced through the waves, made for a somewhat winded start on our deep dive.  We recovered well though, helped by the excitement of discovering the 200 ft plus visibility stayed with us all the way to the bottom today.  The wreck was covered with life, from the large goliath groupers to big tropicals and schools of swarming amberjacks.  With the fantastic visibility this was a photographers dream come true, however, I had opted to not bring any extra gear down not knowing what the conditions would be.  Neither did I bring my lionfish spear, and boy what a target rich environment we had here!  Probably a hundred of them on the wreck – would have made for some easy pickin’s for sure!  Zach & I enjoyed a 215 ft dive on Trimix, with 30 minutes of bottom time followed by 90 minutes of deco and hang time, for a total run of 2 hours – sweet!

Back on board for lunch, and then the spear-o’s went back for one more visit to the seafood aisle.  Before we broke camp though, there is a lot of discussion about what we should do next, with some wanting to stay here and dive this again, or possibly head further out to the Rhine, or north to the U-Boat, or back closer to Key West and home.  With our group of 18 IVS divers coming down on Sunday for the Wreck Trek, it is imperative that I am back at the dock by early Sunday afternoon to begin the next phase of this adventure, so that information helps finalize our plans (for now).  We opt to get moving and head back in the general direction of home, to our third destination, the wreck of the Chelsea.  This former ocean-going tugboat, which was featured in the movie The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt.  This was the boat that he worked on in that movie during one phase of his life.  It has only been down for 2 or 3 years, accidently sinking as it was making passage out of Key West.  It sits perfectly upright in 175 ft of water, and even though it is a relatively new wreck, the sea life is really being attracted to this wreck.

But the challenges on this trip are hardly over!  As we approach the Chelsea, we stop about 30 minutes out, to cut the Mobile Diver free and let it run ahead and mark the wreck site with it’s grapple and float.  Since only a few of us are making this dive, we decide to streamline the process and hot drop on the wreck, letting the two ships idle nearby and pick us up when we complete our dive.  Pretty cool, night diving on a new wreck, middle of the ocean, black night, 185 of water, no civilization within 80 miles of us – perfect night dive planning!  So we pull the Mobile Diver up close, Capt. Steve climbs aboard, and we cut him loose to fire up his boat and run ahead.  Well, as we pull away, the radio crackles to life, and Steve informs us he cannot get his port engine started and has no electronics. Seems he left something on earlier today and it drained his batteries.  He managed to get one outboard started, but that was it.  So we back up to him, and pass the generator over, so he can begin charging his batteries while he motors over to the site with us.  Of course, nothing comes easy, and an hour later, the situation has not changed.  So now we are thinking a hot drop might be in order, and the creative minds are hard at work here with plans, alternate plans, and various other scenarios that are making my head hurt!  Finally we get the ball dropped to the wreck, and the Mobile Diver tied off to it, and leave the Fish Happens to idle nearby and await us.

Only Zach, Steve and I make this night dive, finally getting in the water at 10:00.  Now we often talk about “pinnacle” dives, and what you should do and what perhaps you should not do.  So, considering this might end up being my deepest, longest, technical night dive, on a brand new never-dove wreck, with a new buddy, 85 miles out to see…yeppers, this falls smack dab in the middle of the “what not to do” list.   That being said, we decided to dive, and dive we did.  Now back when Steve was dropping the hook, he felt he was “right on the numbers” meaning his GPS was telling him that the wreck was right below him. His sonar was also on the fritz with his electrical problem tonight, so we just said the heck with it, it must be there!  Just in case though, I had the presence of mind to take a 450 ft reel with me on this dive.

Kenny maneuvered the big boat over alongside the ball, and Zach & I dropped in.  Down the line we went, and the viz was kinda murky. Not a problem, we are looking for a wreck of some sorts, that neither of us have ever seen before.  No problem mon!  So I set a strobe at the 20 ft mark on the down line, and another just above the chain at the end of the line.  We looked up to see the wreck and saw…nothing.  So with the fact that we are 175 ft down, in an unknown area, and can’t see anything, I decide it might be appropriate to tie off the reel and use that as our virtual “breadcrumbs” to find our way back to the ascent line when it is time to come up.  I tie off, and Zach & I begin the search.  I pay out line as we go, and have about 400 ft of line out when we decide it is probably not to our right.  So we pick up and begin a big arc towards our left, using the reel as our guide, just swinging along and maintaining our search pattern.  Seventeen minutes into this technical dive, suddenly Zach is waving his light to me, indicating he has something of interest to show me.  Well it’s a wreck of course, and we are right at the  propeller.  Had we had 20 ft less line we might very well as missed that too, but fate has once again been kind.  We tie off the reel at the wreck, and begin our exploration.  A couple of huge Jewfish are there to check us out, swimming nonchalantly around us, letting us know who owns this wreck.  Schools of amberjack are there hunting, and a good cross-section of the marine food chain is represented here tonight.  The ships name ad homeport of Norfolk, VA is clearly visible, and evidence of the surprise and speed that this boat sunk was everywhere, with suitcases full of clothing, shoes and other personal items, and plates and other sundry supplies can be found all over the wreck.  This is a very cool wreck indeed and I am very glad Zach and I decided to do it.  Funny, at no point in the dive did we run into Steve – it seems he dropped in, didn’t quite follow the anchor line to the bottom, and as a result, he never found the wreck!  Oh well!

Well this wreck was so cool, we could hardly pull ourselves away.  Now I was diving double 100’s on my back with 17% O2 and 30% Helium in them, plus a single 40 CF sling cylinder with 55% O2, plus another 40 CF with 100% O2.  Now I had used the 100% bottle earlier this morning, so it only had about 1,500 psi remaining in it.  The boat had an O2 line hanging at 20 ft, so I figured just in case I needed it, at least that was there to tap into.  Well forty minutes into this pinnacle night / deep / tech dive, my “time to surface” was showing about 3 hours before I could breath air again.  Hmmm, I am thinking, re-thinking my gas supplies, and I figure it is really time for Zach and I to head up!  But wait, there is a navigation lamp sitting there, calling my name.  So we stop, and I remove the light, sawing the cable off against the sharp edge of the wreckage, and we head towards the stern to begin our path to ascent.  At the reel, Zach offers to carry my prized navigation light, so I reluctantly hand it to him so I can have both hands free to rewind the line on the reel.  So we coil up the line, get back to the hook, and start our ascent.  Bottom time is now at 50 minutes and total ascent time has exceeded 3 ½ hours.  I am thinking, this is not going to be pretty.

My first deco stop is at 100 ft, so I begin the slow ascent.  90 ft, 80, and finally I can switch over to the 55% bottle.  My partial pressure of oxygen hits a little over 1.7 ATA, but I am relaxed, my breathing is controlled, efficient, and slow-paced, and I am thinking we should be fine.  Well the 70 ft stop alone was 17 minutes, the 60 was similar, the 50 even longer. I am watching the needle on my stage bottle get lower and lower, and thinking about alternate plans.  Meanwhile, Zach, diving with similar yet different gases, and using a Liquidvision computer vs my Cochran, has a different decompression profile and different stops, so we are ascending as two solo divers, not as a buddy team.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, he is a real good breather, and I am wondering what he is planning to do with his deep deco bottle.

Well at 50 ft my regulator starts to breath a little hard, and I eek through that stop but this 40 ft stop is going to be a challenge.  By slowing my breathing even further, thinking happy thoughts, and really getting as “Zen-ish” as possible, I manage to suck the last drop of gas from that cylinder just as it was time to head to my 30 ft stop.  Here I needed to make a judgment call, and Zach was too far above me, so I opted to split my 30 ft stop and my 20 ft stop, combining them into a 25 ft stop and switching over to O2 a little early.  The Cochran was able to do the math, and adjusted my times, recognizing that I had reached my switch point for my final gas.  With my limited supply of 100% O2, I had planned as a contingency to utilize the ship’ hanging O2 supply to finish my obligation, plus an extra five minutes for good measure.  It all worked out, and we finally surfaced. But just before we surfaced, Zach hits his leg on the mooring line, he same leg he had tied my navigation light too, and yes, you guess it.…it dropped to the bottom of the sea. We signaled the mother ship, and started our swim towards them.  But wow, the sea had really kicked up here and it was everything we could do to make it over to the boat.  Big confused waves, lots of chop, the wind is howling, the boat can’t back up to us cause it is so rough…yeah, this is the way to wrap up a great dive!

Of course that same weather was here to play hell with our towing plans, and we began looking at the hook-up in the dark.  We send additional fuel over for the generator, plus supplies and drinks for Capt. Seve to spend the night on board his boat.  We get hooked up, and begin the tow, As soon as begin to make way, the first three waves crash right over the bow of the small boat,  OK, looks like we have to slow it down, and we do, and we slow it again until we are making 2.4 knots.  This is going to be one long ride; that is for sure!  This probably also impacts our morning dive plans, but of course safety comes first, so we’ll re-visit things once the sun rises and hopefully the seas have subsided a bit.

So much for the seas subsiding, at least during the night.  That bit of wind and waves that we encountered at the end of our dive was just a prelude to what was to come.  We ran through the night with winds in excess of 25 mph, and waves exceeding six feet in height, along with periods of driving rain, made for a 2 knot speed all night long.  So starting from 104 miles out, we were still 80 miles from home come sunrise!

Oh well, we decided to cut the Mobile Diver free and let Steve work on his problems as he tagged along behind us.  Of course, with him only running one engine on a catamaran, that limited his speed, and also limited our matching speed, to about 4 knots.  This could be a long ride home!  But one again, the wheels were turning, and Zach jumped ship to head over to help Steve out on the Mobile Diver.  Four hours later, a couple of new spark plugs, a bit of education on how to jump start electronic ignitions, and the Mobile Diver was up and running!  Woo hoo!   So we fired up all the engines and made haste back to port, finally arriving at Key West at 4:30 Sunday afternoon.

A quick unload, hugs and handshakes all around, and it was time to head to Duval Street to meet the Indian Valley Scuba Wreck Trek gang!  See Part III of this blog report for more on that!

IVS Heads South to the Land of Dixie

The Basic Facts…
It’s summer time and you know what that means…the Gulf Stream has shifted westward and is at its closest proximity to the continental US. In areas such as Beaufort, NC, where the coast juts out into the Atlantic, that means the warm clear waters traveling northward from the Gulf of Mexico are within 15 or so miles offshore and very reachable by boat.

IVS Trip to Cooper River July 4-6, 2011

The IVS Team with Some Serious Shark Teeth at Cooper River

So it is not coincidental that we have scheduled our first North Carolina dive adventure for this holiday weekend. We’ll spend three days diving the wrecks off the coast there, then we’ll depart on the evening of July 4th to enjoy a collection of fireworks displays as we travel down the highway. Some of us will head north and homeward, while the more adventurous (or crazy!) will head south to dive in the murky alligator-filled waters of the Cooper River, in search of fossilized Megaladon sharks teeth.

Traveling South…
But first we need to get to North Carolina, and of course that might make for an adventure in itself! Some of us, like Csaba Lorinczy, daughter Niki, and Craig Bentley, opt to head down an entire day early. They depart Thursday evening, stopping in the big honkin’ RV at a campground on the way down, and arrive in NC early Friday morning. Early enough, in fact, that they were able to get a 1-tank dive in on Friday afternoon with Olympus Dive Center, visiting the Indra. Conditions were acceptable, with 30 ft of viz and a slight current, a good way to get a 60 minute head start on the bottom time for the weekend.

Herb Dubois, with sons Sheldon and Ryan, head down early Friday morning, and Judy Mullen and Ashley Carpenter drive up from Savannah, GA in the morning also. Mike Barnhardt drove down from Maryland, and Shelly Liu and Stephen Francke came from New York to round out our crew of twelve for the weekend. Training-wise, the Dubois men, along with Ashley, will be completing their Advanced Open Water dives this weekend with us, so we are hoping for some stellar conditions and great weather!

Meanwhile I still have a few things on my desk screaming for attention before I can head off, so I need to spend a few hours in the shop Friday morning. No problem, I can get out around 11, that will get me there in the early evening. Well 11 rolls around and now noon is looking good, but we need to do some more service work and fill some oxygen tanks for a client, so now 2-ish sounds feasible. Nope, a few more things need attention, and I must get that darn newsletter out, so 2 comes and goes, as does, 3, 4 & 5. Finally, I am packing gear and loading the truck, and as the wheels start to roll southward, the little hand is on the 6! At least we are going! In nine-ish hours, I should be in sunny North Carolina!

Well as luck would have it, Michele didn’t have any plans for the weekend, so she offered to help with the drive down and maybe, just maybe, if the seas are really, really flat, she’ll come out and dive. Based on our experience in Riviera Beach earlier this year, we’ll see about the diving part, but I am thankful for the driving part indeed! Off we go, and we make it to the Harbor of Mercy, Havre de Gras, Maryland, where we stop for a dinner and some music along the waterfront there. McGregor’s Pub is always a great choice for some local seafood, and the soft shell crabs are in season. We’re not disappointed in the least! We get back on the road and I make it til almost midnight, until we need to stop for fuel and a change of pilots. I kick back for a few zzz’s while Michele drives, and I am really enjoying a nice nap when I am rudely awakened by those darn flashing blue lights. Seems someone wants get to know us a bit better here, and he’s walking up to the drives door right now.

Well for those of who remember last year’s drive to Florida and Mark Hughes run-in with Officer Napoleon Bonaparte Jr., I am thinking, as I look over at the drivers window and just see the top of blue hat and the end of the over over-compensating big flashlight, that this must surely be his little cousin! It usually sets a bad tone when the diminutive cop needs to look up at the lady in big truck and ask her to pass down the paperwork. “Well hello officer”, I say from the passenger seat, “what brings about this meeting tonight?” “I clocked your vehicle doing 75 in a 55 zone, sir”, he announces, and I am thinking good, we are making progress here, a little ice breaking so to speak. “Where y’all heading?”, he inquires, and I think about saying Beaufort, but rather than botch the pronunciation like only a true Yankee can manage, I opt for the easier to pronounce ‘Morehead City’. “Going diving?” he asks, like the name on the truck and the stack of tanks sticking up in the back didn’t give him a clue. “Yup, we are, we’re here with the stimulus program and about to spend a lot of money at the local businesses”, I say, thinking maybe this might inspire him to think of the overall positive impact our visit will have on the North Carolina economy as a whole. “I’ll be right back”, he says, and walks away with the registration and Michele’s license. Well a few minutes later he’s back at the door, and I am about to slap myself on the back for my intervention, when he announces “I’ve written you up for doing 75 in a 55 zone”, he says, as he hands the paperwork back. “Hey, thank YOU for the consideration”, I offer, and before I say anything further, that little voice of sanity and prudence inside my head tells me it is time to go. You gotta love North Carolina cops…NOT!

So now we really have to push it a bit to make up for the time we lost, and I am thinking, he might have baited us into speeding! But no, that would require a little more thought process than the little man in blue could likely muster, so I take over the helm and finish up the last hour to the lodge. Nice way to be welcomed into the state! Oh well, we are here, that is what matters most, and the engines on the boat have not started yet, so that is progress for me! And I even have time to relax a bit!

Saturday Morning, the Diving Begins…
The rest of the gang stirs on Saturday morning and we start to gather at the dive shop in preparation of our day on the water. Releases are signed, gear is loaded, and we await our departure. Wait, who is that walking across the parking lot? Well it’s Paul Highland, our neighbor and owner of Divers Den in Lansdale, He’s down for the weekend also, with a group from his shop, so I am wondering who we left at home to dive Dutch this weekend? We exchange hellos and bid each other safe diving, as his group departs on one of Discovery’s other boats. We’re on the big boat, the Outrageous, a 47 ft former crew boat with owner/captain Terry at the helm, and fellow captain Steve working as crew. Boat briefing complete, final gear checks done, and we head out to sea.

Stop number one is the Schurz, [history] 83 surface, 74 bottom temp, 50 ft viz, covered with baitfish so much that you could hardly see other divers 20 ft away, big stingrays buzzing with shark escorts, a few lionfish, 111 ft of depth, 37 minutes of bottom time, great starting dive to kick off the weekend.

Many of our readers are familiar with our practice of honoring great undersea navigators, and have visited many of our commemorative sites, such as the ‘Z-ball’, ‘C-ball’, and ‘Lynn’s ball’ during some of dive adventures. Needless to say, when you are leading a group underwater, and your name is associated with one of these infamous sites, it comes as no surprise that your navigational decision-making is sometimes questioned. So it should have come as no surprise to Csaba as he led Niki and Craig back to the anchor on the Schurz, and proudly pointed it out to them as the ascent line, that the two of them simultaneously shook their heads and indicated “No, that is NOT our line!” Csaba. His confidence rattled, decided OK, maybe they’re right, and continued down the wreck, second-guessing himself all the way. All the way, that is, until they got to the other anchor line, and he looked at the big “Divers Down” written on the lift bag attached to it, that he turned to his two companions and said, as best as can be said underwater, “That’s what you get for doubting me!”. So back to the original (and correct) anchor line they headed, Csaba chuckling and knowing that this won’t be the last time he’ll have to redeem himself.

Once everyone is back on board, its only a short motor away, and a little more surface interval, until we splash for dive #2, this time on the famous U-352, a former German U-boat sunk in action during WWII. A perfect example of bad decision making, the loss of this U-boat can be attributed to it’s captain’s decision to take on a US Coast Guard cutter, the Icarus, on a clear day in only 100 ft of clear water…not exactly ideal conditions if your plans go awry and you need to hide your submarine. Oh well….thanks for the wreck go dive on! Here we enjoy another amazingly similar profile, 111 ft for 37 minutes, finally returning to the surface for a little work on our tans and some degassing as we head to site #3.

Keeping it consistent and taking advantage of the great conditions, we opt to stay deep and head over to the USCGC Spar for our third and final dive of the day. Another 111 ft dive for another 37 minutes (how’s that for consistency?) and did I say “sharks?” Let me say that right here, we were surrounded by sharks, sharks, & more sharks! Small one, big ones, huge ones, and every one laid back and just checking us out as we were checking them out, literally within less than 2 ft away. Let me tell you, I was close enough to brush those big snarly teeth, I kid you not. After I sent everyone back up to the surface, except Shelly and Stephen on their rebreathers, I just spent another 15 minutes suspended in the water with the sharks. Truly, truly a magical dive, another “top 10’er” for me.

And meanwhile back on land, the folks in the “Darwin Awards” Department were picking a local winner today, and Michele, who has joined us on this trip but opted to not test the seasickness gods, had the chance to enjoy quite a show in the harbor this afternoon. She was waiting to take a ferry over to the uninhabited island across the harbor, and of course with it being the Fourth of July weekend, she expected to see and hear fireworks all around. So it sounded like a couple of vintage M-80’s exploding right there at the fuel dock in front of the ferry landing, where a line of boats awaited the chance to pull up and get some go-juice in their tanks. “Hey, check that out”, someone shouted, and Michele noticed one of the boats pulling away from the dock spewing smoke. Then she saw the flames, thinking wow, this was getting interesting! And the people screaming on board as the fire really got going on the boat. But wait, time for some decision-making on the captain’s part….he needed to get the people off his boat, and hey, there’s a convenient dock right there so he started towards it….totally ignoring everyone else screaming at him “Stay away from the fuel dock!”. Yeppers, he was bringing his burning boat right back into where enough gas was stored to create one mother of a fireworks display. Out of nowhere, a Coast Guard launch and a tow boat were there, getting a line on his boat, pulling him away from the potential disaster, and encouraging his passengers to leap into the water to get picked up. Crisis averted, remind me to not invite this guy to a barbecue!

Back to port, we fuel up the boat and tie up for the night, ready to repeat it all again tomorrow! Some of us head over to the Stillwater Café on the waterfront for dinner, and to share photos and swap stories of today’s awesome events, including these shots of the fuel dock episode…

Sunday the Diving Continues…

We headed out again at 7 this morning to slightly less inviting conditions with a bit of a chop and 3 to 4 ft seas. Our plan was to run east to the Caribsea, but the pounding would have made for a less-than-pleasant travel experience, so we shifted to a more southerly course and made for the Westland, a wooden barge carrying scrap iron that went down in 1941. Most of the scrap iron had been run through a compactor, so you essentially had solid steel boxes, measuring 18” square by about 3 ft long, stacked as far as the eyes could see. And we could see pretty far, as the viz was probably 100 ft or better today. Lots of life covered this oasis in an otherwise barren sandy bottom, with sand bass, tropical, moray eels, amberjack, sheepshead, spadefish and plenty of other varieties to make for a very interesting dive. One of the most prominent life forms that selected this particular place to call home was bristle worms, numbering in the thousands, and stretching to 8 inches or more in many cases. They were literally everywhere you looked and crawling on every surface, nook and cranny. Now many of you know that I have a special relationship with these guys, where I inadvertently offer them parts of my body to sting and they oblige by stinging it. I am sensing a few years of nightmares are in the works now with the visual of this wreck burned into my memory. A good dive overall, with a bit of current, 108 ft deep and a 45 minute run time.

Next stop on the hit parade of wrecks is the HMS Bedfordshire, a 162 ft long British armed trawler, which was performing escort duty and anti-submarine patrols along the middle Atlantic coast. It was sunk in 1942 by the U-558, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunter Krech, which had been prowling the east coast seeking merchant ships to send to the bottom. Not having much luck in that department, when they spotted the British warship on patrol they decided any sunken Allied ship is a good sunken Allied ship, so sink it they did. One well-placed torpedo split the boat in half, and according to the U-boats report, actually lifted it out of the water. The Bedfordshire was lost with all 37 hands aboard, and in fact was not even known to have been sunk until two of it’s crewman’s bodies washed ashore on the beach in Ocracoke.

We dropped in to a bit more current, and the viz was probably down to 50 ft or so, but hey, we’re diving! Water is still 80 degrees, wrecks are still covered with life, a couple of big stingrays with us on the bottom, big amberjacks swooping by, very nice. Another 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 96 ft.

En-route to our third drop for the day, we come upon a huge leatherback turtle sunning himself on the surface. Very cool to see this majestic endangered species out here!

Our destination is the Ashkhabad, a Russian freighter converted to a tanker that met it’s demise on bright sunny day in April, 1942, when the U-402, right under the nose of her escort ship the HMS Lady Elsa….hmmm..are we seeing a trend here with the British anti-submarine efforts during WWII? I’m just saying…..

Anyhow, the story gets better. As the leaking gasoline and fire spread across the ocean, the crew abandons ship, but the captain’s lifeboat is right in the middle of the fire. He orders the crew to jump overboard to escape the fireballs blasting from the ship, and they do, going under with each explosion. When it finally quiets down they surface only to find their lifeboat on fire. They manage to get that under control and begin to row to shore, joined by the other two lifeboats. The Lady Elsa, incompetent at keeping the subs away, at least serves as a nice ride for the crew back to port, as the Ashkhabad quietly sits on the surface, with fires still burning in the cargo area.

The captain returns the next day to the wreck, still floating and smoldering at sea, and they re-board the vessel. Much to their surprise, the ship has been looted, and personal belongings, valuables, and some navigational equipment stolen. What the heck, they are thinking, can this get any more embarrassing?

They return to port and again visit the ship the next day, only to find the HMS Herfordshire tied up to her, and the Herfordshire’s crew taking even more booty off the Russian ship. Busted, the British sailors are forced to return everything they took from what they claimed to believe was an “abandoned ship”. Nice try, boys.

So now with personal items back in hand, the crew goes back to port to prepare to reboard the vessel in the morning and prepare it for a tow to a shipyard. But before they can get there, the USS Semmes, a destroyer, comes upon it and deems it a navigational hazard, and begins firing a few rounds into the Ashkhabad to sink it. The Semmes is joined in the target practice by the HMS St. Zeno, and as Captain Alexy Pavlovitch steams over the horizon with the US naval tug Relief, he is greeted by the site of his vessel, torpedoed, burned, looted, un-looted, shot, and now sinking below the waves. What a report he must have to send back to Mother Russia, eh?

Well with all that wacky history behind it, our dive today was a great way to celebrate the collective military fumbles that brought us this wreck. Broken now on the ocean floor, this looks like the Benwood on steroids, a huge, busted open wreck, marked by two prominent boilers sitting in the center, and an equally large condenser blow off into the sand about 40 ft away. We’ve got more fish of all flavors, a huge green turtle sleeping inside one of the boilers, morays, shrimp, crabs, toadfish, and some really nice healthy cowries too! Towards the end of the dive, we’ve got everyone safely back on the ascent line except Shelly and Stephen, so I have some quiet time to really enjoy the wreck without teaching or leading…these are the best times for me!

As I approach the anchor line, I notice a huge cloud of lower visibility water coming towards me in the current. Why is the viz down, I am thinking…..well it is because of the millions of stinging jellyfish that are floating right at me!! Yikes! I need to back away from the anchor, retreating to the relative safety of the big boilers, as the cloud starts sweeping by me, nothing but thousand upon thousands of pulsating jellies, trailing long streams of stinging tentacles behind them, in some cases extending back 3 to 4 feet from the larger specimens. I brush a few away that come to close, and as I am hiding there, I notice Stephen and Shelly coming. I signal to them to come my way, and they do, as their eyes widen watching the cloud of jellies go by. While they are hanging with me we check out the turtle again, play around with some little critters, and finally there is a break in traffic, and we bolt for the anchor line. We ascend to just about the thermocline at 60 feet and that’s the magic number for the jellies, as they are working in the colder water below. Whew!! Our ascent is uneventful, with 60 minutes of bottom time at 60 ft, and we re-board, and begin the two-and-a-half hour bumpy and wet ride home. Another great day in the books!

For dinner tonight the entire group gathers at the Spouter Restaurant, where we enjoy a great meal and a lot of laughter, stories and jokes…OK, we enjoyed them; I can’t vouch for all the other patrons in the restaurant with us! After that it was time for bed and one more North Carolina wake-up to round out a fantastic weekend!

And now, it’s Monday….and Mother Nature has not been kind to us, with rough seas and high winds, high enough in fact that Discovery’s captains have unilaterally decided to cancel operations for the day. No ship is leaving the port, so there’s no diving today. Bummer!

So we enjoy a leisurely morning, unload the gear from the boat, and pack for traveling. Herb, Ryan & Sheldon Dubois, Judy Mullen, and Ashley Carpenter are heading south to South Carolina with me, while the rest of the crew head north and home. It’s a five hour drive to Charleston, SC, so I get in a mornings work at the “office” and then follow the guys south, arriving in North Charleston around 9 in the evening. Time for a quick bite and then some rest before we swim with the alligators in the morning.

Tuesday we gathered for a 6:30 a.m. complimentary breakfast in the Sleep Inn lobby, and go over our plans for the day. We’re doing four dives today, so we need to supplement our tank count a bit to make it through the day. Bill Routh, owner of Off the Wall Charters, and our guide for the day, joins us with the extra tanks in tow, and we load up and convoy over to the Cypress Gardens landing on the Cooper River. He runs a 33 ft long pontoon boat, nice and roomy and stable for playing on the river.

We load the boat up on the trailer, and Bill slips it into the water without a glitch. We climb aboard, get our briefing out of the way, and chug on down the river. We are just between tides now, per our plan, and the river is slowing down on the outbound tide. We are planning to dive the inbound tide, where the ocean tide backs up and overcomes the downriver current, so this tide is a lot easier to manage than the other. The downside is that the visibility is reduced due to the amount of silt and vegetation in the water, but we’ll manage.

Stop at the first sight, tide stops, but before we can get in, it turns and begins moving in the other direction. This area has a lot of eddy currents so we opt to visit it tomorrow and move to an alternate site for our first dive. A quick dive site briefing and then Capt Bill drops us in, one by one, spread along a massive gravel bed that runs through this section of the river. Five first time Cooper River divers with me, and every single one comes up an hour later with wide smiles and bags full of sharks teeth, fossils, and some pottery pieces too. Way to start it off!

That certainly sets my mind at ease for the rest of this trip, as this is true solo diving here. With visibility of less than 2 ft, there is no staying in touch with your buddy, in fact, on the outside chance you run into another diver while you are down, you can hardly recognize them, and have to shine your light on various parts of their kit to figure out who it is.

Meanwhile, a pod of bottlenose dolphins are in the river with us today checking us out and playing around the boat…very cool, especially since we are about 25 miles upriver from the Charleston Harbor and the ocean. Ashley is a little freaked out about this, since she has now twice on this trip related a story about an incident in Hawaii, where a female swimmer was sexually assaulted by a male dolphin, with him allegedly wrapping his extended penis around her knees. Well, after the laughter died down a bit, we talked about dolphin anatomy and endowments in general, and concluded, in our little study group, that surely a male dolphin must have originally told this story, complete with all bragging rights and exaggerations. We assured her that we’d keep a close watch on her knees in the event of a dolphin encounter, and she felt better knowing we had her back like that.

Dive #2 was a second location just around the bend from the first, and we get another 60 minutes of bottom time here also, with a max depth of 41 ft. And again, we have scored well in the tooth-gathering department.

We take a short surface interval after the second dive to allow the peak tide to pass, and then we’re in for dive #3. Another hour of solo diving, max depth about 40 ft., and more teeth in the collection bags. Sheldon scores a really nice fossilized turtle shell, Ryan is coming up with some amazingly small teeth that the rest of us are missing, and Ashley is kicking butt in the overall number of teeth collected. Everyone is having a blast!

When we surface from each dive, we inflate a small safety sausage on a 10 ft. jon line, allowing us to mark our location and take a moment to hang safely below the depths of propellers from boats that might be ignoring our ‘Diver Down’ flags in the river and on the dive boat. The nerve of some people! Once we have ascertained that there are no incoming propeller sounds, we surface, and Bill runs the boat over to pick us up. On this particular dive, Ashley surfaces, gives us an OK sign, and hangs quietly on the surface awaiting her pickup. We’ve got another diver ahead of her to get, so she has to wait a few minutes, and she is enjoying a little ‘Zen’ time basking in the glory of kicking our butts in the collection totals. Well, this was not a great idea at this particular time, as we watched the grass part on shore and a nice big alligator slip into the water, swimming right over to see what sort of gift has been left on his doorstep. Ashley is oblivious to this, and we are shouting out to get her attention. Finally, as the ‘gator is less than about 20 ft. from his potential dinner, she hears us yelling to her to make noise and wave her arms, and she obliges. With that, the ‘gator realizes she is not carrion, an alligator delicacy, and he submerges and turns away, leaving Ashley for the dolphins. Anyhow, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, and are thankful that this crisis has been averted!!

Bill is an absolute wealth of historical information regarding the river, the artifacts, and the history of the area over time, and shares factoids and stories with us during our time aboard the boat. One of the lesser-known artifact facts he shares concerns Prohibition-beating South Carolina Dispensary Bottles that are often found in the river. These unique bottles were used to package and sell liquor in a manner much the same way as “medically prescribed marijuana” is sold today..by some pseudo-prescription…proving that once again, some laws tend to be, as I like to say, “guidelines”…

Dive #4 is more of the same, and the animal life is aggressive on this one…as I drop to the bottom, I feel “bang, bang” on the back of my legs, and then again, and I am thinking, what is trying to eat me? Of course I can’t see that far, so I rotate slowly, and sure enough, there are the culprits, two catfish who are thinking they have found the mother lode of a dinner here. Not happening today, boys, I think, as I shoo them away and begin my dive. Again, everyone spends an hour solo diving and everyone comes up with teeth and smile. Very cool day of diving indeed.

Back to shore we unload the boat, clean the silt out of our hair, and then head out for a local dinner, before calling it a night and getting ready for our next day of fun on, and in, the Cooper River!

More to come…including photos!!!