Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re off to see the Queen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

A Very Special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

Over 70 people turned out for a very special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting under the Tiki torches on August 9th at Indian Valley SCUBA. The Club meeting included special Guest IVS founding member Sue Douglass who flew in from California to enjoy the company of the IVS family of divers.  IVS co-founder David Valaika announced that Indian Valley SCUBA was this week recognized by PADI of the Americas as one of the first PADI TecRec Diving Centers in the United States. The IVS PADI TecRec Center is offering numerous new courses of different levels just released by PADI for technical and rebreather training including training on the new Poseidon rebreather units.  Read PADI’s Announcement

Introduction of the new full time staff members Avery and Casey Chipka

As if that wasn’t enough great news already, Valaika also announced the formation of Indian Valley Travel, a full-service travel company, located in Harleysville, PA. Indian Valley Travel will serve the complete travel needs of the IVS local and extended community well beyond the extensive list of the dive trips offered by the IVS Travel program. IVS South’s own David Hartman, a certified and seasoned travel agent from Key Largo, will head up the new travel company and plans to split his time between Key Largo and Harleysville, staffing the new Indian Valley Travel desk located on the main campus of Indian Valley SCUBA. Beyond offering traditional travel options in adventure, cruise and dive travel, Indian Valley Travel will focus its core program offering on Sustainable and Accessible Travel. Indian Valley Travel will leverage existing and new partnerships to create value based programs that allow people to travel with a purpose and give back during the vacation. The Indian Valley Travel brand and unique travel programs will be rolled out over the next few months with a soft launch at the Global Abilities Conference in Philadelphia and an official launch at the diving trade show DEMA 2011 in Orlando, Florida where IVT will be exhibiting in the IAHD-Americans booth. While the official launch is being planned, David Hartman and Indian Valley Travel are available now for specific individual group travel requests.

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

David Hartman explains the creation of Indian Valley Travel..a full service travel company

Indian Valley SCUBA is working with Indian Valley to offer lengthy long term dive travel schedule from 2012-2014 to both familiar annual locations like Key Largo and North Carolina to first time exotic destinations like Egypt, South Africa, Rotan, Sea of Cortez, Belize, Vanuatu, Fiji and Raja Ampat to name a few. David Hartman and Sue Douglass briefly reviewed some of the highlights of the new comprehensive dive travel schedule and built up excitement among attendees regarding some favorite diving destinations. Handouts of the new Indian Valley SCUBA long term travel schedule were given to attendees and can be downloaded here.

Barbara Beck talks about her work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Barbara Beck talks about her volunteer work in Key Largo with the Marine Mammal Conservancy to help rescued Pilot Whales

Sue Douglas took over the speaker’s podium to review the details of Indian Valley SCUBA’s Nov 2012 return trip to the Republic of Palau in Micronesia. The upcoming Palau trip offers three different options for live-aboard and land based diving to fit all travel schedules and budgets. The live-aboard will be 7 nights on a brand new boat on the world famous Siren Fleet of sailing vessels and departs on November 30, 2012. IVS will be the second group to sail and dive Palau on the newest boat in the Siren Fleet-the SY Palau Siren. The second half of the Palau will be spent 7 nights at the Sea Passion resort with 5 days of two tank diving with Sam Tours who IVS used during our Nov 2010 to Palau. Travelers can join David Valaika and Sue Douglass for both weeks in Palau or just dive liveaboard or resort only. Palau Trip Flyer
Bev Loggins wrapped up the meeting with some local announcements on an upcoming Sky Diving trip plus the usual 50/50 and bonus gift raffles. Bill Zyskowski was the big winner of the “to serve prize” for the September Club Meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the "To Serve" honor for the next Club meeting

Bill Zyskowski wins the “To Serve” honor for the next Club meeting

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!