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

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

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

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

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

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

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

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

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

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

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

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

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

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

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

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

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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……..

Memorial Day Weekend Diving Extravaganza

 

 Part I – Driving & Diving our way south, aka John & Ray & Dave’s Excellent Scuba Adventure

Today marked the start of Indian Valley Scuba’s Annual Memorial Day Key Largo diving trip, and this year’s event is the most special yet!  Expected to run ten days, it includes Cave Diving in northern Florida, drift diving and spearfishing off Boynton Beach, working with the Coral Reef Foundation to restore live corals to damaged areas of the Key Largo reef system, a typical IVS dive-dive-dive four day 14-dive wreck & reef weekend, and finally some shark tooth collection dives in the muddy Cooper River of South Carolina on the way home!  Add some rebreather training, open water checkouts, a ton of specialty and advanced training, and you have a typical relaxing week in water for Team IVS.

Sunday John Glodowski, Ray Graff and Dave loaded up and headed out, driving the first 980 miles to High Springs, Fl, to get ready for our first cave dive tomorrow.  Long, long drive, 15 hours with rotating drivers and lots of caffeine to get the team on location on time and not miss a dive!   Clear sailing through Washington, but raining from there to Florida made it an even longer night of driving.  Thank goodness for Diet Mountain Dew and Red Bull! 

Our first morning found us knocking on the doors at Ginnie Springs as they opened up at 8:00 a.m.  As usual, perfect customer service greeted us in this most organized operation, as the three of us signed in and registered for a morning of cavern and cave diving experience.  The river has dropped substantially since our last visit here a month ago, and the springs were running clear once again.  We set up and dropped into the Devils Spring system, first getting comfortable and our buoyancy adjusted in the shallow water above the Little Devils spring, basically a fissure down into the rock, measuring about 6 feet across, 40 feet long, and dropping almost 40 feet down.  The spring that feeds this enters through a small hole in one corner, and is clearly a “no-mount” entrance, meaning that in order to pass through the very tight restriction you would have to be holding your tank and regulator in your hands; as you would not fit if it were on your slung along your sides – yes, it’s that tight!  So we passed on that entrance, and made our way down to Devils Eye, and dropped down into the entrance.  Basically a shaft about 12 ft in diameter and 20 ft deep, it provides access to the entrance to the cave system.  We made our tie-off at the entrance, and our secondary just inside, and away we went, spooling out line and exploring the various nooks, crannies and passages through the cave system, finally reaching the main line and tieing off the reel.  From there we exited through the Devils Ear entrance, stopping for a safety stop while being washed by the significant outflow from this subterranean spring system.  From there we surfaced, and had an opportunity to debrief the dive, discussing the experience, and talking about our re-entry.  After a little surface interval, we dropped back in, re-tracing our steps, picking up the reel and slowly working away back to our original entry point.

Very cool dives, and now we were ready to enjoy a bit of a drift dive down the Santa Fe River.  The entrance to the next spring system was about a 1/4 mile downriver, so we kicked out a bit, and dropped down into the tannic-stained water for a brisk ride downstream.  Lots of freshwater mullet, bass, and a couple of large turtles were encountered on our way.  Popping up a few times to make sure we didn’t miss the next turn, we finally saw the small clearing in the trees that indicated the entrance to the Ginnie Ballroom spring.  We kicked up that waterway, finally crawling, and eventually walking, as the water got shallower and shallower as we approached the cavern entrance.  Suddenly the bottom dropped down to about 20 ft, and we swam down to the cavern entrance.  A narrow slit in the wall, and we slid in, as the cavern opened up into a massive underground area, hence the name, Ginnie’s Ballroom.  We explored the space, dropping down to 65 ft inside, and visiting the inlet spring, barred off for safety, that flowed so strongly that you could not swim and hold yourself in place near the entrance – an amazing amount of water passes through this cavern!

With only three dives under our belts for the day, we knew we needed a little more nitrogen racing through our veins, so it was off to Paradise Springs.  Located just an hour down the road in Ocala, this private spring & cave system is located on a horse farm, well off the beaten path. Find the little sign along the side of the road, take the one lane path through the woods for a half a mile, cross the railroad tracks, a right, a left, past two homes, through the gate, and to the house to check in!  Pay your fee, watch an orientation video, and it’s time to head down to the spring entrance.  Located about 40 ft below grade, it’s a bit of a hike to get down, especially wearing double 100’s.  But the trip is worth it, as we slipped into the small pool that was the entrance to this underground system.  Another buoyancy check, bubble check and a safety drill, and we began the exploration, dropping down into the cave system to a depth of about 140 ft before finally encountering some serious silting deep down in the narrowing passages.  Good spot to turn the dive, and we headed back up, stopping to examine the great variety of fossils and bones trapped in the side walls and ceiling of the cave.  From whale vertebra to lizard bones to sand dollars the sizes of dinner plates, this is a pretty cool spot for some underground education.   Finally it was time to head to the surface, and we climbed back out to the truck, loaded our gear, and got ready for the next leg of our journey – a five hour ride to Boynton Beach, FL.  We’ve got some photos to share from this portion of this trip – click here!

We arrived late at night in the still-pouring rain (three days in a row now) and got a few hours of well deserved and much needed shuteye in at the Holiday Inn Express.  Tuesday morning we finally saw some sunlight and hints of blue in an otherwise gray sky, so we took that as a good sign!  We found our way down to the marina and met Captain Shane of Deeper Dive Charters, our host for today’s activities.  We boarded, got squared away, and headed out in some good seas for a 3-tank trip, sightseeing and spearfishing the offshore reefs.

First location was Briny Breezes, a barrier reef at 80 feet. All the diving here was of the drift variety, and everyone had a job to do – John was hunting, Dave was shooting too, both of the video and speargun varieties, so we appointed Ray as the flag-master for the day, and he was assigned to tow a navigational-aid size surface float and marker flag for us while we dove.  We motored over to the spot, and it was “dive-dive-dive” as the command came from the bridge to drop in!  A very nice drift at 80 feet for almost 70 minutes – it’s great when you drive down and can haul your own doubles! We followed that with a long 20 minute or so surface interval, then headed to our second location, Gulfstream, another nice offshore reef line.  Lots of color, good coral formations, but nothing worth firing at so we enjoyed the scenary, including a huge 6 ft long turtle with a locator beacon attached to his shell – pretty cool to see such a mature animal.  Our final drop was at Delray Ledge, another nice 70 footer with some nice profile and vertical relief, and here John managed to give one nice rooster hogfish a headache I’m sure he’ll remember for a long time!  Gotta watch that angle on the shot!!  Finally we headed back in, disembarked, stopped for a nice curbside dinner at a Boynton Beach cafe, and headed down the road for a 3 hour jaunt to Key Largo.  And of course the rain continued to pummel us non-stop!

Part II – Coral Reef Restoration & Key Largo Diving

Confusion was the order of the day on Wednesday morning, as we woke to a nearly unrecognizable sight – the SUN!!   Woo hoo – the first time in our trip so far!  Once again, the scuba gods were smiling on Team IVS as they graced us with spectacular weather to kick off our coral reef restoration portion of this adventure.  This is one of the highlights of this year’s trip, and what a tremendously educational session we kicked it off with.  Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation, spent the morning sharing all the in’s & out’s of the coral reef system and what his foundation is doing to help restore it to a healthier more vibrant state with our restoration team, including Bob Stitzinger, Larry Gould, Butch Loggins, Sue Douglass, and Ray Graff, J-Glo and Dave Valaika.  The foundation currently specializes in Staghorn corals, and has over 3,500 live corals growing in their nursery, located about 6 miles offshore near Molasses Reef.  His presentation was thorough and his passion was obvious for his cause, and he quickly converted the attendees into coral advocates of the highest nature!  We broke for a brief lunch, and then headed out to the nursery.

Once on site, we began the task of cleaning and preparing the corals that we were to relocate on Thursday.  Scraping off the algae and other growths, we cleaned each live coral specimen with care.  Standing 3 to 4 inches high, these corals were the results of successful clippings of three different genealogical strains of staghorn coral.  The corals grow at a rate of about 1 millimeter a day, resulting in an inch or more of growth each month – wow!  So the corals we were about to plant had just been clipped off of healthy specimens earlier this year, and were already ready to go forth and help restore the reef!  We prepared 50 corals, and spent the remainder of the dive doing some routine maintenance work on the underwater ‘farm’.  Our second dive was at the site of the 1983 grounding of the Wellwood freighter, which drove into and onto Molasses Reef, causing a huge swath of damage, not once, but twice, as the salvage tugs dragged it back off the reef.  This site has been the scene of intensive study of reef restoration projects and techniques, and it was interesting to see the progress or lack thereof of some of the methods utilized over the last 25 years.  The most outstanding success by far was the restoration of the Staghorn coral population, and this was completetely the result of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s efforts.  We toured the site, and surveyed the locations for our restoration work scheduled for tomorrow.  Finally, we wrapped the evening up with part II of our coral education program, and got into the details of what would be expected of us tomorrow as we actually worked on the coral relocations.

Thursday morning we headed right out to the nursery, and spent two hours underwater, working to prepare fresh clippings onto bases and clean more growth off the nursery stock.  It is imperative that the corals are as clean as possible as the water warms or significant die-offs and incidents of White Band Disease show up in July & August.  So clean we did, scrubbing, scraping, and chiseling the various plants, sponges, and critters that had taken up domicile on the nursery plantings.  It is a very interesting shift in one’s mindset to go from our normal all-eco-inclusive “don’t touch, take nothing, leave only bubbles” mentality to working on behalf of the Staghorn coral and removing / destroying other species that pose a threat to them, in the nursery environment.  As we wrapped up our nursery duties we loaded the clippings we had prepared yesterday into tubs and hoisted them up onto the boat for a short ride to their new home.

After a short break for lunch, we motored out to the Wellwood site once again, and brought out little coral friends down with us   The lovely Miss Amy Slate was on board for the afternoon’s activities, and Carlie & Leslie Adams had also joined us for this afternoon in the roles of video and photo documenters, so we were set to get a lot of great footage of the activities.  Each restoration site was actually a grouping of three corals representing the differnt genotypes that Ken has nurtured at the nursery.  We chiseled and hammered and scraped the hardpan to prepare a suitable attachment point, mixed our two-part epoxy, and bedded the mounting disk that each coral was attached to into the reef.  Once set, we worked more epoxy in and around the base, smoothing the structure out and providing a more ideal platform for the coral polyps to grown and expand downward as well as upward.  Finally, we measured and documented the size and development of each coral and affixed a permanent ID tag into epoxy with a unique identifier number so that the growth and progress of the program could be monitored for years to come.  Our mission for the day accomplished, we headed back in.

After a round of hugs and kisses and T-shirt & email exchanges at the dock, it was time to turn to the next matter at hand – a night dive!  John Zyskowski, as well as Glen & Drew Hotte, had arrived and were itching to get wet, so we grabbed a quick bite and headed back out to the wreck of the Benwood, our favorite nightime dive site.  We arrived well after sundown, as we prefer, and slipped into the blackened waters to explore the nocturnal scene below.  Our efforts were well rewarded with some great up close turtle encounters, inquisitive squid visits, and the usual cast of characters out and about.   A perfect first night dive experience for Drew and a great Adventure Dive towards his Advanced Open Water certification!

Meanwhile, as we played under the sea, more of our group had arrived, including Stephanie Skelton, Meredith Bernardo, Kris Kritchell, and Tom & Debbie Brennan.  Also arriving tonight were our open water students, including Luanne & Jeff Stauffer, Katie & David Manninen, Joe Brown, and Katie Chin.   The weather continued to be perfect, save for an occassional downpour, but the sun keeps coming out, the wind stays away, and the seas are calm.

Friday we had half our group heading out on the Amoray Diver for some reef visits, and the rest of us headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge for our first two checkout dive.  With Instructors Butch Loggins, Ray G & Dave V, assisted by DM candidates John G, John Z, Carlie & Leslie, the group did great, progressing through the skill sessions with no problems at all!  While we were diving, a huge thunderstorm blew through, with lots of lightning striking all around and thunderclaps that made you jump, while the rain poured down on us – pretty cool!  Two great easy dives under our belt, we headed back to the resort to grab some lunch and get ready for the afternoon boat.  Our first location was the Spiegel Grove, and of course our newest divers had to sit this one out, but it was a beautiful day topsides to kick back and enjoy being out on the sea.  The rest of us jumped in, and were greeted with great visibility and ripping currents, not a bad combo!  Some of us did this dive with double 100’s and ended up with a 60 minute run time on this massive wreck, very cool to have that much time down there to really do some exploring!  Of course, IVS-South instructor Dave Hartman was on board to lead some of his famous deep & dark tours through the innards of the Spiegel Grove.  Our second location was Sandbottom Caves on French Reef, always a popular site, with some really cool easy swim thru’s and lots of large marine life to entertain and amaze us.  Visibility continued to be great and there was no current on this site to speak of so a great dive was had by all.  The dives were so cool, in fact, that Katie & Dave Manninen made the decision to not miss the “coolest dives” and opted to stay and dive Sunday, rather than head down to Key West – smart move!  Friday night more of our party arrived, including Tricia Arrington, Mike Parzynski, and Jack Sandler.

Saturday morning again the fantastic weather continued, with Bill Zyskowski joining us as we boarded early to head out to Fire Coral Cave, another superb site on America’s most popular living reef system.  After a 60 minute dive there, we motored over about 5 mooring balls to dive site #2, Eagle Ray Alley.  The site lived up to it’s name with some eagle rays spotted cruising through, a very photogenic turtle, and even a shark visited some of our divers! 

Back for a quick bite to eat, and it was showtime for our new divers as we headed out to visit the Spiegel Grove once again, and give everyone a chance to experience some deep wreck diving.  Greag Roll had joined the group at this point, and nearly everyone was accounted for!  Current was once again….shall we say…ripping?  Great experience though, and while this type of diving didn’t impress everyone right away (Luanne!) it was a good chance to expand our diving horizons and see a little bit of what else we can enjoy on our trips.  Stop # 2 was on the Benwood Wreck, perhaps the fishiest dive in the Keys, and the wreck was jammed with tropicals of all sizes and flavors. 

One more run back to the dock and most of us loaded back up for the night dive.  Heading out late, thanks to the great relationship we enjoy with Amoray and Capt. Joe, we entered the water well after sunset, so we were sure of much more nocturnal activity than most of the other Keys operators treat their clients to.   Got some great video of a couple of turtles and Meredith spotted not one but two octopus – way to go girl!!  Back to the ranch, some quick showers, and then we headed over to the Paradise Pub for burgers, wings and brews.

Sunday morning again the weather gods smiled on us, and Wendy & Alex Lepore joined us for some great dives.  Our first location was the City of Washington, where we got a chance to oversee the fish feed that Atlantis was conducting that morning.  About a half dozen nurse sharks showed up, some nice groupers (but no Bruiser!) and of course Psycho, the Great Barracuda.  We conducted some REEF Fish ID classes on the wreck and it was great for our divers to have a chance to actually participate in the REEF fish counts we do year round in the Keys.  For more info on REEF click here!  Site #2 was Mile’s Wreck, again, more turtles, sharks, and critters large and small, and another FISH ID dive survey completed.

After lunch it was time for our trademark double-deep dip on the Duane and Spiegel wrecks, sowe loaded up the Nitrox, and headed back out.  Conditions on the Duane were great, with some strong currents on the line, but nothing within the confines of this 327 ft long wreck, and the visibility was along the lines of 100+ feet.  A huge goliath grouper hung with us on the wreck as well as a large turtle and a stingray, so another memorable dive on one of the earliest members of the Florida Keys artificial reef system.  After that we visited the Spiegel, enjoying even more string current but great viz.  On this dive we were conducting some penetration training with reels, and Jack  & Mike did well, most  importantly learning how multi-tasking at depth with reel, light, buoyancy control and leading a dive is a major challenge!  And even more important, both Jack and Joe Brown geting a first hand lesson in why it is important to use the wreck to shield yourself from the current, especially when you are heading up for the ascent line!

Part III – Conch Republic & Cooper River Shark Tooth Diving

 A lot of the gang headed for home port Monday, but a bunch of us drove down to Tavernier and boarded the Conch Republic Divers boat for a day of diving on some new locations.   Stop one was the wreck of the Eagle, and you could not have asked for better conditions. Viz forever, and minimal current, as we enjoyed this 120 ft deep wreck, torn in two pieces a few years back by Hurricane George.  Click on the link for more information and some history on this wreck.  Our second site was Patches Reef (also known as the Aquarium) and we once again took the spear guns for a swim, with nothing presenting itself for us to bring home to the dinner table.

Our afternoon plans were to dive the Bibb, sister ship of the Duane, but the current was absolutely ripping on this site, so we opted to head up once again to the Spiegel.  The good news is that this ship is so large that you can enjoy many, many dives on it and each one will find you exploring new territory and areas of the ship.  After a nice dive there, we headed to our final Keys location, Conch Wall, located just outside the Aquarius habitat.  This wall, sloping from about 40 ft to over 100 ft, is a majestic site, with lots of high corals, good fish populations, and something for divers of every ability.  Once again, we brought the guns out for a swim, but this time I managed to sneak up on a nice black grouper and put a shot right behind the gills.  Finally one for the cooler, I thought, as the fish shot out, but no, he ran right under a coral head, and as fast as I could swim there, it wasn’t fast enough, as he managed to wriggle off the spear -darn!  OK, I thought, now we play the game as John G and I slowly stalked our soon-to-be grilled fillets through the reef.  He was good, but we figured we had him outgunned, and it was only a matter of time before he popped out enough for us to put the finishing shot in him.  But suddenly, our group of two hunters became three, as a large shark joined in, aggressively running up and down throught the reef, clearing picking up on the trail of our dinner!  Now the question was, who was going to get to the grouper first?  Well, the fact of the matter is, the shark won, chasing our grouper off a bit out of our range, and I’m sure ultimately enjoying our efforts.  Darn!

Well gosh, you’re thinking, this is like the children’s tune, ‘The Song that Never Ends’, but we’re getting close!  (ha ha…I have you hearing that jingle in your heads now, don’t I? ).  Well John, Ray & I packed up the truck and headed north, driving all night to make our next appointment with Alex Blalock of Deep South Rivers, our host for Tuesday’s diving on the Cooper River in South Carolina.  What a beautiful river area, with remains of former rice paddies, indigo fields, and life from days gone by, not to mention lots and lots of big alligators swimming in the river or sunning themselves on shore!  We managed to get three good dives in, with water temps around 72 degrees, and visibility in the 18 to 24 inch range!  Serious black-water diving was the order of the day, and our efforts paid off with some really nice findings of Megladon shark teeth, fossils and some fragments of early Native American pottery. 

Diving the Cooper River is unlike any other diving that IVS does the rest of the year.  Picture this:  head over to your local volunteer fire department, say around midnight, when it’s good and dark.  Then have the crew turn on a 4-inch hose and direct it right at your face and chest.  Now, have a couple of bus boys from the local restaurant continuously throw handfuls of tossed salad at your head – get the picture?  Between the unbelievable water movement, the amount of vegetation that flows in the river (and wraps around your face, head, regulator and every other part), and the fact that you can’t see more than 18″, this is some adrenalin-pumping diving, and worth every moment in the water!!  And if that’s not enough, remember that no good IVS dive trip is complete without an engine breakdown, and this trip was no exception, as we experienced some serious knocking & banging on our way back in.  One long, long ride at 5 mph but we managed to make it back, adding a few more photos of dive boat captains bent over a broken engine to our collection!

Finally, all great things must come to an end, and after 9 days, 34 dives and nearly 3,000 miles driven, it was time to jump back into the truckster and drive the last twelve hours home, through the night, of course, arriving back to reality at 6:30 a.m.  Just in time to head to unload the truck and head to work!  Well OK, John & I headed to work, our more senior amigo Ray has passed that point in his life, and he headed home for a leisurely siesta!