The Jungle called…and I answered! Time for an African Adventure!

The earth is a vast and wonderful place, with so much to see and experience.  One of the challenges of my dual career-choice roles of running a dive center and an adventure travel company is the need to constantly seek out the best places to visit in every corner of the globe, on every continent.   Yes, it’s not an easy job, but it’s a burden I feel the need to bear for the sole benefit of the Indian Valley community of travelers. I thank each of you for feeling my pain!

The African continent is a diverse land of contrasts, from beautiful beaches, barren deserts, lush jungles, towering mountains, majestic waterfalls, and so much more.  Equally teeming with life, one could easily dedicate their life to exploring this vast land mass and barely scratch the surface. Enter Sonja Newlands, the founder of Africa Tours and Unashamed Travel, her two businesses that specialize in offering the very best expeditions that Africa and the surrounding region have to offer for discriminating travelers.  Over the past two years, Sonja and I have been hard at work developing a unique partnership designed to provide Africa Tour, and the destinations she represents, with a solid marketing presence in the Americas, while guaranteeing Indian Valley travelers the very best choices for adventure travel opportunities of every nature. The truest definition of a “Win-Win” situation is sure to result from our efforts.  My mission over the next couple of weeks will be to sample the best of the best in South Africa, and use that firsthand knowledge to help our travelers select the operators and destinations that maximize the adventure they seek, while optimizing the greatest value in terms of time, money and effort.

So our trip begins on a dark, stormy January day with a chill in the air, accented by overcast skies and periods of torrential rain.  Not a bad setting to put behind me, I say to myself,  as I put together the final touches of preparation for my visit to the Dark Continent.  As one might suspect, I have left trivial travel details, such as packing, to the last possible moment…I function so much better under stress.  So the alarm goes off, it’s six a.m., and time to get my procrastinating butt in gear for my 2:00 flight.  I check my lists, and start pulling two weeks worth of tropical clothes together.  Keeping in mind that there are a number of in-country flights planned, I have a two-bag, max 50 lbs each limit to respect.  That certainly rules out my luggage of choice, my Pelican cases.  For this adventure I opt for the Akona’s newest offerings, the  ‘Less than 10’ suitcases, complimented with a ‘Less than 7’ carry-on roller bag.  Yes, traveling light…something new for me, but I’ll give it a whirl…this time!

With bags packed and weighed, I bid my farewells to Pete and Niki at the shop, and then its hugs & wet kisses to my girls Isabelle & Ruby.  It’s uncanny how they know daddy is going away…I love my German Shepherds so much!  So all is good, as I ramble down the highway with plenty of time to spare….yes, another thing different for me!  This is looking like a great start to a great trip…right up until the moment my cell phone starts to ring and I see those dreaded words in my caller ID…Delta Airlines.  Man oh man, what can be happening now?  Well, remember all those dark clouds and stormy skies?  Seems that has caused my flight out of Philadelphia to Atlanta to be canceled due to the weather, but not to worry, I am “protected” on a USAir flight to Paris to connect me to something.  OK, I relax, and keep heading on down to the airport.  Wait….my phone rings again….seems that flight was canceled too…now I am heading to New York to connect to Amsterdam …. oh man…too much to compute, let me just get my truckster parked and deal with it at the counter.

I pull into SmartPark, my favorite off-site parking lot, and the shuttle van is waiting for me.  Mid-afternoon, and it’s nice and slow, so I’m the only soul in the van.  But wait…another car pulls into the lot, so the driver asks if I mind if we pick them up.  “Heck no”, I reply…I am already in limbo-land on my flights so no rush now.  We pull up behind the car, and a couple gets out with their skis.  Funny thing is though, we recognize each other immediately…why, it’s Mary & George Foering, members of our dive club!  What an amazingly small world it is!  We chat about diving and skiing all the way to the airport.  Seems they are heading to Deer Valley for the first time, and that happens to be one of my favorite Park City ski resorts, so I give them a few tips on places to eat, such as one of the Valaika family establishments, Shabu restaurant in downtown Park City!  Yes, my cousin Robert Valaika’s place…gotta keep it in the family!  We split at the airport with them heading west and me going east, with a date to meet again next month at the Indian Valley Divers club meeting.

Strolling up to the ticket counter, I search for a familiar face there, and lo and behold, who’s working today but my long-time Delta friend Kim Kates-McGrory. Kim & I go back probably 20 years of flying Delta out of Philadelphia…it is always good to have friends and great relationships in business!  No better hands would I like to find myself in, especially after all those troubling phone calls on my way to the airport.  As one might imagine, my travel issue is a bit complicated, so the line forms behind me as Kim devotes no less than 45 minutes to getting me re-routed on my flight.  At times she is on one phone, and I am holding the other for her, as we’re working with different agents trying to salvage my travel plans for the day.  Finally she manages to work it out, with a “fingers-crossed” route to Atlanta in hopes of catching that trans-Atlantic flight.  I thank you immensely, and head up through security and to the gate.

Well the weather gods are not done with me yet, and my flight is indeed delayed.  By the time we board, and wait on the taxiway, it is a lost cause, and there is no way I am making my Atlanta flight.  The official word greets me when I arrive there, as they hand me my hotel voucher and dinner ticket for the night.  Geesh….what a start to this adventure!  My bags are safely locked up for the night, so I jump into the hotel shuttle and enjoy an evening in ‘Hotlanta’ on Delta’s dime before calling it a night.  We’ll continue this journey in the morning.

Day Two – Still in America but moving in the right direction! 

Thursday morning dawns to another sadly gray day, but the good news is that I am 660 miles closer to my destination!  Back to the airport, I throw myself on the mercy of Rosie and Tyrone, two of Delta’s finest working the Atlanta ticket counter.  I share my tale of woe, my “lost day” of travel due to the airline’s flight cancellation, and they pick up the phone and talk some airline magic to the folks on the other end.  They hand me my boarding pass on today’s oversold flight, and send me off to the security line with a ‘wink’.  Amazingly the airline gods smile once again, and the gate greets me with a nice single-digit row number to ease the pain of this seventeen-hour flight.  Thank you!

I send an email to Sonja to confirm my new flight info, and she has already taken care of moving my South African Airlines flight back a day, along with adjusting the start of our itinerary.  She is truly a professional, and her presence in the local market shines through brightly.

I arrive in Johannesburg, clear immigration, collect my luggage, and pass through customs without a glitch.  Stop at a currency trader, and change some US $ into South African Rands, aka ZAR (the Z coming from the Dutch / Afrikaner spelling of ‘South’, not the ‘English’ version.  Exchange rate is about 9 Rands to a Dollar, so a Rand comes in at about 11 cents each.

I head over to the South African Airways counter to check in for my domestic flight, and of course, in spite of me packing light, I am still over the limit, so it costs me R250 ($28) for my second checked bag..geeesh!

Now folks have often heard me speak of the value of brand loyalty, and especially how it applies to air travel.  Well here is a perfect example – not only do I get banged for my bag, but my seat assignment is the absolute last row in the plane, a non-recliner up against the lavatory bulkhead.  Talk about a night & day difference from last flight to this one!   Thank goodness it is only two hours so all things considered I’ll just have to suck it up and endure.

The pilot announcing the preparation for landing in Cape Town doesn’t come a minute too soon, and we touch down.  Collect the bags once again, and now into the throng of greeters at the airport with the hopes of finding my driver there.  It’s only a few minutes of scanning the crowd before I make eye contact with Gary Flynn, my local expert and tour guide for the first portion of the journey.

We load up the bags and head 50 km to Simons Town, a quaint village halfway down the peninsula from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope. Gary is a wealth of local and national knowledge, as well as an avid diver and conservationist, so the banter never stops as we make our way along.

We pull up the Quayside Hotel, located right on the harbor in Simons Town.  Really nice cute 5-star hotel with spacious rooms and a helpful staff to get me situated for my first night in-country.  It’s late to right to bed to rest up for a busy day tomorrow.

Day Three – Simons Town, Cape of Good Horn, transit to Cape Town

Up early and ready to go, my first appointment of the day is with my friends at Shark Explorers, one of the top operators for Shark Diving in SA, and specializing in Great Whites.  The owners, Morne Hardenberg, has been diving with sharks and great whites in particular since 1999.  His lovely wife is actively involved in on-going research with a number of international organizations dedicated to learning more about this mysterious apex predator that pre-dates man by a million years. He has his right-hand man Brocq pick me up at the hotel and take me around for the morning, onto the boats, checking out the shark cage, and glimpsing into the wonderful research they have gained during their experiences in the water with our big grey friends.  Amazing small world story:  Brocq attended boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ, about 25 miles from Harleysville, and knew the area well.  Back to Shark Explorers, it is utterly amazing what they have discovered so far, and how much more there is to learn about these animals.  Sadly, we have 30 km/ hour winds coming in from the southeast, across a thousand mile of open ocean, so the seas are not looking good for getting out today.  It is whitecap city everywhere you look, and the long run hour to the best great white grounds would be impossible to endure.  So after a bit of a cruise around the harbor, I bid them farewell for now and meet up with Gary from last night for the rest of the day.

Our mission today is to tour southward, to the end of the peninsula that is known as the Cape Floral Kingdom.  Consisting of a ridge of mountain peeks starting in Cape Town, end runs to the southernmost point of the African Continent, the Cape of Good Hope.  We start at the dive center, and head back to the harbor area.  We pass the South African Naval Museum and the largest naval facility in the country, home to the biggest part of the SA Fleet.  Pretty neat to see a major naval facility completely surrounded by recreational and commercial docks and boats, a little less security paranoia here than back in America for sure.  After passing that, we pull down a small road and park for our walk Boulders National Park, the home of a huge population of South African Penguins.  This is one of the five major species of penguin, and like their cousins in the Galapagos, the only ones that are not found in Antartica.  These guys are great, hanging out right alongside us, not bothered by the tourists and the clicks of the cameras.  They roost on the rocks and beach, and swim playfully in the kelp beds….assuming, of course, that there are no sharks awaiting them!

OK, Penguin experience satisfied, we move further south, along the shore line of False Bay, a huge, 30-mile wide expanse of water that has only one outlet to the sea, alongside Cape Point directly ahead of us.  With the summer winds prevailing from the Southeast, the warm water is trapped in the bay, and it is a full 20 or so degrees warmer than the ocean just outside.  This of course brings a lot of sea life, and the admirers of sea life, such as big predators, into the bay, making for quite the viewing opportunity for watching dinner being served. All along the way we can observe frenzies of feeding activity in the water, with diving birds, leaping fish, and lots of splashing, indicating that someone out there is not having a good day at all!

As we pass out of Simons Town, I start noticing a lot of signs warning of baboons, and of course, the inquisitive mind needs to know.  Well it seems that the baboons have adapted very well to the presence of humans, and in a reverse illegal immigration sort of way, the nice people moved into the bad neighborhoods, so to speak.  The baboons, with males weighing a few hundred pounds and taller than me, equipped with sharp claws and huge teeth, are not so easy to deal with.  They often attack in packs, swooping down on outside and inside restaurants, entering homes, and doing pretty much anything they want.  In fact, we spotted some ostriches alongside the road, and I had Gary pull over so I could get out and take some photos.  While I’m standing there with the birds a car pulls up, and the family jumps out to get some pictures too.  I mention to them that they might want to close the windows and lock the doors, but who are they to listen to this gringo?  So, I have my ostrich pics, and I walk over to their car, and start taking pictures of the baboon in the back seat ripping apart the bags and purses…the family screams hysterically seeing what I am taking pictures of, and I give dad a big “thumbs up” for taking my advice..maybe next time, eh?

Our next stop is a little impromptu meeting with Dr. Larry Hutchings, a marine biologist and Professor of Marine Studies at Cape Town University.  He’s out today searching the surface of the bay for the sign of Yellowtail, the fish we call Amberjack.  He’s got a research study going on with the species, so we chat a bit about the habits they exhibit here and what we see in the US waters.  It’s interesting to note that the parasitic worm that infests the tail half of most of the ones we catch is non-existent here, and that’s a good thing.  Of course they have their own army of parasites, so we swap parasite stories for a while.  Our vantage point is on a bluff overlooking not only the bay, but a small village of little vacation homes built in a cove a few hundred feet below us, right on the water.  I ask about them, and especially the fact that I see no vehicles and no roads there at all, and he proudly shares that one of them is his and has been in his family since the 50’s.  It was a one room cabin when it started, and over the years, he has added several rooms and a full kitchen to the home.  When I ask about the lack of vehicles, he says that is the way the owners want it, and there are literally no access roads to the village; 100% of the construction materials, food, and everything else is hand carried down from the place we are standing.  Wow is all I can think – what a lifestyle choice!

We pass along further south, and finally reach Table Mountain Nation Park, which encompasses the entire southern half of the peninsula  and is the home of the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Point lighthouse.  A total of 15,000 acres of land is inside the park, and it’s the home of more than 1,500 floral species – pretty intense diversity.  As we park and prepare to get out and walk a bit, Gary points out that in addition to all those plants, there are three critters here I should pay mind to:  Mole Snakes, Puff Adders, and Cape Cobras.  Seems all these plants make some good food sources for African White Striped Mice, and birds too, so it’s pretty prime hunting grounds for snakes too!  While the mole snake reaches a length of 12 feet, it is a constrictor, and it’s bite is not dangerous.  The Adder and Cobra though are pretty deadly, and the Adder is also not fearful of humans, so as you walk along, it doesn’t slither away like a good snake should, but sits and waits for you to get within range.  Death occurs within hours unless you receive prompt medical treatment and ant-serums, but the tissue damage is so extensive that the bitten area, usually an arm or leg, must be amputated.  Well, that brings up a lot of memories from my Hellfire Coral interaction in Truk Lagoon a year or so ago!  Yikes….let’s watch for the snakes!

Well the fact that you are reading this suggests that I never lost focus on my guides warning words, and that our stroll through the brush was without incident. Todays score, at least so far: Dave 1, African Poisonous Snakes 0.  We’ll try to keep it that way for the next 10 days!

In spite of the constant fear of a painful death or at a minimum loss of an appendage, I must admit that the park was beautiful, a rugged, yet lush landscape filled with lots of life no so obvious at first blush, but thanks to the learned eye of my guide Gary, he is able to point out so much to me.  Good call having him along!

We head from there back along the road to the end of the peninsula, and the Cape of Good Hope.  This is the southernmost point of the African Continent, and also where the waters of the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean mix.  In addition to the turbulence of the seas coming together, there are nearly always strong winds, plenty of fog, and many submerged rocks, which help maintain this areas recognition as one of the most historically dangerous sailing passages known worldwide.  There are actually two points jutting out next to each other , the second being Cape Point, and that is where in 1860 they erected a lighthouse at the top to help sailors avoid catastrophe on the rocks below.  Well, the early Einstein’s neglected that fog thing I mentioned, and so for the 40 years of it’s working life, ships continued to crash with regularity in the area, mainly because no one was looking 750 ft up into the clouds for a navigation marker.  So around 1900 they finally erected another lighthouse, down along the waters edge, well below the clouds and fog, and finally, they succeeded in their mission, and the local shipwrecking business came to an end.  Today, thankfully, was clear and bright, and the view from the lighthouse was pretty spectacular.

Located right on the point, actually under the parking area, was a great restaurant called Two Oceans.  Now usually when you have some tourist destination, the first two mandatory improvements are rest rooms and some crappy restaurant serving predictably mediocre fare.  Well that is hardly the case here, these folks did it right!  Our lunch is superb, selected a fine menu which included a huge selection of fresh sushi delights to accommodate the significant number of Asian tourists that visit the area.  Well done!

Bellies full, we start heading north, cutting across the point to the Atlantic Coast.  Our first stop along the rocky coast is to observe local lobstermen working to catch delicious South African Rock Lobsters in the kelp.  They are working in about 4 to 6 feet of water, using a long pole onto which they tie a piece of bait to a string, and dangle it in the water.  Lobsters come out of hiding to sample the bait, and once they decide it is indeed tasty, they latch on, and the fisherman slowly raises the pole, with the lobster hanging on, until he can maneuver a long net into position behind & below the lobster, who realizes this was not a free lunch and drops off the bait, ideally into the carefully positioned net.  Pretty interesting technique, and even more interesting is how many lobsters live in the relatively shallow waters under the kelp, and how active they are during the day – a bit different that what we experience at home.

Continuing up the coast, we pass through the village of Scarborough, which holds the infamous title of the area with the greatest number of baboon home invasions.  You gotta be famous for something, but man, couldn’t they choose something better?  As we travel further along, Gary points out some areas where divers or surfers have suffered Great White attacks over the past years….this shark thing is pretty serious here!  Many of the beaches with good surfing waves have, in addition to the lifeguard, a Shark Spotter on a high tower or piece of ground, who is constantly scanning the water looking for sharks.  Today, however, the risk is quite low, as the water is a clear blue with great visibility, and that reduces the risks of sharks accidently attacking a human through a case of mistaken identity due to low viz. They have a flag system for warning, and today the Green ‘Shark’ flag is flying, indicating low risk. Point taken:  only frolic in the clear water in Africa!

We pass along the beautiful rugged coast heading northward, dotted with rocks & kelp, mixed in with a number of pristine white sand beaches.  We pause for a quick hike down a trail to a beautiful viewing area high on a rocky cliff over the ocean, and Gary points out that last November, in the exact spot I am standing, a gust of wind blew a tourist right over the railing to his death below on the rocks.  I think I have enough photos from here thanks, let’s head back to the van!

As we begin to approach Cape Town, we start to pass through some obvious hardscrabble housing developments, and Gary enlightens me about some of the pre-apartheid practices of the South African government, namely, forced relocation.  This land is made up of a number of diverse ethnic groups, and unlike the overly-politically correct US, here they make no bones about it.  There are Blacks, the native people of South Africa, Coloureds, who are mainly the descendants of slaves imported from other lands, and the Whites.  And the Whites, who only make up 7% of the population, are further divided into Afrikaners, with Dutch roots, and the English, with ties back to the UK.  Every group, except of course the Blacks, can be traced back in history to different times of occupation and exploitation, from the Dutch East India Trading Company arriving in the early 1600’s, to the British West Indies period, through the Anglo-Boer wars over gold and minerals, and finally to where they are today.

But during the mid 1900’s the Afrikan government took up the practice of racially segregated housing, which resulted in massive forced relocation projects.  We are driving through them now, acres and acres of cheap government housing units, filled with economically challenged people, and rife with crime.  There are more electric fences in South Africa than I have ever seen anywhere, all erected with the idea of keeping those with even less than you out. South Africa also does not have a welfare system, so ‘work to eat’ is the order of the day.

A little further along, we see the next phase, where, after the end of apartheid, formerly relocated persons could apply for what essentially amounted to a free home provided by the government. These “Mandela Palaces” as they are mockingly referred to, are very simple one and two room units, that require the prospective owner to occupy for seven years, at which time title will be passed down to them.  Although nothing to shout about, it is certainly a step up from the projects.

Finally we arrive in Cape Town, where I check in to the Southern Sun Waterfront hotel for the night.  Located right in the downtown, district, it’s a first class property very conveniently located near the V&A Waterfront district, a vibrant and exciting area of restaurants, shops, nightlife and attractions right on the water.

Day Four –  Cape Town area, & transit to Durbin

Morning comes and I head down to breakfast to find myself breaking bread with the members of the New Zealand National Cricket Team, in town for a match.  Pretty animated bunch for sure, and they certainly start my day off with a bit of laughter.  Gary arrives, and we’re off for another day of touring before I have to head to the airport again.

We start with a drive up Table Mountain, the towering u-shaped land mass that forms the City Bowl, a natural low-lying area which contains all of Cape Town.  We drive as far as we can, and then take a cable car up to the very top to enjoy some phenomenal views of the city and surrounding areas.  The mountain got it’s name from it’s shape, which includes a large flat top.  The warm, humid air coming in from the sea forms dense clouds as it rises up the face of the mountain, but the prevailing wind from the back side traps the cloud there, where it lies like a table cloth, draping over the edges of the mountain top – very unique formation, and we’re treated to quite a view today. A little local tradition is the monthly “Moon Walk”, during the first phases of the full moon thousands of folks hike up the mountain, toting refreshments, and enjoy a spectacular view of the sun setting to the west while the moon rises in the east, both in full view at the same time.  A few more refreshments, and I am sure they see all sorts of other things up there too!

From there, we head down and then back up to Lions Head mountain, right on the coast where the City Bowl ends at the sea.  It’s easy to see why the Dutch came and built a port here in this natural harbor, the first European development in the southern African continent. We also get a commanding view of Robben Island, commonly referred to as the Alcatraz of Africa.  Situated four miles offshore, this island is a former political prison which housed Nelson Mandela for 19 years.  Today it’s a tourist attraction, with ferry shuttles running people out all day long.  From our position we are also overlooking Cape Town Stadium, which, with it’s round shape and round hole in the roof, is jokingly referred to as the largest toilet seat in Africa.  Built for the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, it evidently is the wrong size to use for anything else, and the government is looking to tear it down and rebuild a more useful stadium.  Way to think ahead on that one, eh?

Another amazingly small world story:  As I’m taking photos of the stadium, a couple walks up with the same idea.  We start to chat, and they are Afrikaners from the Johannesburg area, that come down to Cape Town annually for a weekend vacation. They ask my origin, and I tell them, and that starts a whoe new discussion – they are avid travelers to the US, having visited Key West, San Diego, San Francisco (including Alcatraz), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Niagara Falls, and of course, Disney World. We end up yacking for another thirty minutes on the side of the road, sharing travel stories and favorite places – pretty cool!

Enough of the high-level sightseeing, we head down into the city for some up close and personal sights.  Our first stop is one of the oldest sections of the city, with colorful houses, cobblestone streets, and a few mosques.  The neighborhood of the original Dutch inhabitants, they abandoned it when the British took over in 1800, and when they left, their former slaves took over. Most of the slaves had been imported from Malaysia, hence the neighborhood is known as Malay Town.  It has a strong community culture and there are no homes for sale, in fact, if a family is having difficulty with making ends meet, the community gets together and works out a financing plan to help them get back on their feet, rather than suffering the risk of the home being sold to someone from “outside”.  The second half of the Malay Quarters is Cape Town’s gay district.  Like San Francisco was to the US, Cape Town has for years had a strong gay ( I suppose we should use today’s term LGBT) community.

Further downtown, we pass by the Castle of Good Hope, the 1st European building constructed in SA.  Built in the 1670’s to defend the vital port, it was located immediately on the shore line, with it’s cannons pointing seaward.  Of course, the Dutch being who they are, reclaimed much of the land along the sea, and the fort ended up being about a half mile inland by the time they were done.    Across the street from the fort is the old City Hall, an imposing structure facing the city square.  In 1990, immediately upon release from prison, Nelson Mandela was brought here and gave his famous Freedom Speech from the second floor balcony to throngs of cheering black supporters in the square.  It was the first time many of the whites had ever seen such a gathering, as until that point it was illegal for more than ten of them to gather in a group.  My, how far they’ve come!

After there we drove through infamous District Six, the former neighborhood of more than 60,000 blacks who were forced into relocation in the 60’s.  The government designated this area to be an all-white neighborhood, but no developers would touch the project out of concern of land title claims from the former residents. Most of the former residents were in fact renters or squatters, and by the late 90’s many had passed away so when the government offered a “Mandela Palace” to anyone who could prove former ownership, few were able to take them up on their offer. Today, most of the area still stands as barren blocks of prime downtown real estate, undeveloped.

Located adjacent to District Six was a building that looked like it had been attacked, and Gary confirmed it, that it was the Zimbabwe Embassy, attacked and torched by it’s own people over their government’s failure to issue paperwork and permits for them to work and live in SA. The Zimbabwe president/dictator, Mugabe, has managed to run that country through massive inflation, to the point where one US dollar = one trillion Zimbabwe dollars.  Improvements have come slowly to that country, but one of the first steps was to become the first African nation to adopt the US dollar as their official currency.  Needless to say, I am not sure why, but so many peoples around the world believe violence will cure their ills.  Today, all we have to show here is a deserted embassy here, and guess what…..no permits or paperwork. Nice job!

From there we toured the beautiful Company Gardens, originally constructed by the Dutch East Indies Trading Company to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for its schooners sailing back and forth between the far east and Holland.  Today it’s been converted into a park and open air botanical garden.

But that garden was just a tease, as our next stop is the famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a 60,000 acre site just outside the city.  Established in 1913 to conserve and promote the indigenous flora of southern Africa, today it is recognized as one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. Truly world class, it’s a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the area.

Finally it’s time to say goodbye to Gary as he drops me off at the Cape Town Airport for my flight to Durban, and I head two hours towards the other side of SA.  Here I am greeted by Cheryl, another tour operator specializing in the western region of SA, and she is another bundle of energy and local knowledge.  Her father was a conservation officer who dedicated his life to working to preserve and restore the animal population in the national reserves, and his love of the land and knowledge of the native people were not lost on his daughter.

As we pass along the coast, the land changes with the resources and agricultural usage.  Initially we pass through acres upon acres of sugar cane, by far the largest crop in this region. This cash crop was brought in from Australia in 1848, and was originally harvested by hand.  However, the British farmers found that money was not a big incentive for the tribal Zulu’s to work for, as their eco-social structure was based largely on barter within the community.  So with crops going rotten in the field, the English turned to another resource, and in 1861 started importing Indians as contract workers, who typically had a five year period of servitude as a payback requirement to cover their ship’s passage from home.

As we passed a little further up the coast, passing through Mtunzini in Zululand, the farming starts to change to stands of eucalyptus trees, also imported from Australia. The primary purpose being to take advantage of the ideal growing conditions to produce pulpwood for the growing paper industry.  Much of the land we are passing through now is occupied by descendants of John Dunn, an English settler who arrived in the 1870’s and befriended Zulu King Cetchwayo, and ultimately turned his attention to the Zulu ladies, taking 49 wives, and fathering 117 ‘coloured’ children.  A very busy man indeed!

Most of the Zulu’s live in small family housing camps, with a number of circular huts forming the perimeter with fencing in between to protect the camp from the intrusion of trespassers or wild game.  In the center of the circle, a wooden pen knows as a kraal would be constructed to house the cattle at night to protect them, as they were, and still are, the principal measurement of wealth in the Zulu culture.  And within the kraal, would be an underground pit, full of corn and grain, to sustain the family in the event of an attack, or fire, or some other loss. With the grandparents, parents, children and maybe the next generation occupying the various huts, the family was pretty well self-contained and did not need much if anything from the outside world.  Even today, in many of the families, only one or two members work outside, and bring currency into the family, for fuel, or an automobile, or some other need that is outside the general realm of barter.

Speaking of cows, they are everywhere here.  There are no fences, so the cattle roam freely during the day to graze and are brought back into the kraal each night.  A good cow is worth about 12,000 Rand ($1,500) so a wealthy family might have 20 or so head in their herd.  As one might imagine, with the cows representing wealth, the only time they are slaughtered is to celebrate a wedding or a funeral.  The rest of the time, it’s good to be a cow in South Africa!

Now of course I know you’re wondering, with all these “free-range” cows running around, how on earth does everyone figure out whose cow is whose?  Amazingly, the Zulu language has over 200 words to describe the different attributes of coes, like color, spots, identifying marks, etc.  These folks are one step ahead of the game here, although I did suggest to a couple of the guys that numbered ear tags like we use in the states would sure simplify things.   Watch for that to be implemented soon….NOT!

Continuing further along the coast we pass Richards Bay, the second busiest port in SA and a major industrial center.  It is surrounded by huge sand dunes left over from 60 million years ago when the sea level was 150 ft higher, and they are loaded with titanium.  A major local controversy is how to mine the titanium without creating a need to restore the dunes at the same time…that sounds like a bit of a challenge indeed.

We also pass a few mountains to our left, inshore a bit.  Zulu tradition requires that when a person dies, they must be buried at a higher elevation than where they lived, as it would be an insult for them to spend an eternity at a lower place than they occupied in life.  That certainly rules out any cemetery in the valley for sure.  In addition, Zulu kings and chiefs are buried in a seated position, with a cowhide around their shoulders to ensure they return in the spirit form.  If they are buried laying down, then they will sleep forever.  So many rules!!

And of course, with all this time in the car, we chat about a range of topics, including what Cheryl’s business, Zulu Destinations, specializes in.  It turns out they offer a wide range on domestic travel options, but also is unique in that on the international side, it serves as a overseas employment placement agency, and an incoming supplier of tours for schools and mission groups.   For the past 8 years, her placement business has specialized in obtaining work visas and providing South African workers for a number of traveling carnivals across the US.  And I ask her about the school group side, and she tells me a couple of  her biggest clients are Villanova University’s School of Nursing, and Malvern Prep High School.  Small world, I tell her – both those schools are located within 20 miles of our home in Harleysville!

Cheryl drove me to Umkomaas, in Kwazulu Natal, located on the coast of the Indian Ocean.  Lana, the manager of Ocean Park Guest House, greeted us and showed me around her property which would be my base for the next two days. A four star classically appointed oasis of privacy and peace with private balconies, a pool, and tranquil gardens, located just two blocks from the ocean. Complete with spacious rooms and all the comforts one could want, including a great personable staff who couldn’t do enough to accommodate you, I knew I’d be more than comfortable here. I bid Cheryl a good night and retired for the evening.

Day Five –  Aliwal Shoals

It’s 7:00 and here to wish me a good morning is Ferdi Oosthurzen, the owner of Blue Vision Dive Center.  We loaded up my gear and headed over to his place, just a couple of blocks away, where I have the pleasure of meeting his mum Carol, DM Jason, Captain Clark, and the rest of his staff.  I also meet the three other guests who I’ll be diving with, and here’s another chapter in the ‘Amazingly Small World’ story.  Emma and Daniel are from New York City, and have been over touring the area, hiking, diving in Mozambique, and sightseeing.  They saw my IVS t-shirt and immediately said “Aren’t you guys at Dutch Springs a lot?” Ten thousand miles from home, alone, and I find myself diving with some of the same folks I dive with at home – amazing.  The other diver is a young lady from Holland who is here attending Cape Town University and working on her PhD in Property Law.

Blue Vision specializes in diving along the Aliwal Shoals, a huge undersea mount formed of solidified sand that was the original beach in the area, during the last ice age.  When the ice melted and the seas rose, this area was submerged to a depth of approx. 100 ft, and the shoals rise to within 15 ft of the surface.  They operate three 8 meter Zodiac RIB’s with dual outboard engines, which they trailer down from the dive center to launch in the mouth of the river.  We pile in the Land Rover, and pull the boat behind us to the launch point.  Once in water, we clamber aboard, don our lifejackets (yes, everyone does, including the captain) and turn to the challenge of launching ourselves through the violent surf, churning chocolate brown as the muddy river water mixes with the sea.  The river water here carrying the soil down from the mountains makes the Cooper River that we dive in South Carolina look like a swimming pool – you couldn’t see a crocodile or bull shark here if your life depended on it, and frankly, it might! So with our feet firmly secured under the foothold straps, and hands holding onto the lines, it’s a bit of an adrenalin rush as we pound out through the waves, with Captain Clark expertly twisting and maneuvering the boat as he seeks the tiny areas of flat water between waves that the ocean offers us. Needless to say, we are thoroughly soaked by the time the water has become blue and we’ve cleared the surf zone, but what a great ride it has been!

The wind has been a bit stronger than normal today, so it’s 4 to 6 ft seas all the way out, with occasional 8 to 10 footers thrown in for an extra thrill.  Not a ride for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but our group is loving it.  About 5 km out to sea, we come upon the shoals, and Ferdi briefs us on the dive plan.  Nearly all diving here is drift dives, with the DM towing a marker buoy for the boat to follow.  3-2-1-Go! and we roll backwards into the sea, gathering for a moment on the surface then dropping down to 100 ft to begin our multi-level drift.  Our first site is known as Cathedral, named for the huge arch swim through in to a large bowl area. We continue along the edge of the shoal, poking in to the numerous crevices and passageways, spotting lobster, huge stingrays, moray eels, Nudibranchs, and a new fish for me, Pineapple Fish, little round balls no more than an inch or two long, usually hidden quite well in the safety of an overhang.  We’re greeted with a huge turtle as we near the end of our first dive, and spot a few sharks checking us out from a safe distance, as we surface and crawl back into the boat for a bit of surface interval.  Dive two was similar, with us enjoying a shallower profile along the upper section of the shoals, before it was time to head back to shore, and enjoy another run in through the surf.

Gear rinsed and hung, I headed back to clean up and then Ferdi took me out to lunch at Croc World, a local reserve / zoo / restaurant combination, where we enjoyed a tour of the wildlife and a great meal overlooking the ocean while chatting about the events of the day.   Later that evening I walked down to Sebastian’s, a local eatery with a great deck and good food.  Really nice folks there, and I got to chat with a number of locals to help round out my knowledge of the area.

Day Six –  Tiger Sharks & transit to Sodwana Bay

Next morning and it was time for an especially thrilling dive, Tiger Shark diving without a cage!  I met Lloyd, our dive leader for the day, who has spent the last 14 years specializing in working with the big tigers and filming them for organizations such as National Geographic, the BBC, and Animal Planet. He gives us a good briefing on what to expect, the risks involved, and how we’re going to execute the dive.  He warns us that we don’t want to make his “Worst Of” footage which he has accumulated over the years, mainly provided by those who fail to pay attention to the briefing details.

We launch again, and motor out about 6 km to the area where he has established a consistent feeding routine and is know to be loaded with sharks.  We’ve got two chum buckets, one large closed container punched through with holes in it’s sides to serve as a lure, and then the second, actually a washing machine tub, full or sardines and anchovies, with a lid that Lloyd can open and reach in pull out bait during the dive.  We float the first one to start the scent trail, and amazingly, it is not in the water one minute before the first Oceanic Black Tips start showing up right next to the boat.  Most are in the 6 ft size range, they are eager to get the show started.  We give it about an hour in the water, and then it starts……our marker bouy starts running away at a good clip, and we know that a tiger is sampling the chum container.  The larger container with the bait is now lowered in, and it’s time for the divers to enter the water, which by now has probably 40 black tips circling the boat, fins cutting the surface and criss-crossing back and forth looking for whatever morsels they might come across.  We back-roll in, and the splashes draw an immediate investigation from the sharks, who are right up on us to see what might have just fallen in the water. OK, get the breathing back under control, it’s time to submerge into this ball of sharks and thousands of other fish attracted to the bait.  We hang at about 25 ft, and witness some major feeding activity with every species involved.  The smaller jacks are able to penetrate the tub, and as they push the boat out, the jacks and trevally slam in for the bigger chunks, competing with the sharks and remoras. Suddenly, Lloyd rattles his noisemaker, and I look down to see a 12 ft tiger shark coming right under me, not at all disturbed by us or all the other activity in the water, just knowing there is a meal, or at least an appetizer, to be had here.  Soon she’s joined by another female tiger, nearly as long, and the two of them clear a path through the biomass as they seek out the bait that Lloyd has scattered in the water.  They are at least 3 ft across at the head, just huge animals, and as they approach I run through Lloyd’s Do’s & Don’ts list from the briefing.  If all else fails, he said, place your hand squarely and firmly on the top of their head and push them downward as you push yourself upward to maximize the distance between your soft parts and the pointier parts of the shark.  It turns out I need to practice this a few times during the dive, as the tigers are pretty curious about checking out any visitors to their world.  The larger of the two decides she has had enough, and then thrusts her lower jaw out, and swallows the entire chum bucket.  It’s secured to the rest of the rig by ¼” braided stainless steel cable, so she struggles to separate it from the line, twisting and turning with clear intent that she has laid claim on her breakfast.  Finally, frustrated, she spits it out, and continues to bang it with her snout, cause clouds of chum to come out each time.  Satisfied she has given up on the big meal, we start to ascend but as we do we see her coming back to the drum.  We pop to the surface and Lloyd shouts out to the captain to pull the drums back on board, but too late, she has it and then, like in the movie Jaws, we watch it start to race away before it submerges below the surface.

We climb back on board, and I ask Lloyd how often this happens, and he answers “Never – first time I ever saw this.”  Well I love to be on the cutting edge of things so here’s an extra thrill for the day!

Back at Blue Vision Dive Center it’s time to bid farewell to some great new friends and there to meet me is Cheryl again.  She’ll be taking me now about five hours up the coast, to my next stop near the Mozambique border.  I noted earlier what an expert she was in African history and culture, and this overland journey was a treat in learning so much about this beautiful land and its peoples.  As we passed northward from Umkomaas, we travel along the coast, within site of the ocean nearly the entire trip.

We finally arrive in Sodwana Bay, home of the Sodwana Bay Lodge and Sodwana Bay Scuba Center. Here we’ll have an opportunity for diving some of South Africa’s hard coral reefs, which flourish in this area with the warm southward currents flowing from the upper Indian Ocean.  I check in to my traditional thatch roof hut, and enjoy a great dinner at the restaurant.  On the screen I recognize some of the faces, and realize it’s the NZ cricket team being interviewed during their game against South Africa – pretty cool!

Day Seven –  Sodwana Bay Diving & More!

In the morning I meet Ben Jones, the owner of the dive center, and he shows me around the facility and explains the operation.  They have four zodiac inflatables, that they launch directly from the beach into Sodwana Bay.  The launch site is a protected area so although you are launching directly into the surf, it’s usually manageable, as evidenced by the fact that they only had four days in 2012 that they could not launch.  Their shuttle takes me and my gear down to the beach, located about 5 km up the road, where I meet the rest of the staff and my DM for the morning, Dennis.

I have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and diving around the world, but I must admit the Sodwana Bay staff was oneof the most personable and helpful groups I have ever had the chance to work with.  Every instructor, DM, gear handler, driver and boat handler, made immediate eye contact, introduced themselves, and just made everyone feel right at home in their midst.  My hats off to Ben and his team for having such a great team to work with his clients!

SBLDC has a permanent structure on the beach to provide a shaded area to gear up, and we set up for a 1-tank dive.  Gear handlers then took our equipment down to the boat, and Dennis gave us a thorough briefing.  We walked across the beach to the boat, sitting on the sand just above the waves.  The divers get alongside the boat, and a farm tractor pushes the boat into the surf.  We walk the boat through the breaking waves, the captain jumps in and fires up the engines, then the divers climb aboard, ladies first, of course!  A short zip through the breaking waves and we are at our destination in under five minutes time.  On the way we are greeted by a manta ray surfacing to check us out.

The captain maneuvers us over the drop zone, and it’s 3-2-1-go! as we splash backwards into the sea.  The reef is about 100 ft deep here, and the visibility is probably close to 200 ft, so it’s no problem for the group to descend down in the 84 degree water to begin our dive.  W gather on the bottom, and Dennis slowly leads us across the reef, enjoying a nice multi-level dive and taking in the critters that inhabit the reef.  All the usual critters, plus some great nudi’s and another first, Ribbon Eels.  The dive ends too quickly as this is really a pretty area, and we climb back aboard and head in.  The boat approaches the beach at high speed, we hold on, and end up shooting completely clear of the water by the time we come to a stop.  Well done indeed!

Surface interval is enjoyed under the shelter, and the beach has a nice little restaurant, bath house and showers so all the comforts you might need are addressed.  Finally it’s time to head back in, so we repeat the drill and enjoy another great dive on the reef.  This is really a beautiful location and the beach setting just adds to the overall experience.  We load the boats up onto trailers, dismantle the camp except the permanent structure, and back to base.  It is unfortunate but theft is prevalent here, so nothing at all can be left on the beach overnight.

I return to the dive center to another pleasant surprise, as Maelle Colin, the owner of Afrikar, is there to greet me.  Afrikar specializes in self-drive off road experiences using their fleet of custom-made two-seater dune buggies, and she has arranged for one of her drivers, Ben, to take me out and show me the area.  We enjoy a great ride with some majestic views of the local lakes, mountains, and coast, with a good mix of down & dirty four-wheeling thrown in for good measure!  We’ll definitely be factoring this option into our diving trips to Sodwana Bay!  Enough for today, the dive staff arrives back to the dive center and we hang out for a couple of hours laughing and sharing stories while enjoying a few cold beverages.  Great way to wrap up a great day!

Day Eight – Transit to Coastal Forest Reserve & Rocktail Bay Lodge

Another morning and the bags are packed once again as my Zulu drivers are here to escort me 80 km north nearly to the farthest northeast corner of the Kwazulu-Natal province, just a stones throw from the Mozambique border and the Coastal Forest Reserve National Park, site of the pristine waters of Rocktail Bay and the home of Rocktail Bay Lodge.  The asphalt ends in short order, and we’re on a bit of a rough dirt road for a good 50 km until we arrive at Coastal Cashews, site of a very small general store and a large cashew farm.  We pull in, my guys engage the gatekeeper in their native tongue, and we’re allowed inside.  I sense they don’t get too many visitors here, but this is the transfer point for me to be picked up by Rocktail Bay’s shuttle.

Sure enough, here comes a Land Rover safari vehicle, complete with tiered seating for guests in the back, and driven by ‘MP’ a super-personable gentleman who has spent the past 30 years working in the bush with various conservation groups and camps.  I truly feel like I have finally arrived in Africa!

It’s another 30 km down a sand and mud track to the lodge, but the time flies as MP runs a continuous dialog of factoids about the area, the forest, the people, and the land.  We pass under some spider webs that stretch entirely across the road, from tree to tree, like a canopy, and the spiders themselves are huge…last thing you’d want to walk through in the dark, that is for sure!  Speaking to MP, his Zulu pride shows through, as it has in every person you talk to in this region.  Before you know it, we have arrived at the resort, and like in the old TV show Fantasy Island, the whole staff is lined up out front to welcome me.  Talk about feeling like royalty!

This lodge is worlds apart from any so far, starting with there is no reception area, the bar is on the honor system, and there are no room keys.  My room, in fact, is a screen-walled hut overlooking a vast forested area, with the ocean visible in the background. There are 17 units here, and I cannot see or hear another one from my cabin or deck; this is truly a private place. As I’m getting settled in, a crash sounds from the roof, and I step outside to see two Bush Babies wrestling on top of my unit. Yes, I’m in Africa for sure now.

I head over Makarran Dive Charters, Rocktail’s on-site dive operator.  Founded and operated by Larry Smith, it’s truly a gem of an operation, totally first-class and just tucked away in the jungle here.  Together with just one other camp, they share the exclusive rights to approx. 30 km of reef along the coast here, so there are no crowds to speak of when you are on the reef. Sonja truly knows how to choose her operators, and I have been favorably impressed every step of the way so far.  We get the logistics squared away for tomorrow – looks like I’m the only diver on the boat!  It just keeps getting better and better!

Walking back over to the lodge, I stop at the pool and meet Wayne and Sandi, from the Johannesburg area, here enjoying a little holiday.  They ask about the diving, and I tell them I suspect it will be pretty fantastic.  Well it turns out that Sandi was previously certified but inactive for many years, and Wayne has been considering giving it a try.  So after a bit of chat and some encouragement, they head over to the dive center to sign up for a DSD and Refresher, and before you know it, I’ll have some company on the boat tomorrow.

A quick lunch, time to update the blog, fire off a few Facebook posts, and take a stroll through the forest before dinner.  It’s really beautiful and quiet here, and one could really get into a state of mental and physical relaxation in short order.  MP finds me and asks if I would like to go look for turtles on the beach tonite, as it is their nesting and hatching season, and of course I agree.  We head out in the dark around 7, as he artfully maneuvers the Land Rover through the woods and onto the beach, and we start cruising along, being careful to only drive on the hard sand below the high water mark, as the turtles dig their nests above that.

We aren’t on the beach 5 minutes when a little movement in front of us catches our eyes, and we stop and jump out to find baby leatherback turtles crawling out of the ground and dragging themselves across the beach and right into the surf.  How absolutely amazingly cool is this?  Probably close to 75 babies dig out of the nest and follow each other to the sea as I stand and watch, utterly speechless.  I am living on the Animal Planet right now, and loving it!  They are popping out of the sand at the nest site, and with some built-in GPS, head right to the ocean, which is probably 200 ft away.  It is amazing, but not a single turtle makes a wrong turn, as soon as they pop their head up, boom…it’s off to the races!

Finally the action slows, and we patrol another 10 km of beach, finally coming upon a loggerhead that just finished laying her eggs and is heading back to the water. MP pulls out his tagging kit and I give him a hand as we delay her escape long enough to get a numbered tag in her front flipper, and take her overall measurements to be sent in to the conservation office.  Enough action for one night; it’s time to head back and get some rest before the real fun starts tomorrow!

Day Nine – Rocktail Bay

Another beautiful dawn awakens me, with the sunlight streaming in all sides of my little jungle shanty. Time for my 7:00 meeting at the dive center, so I head over and meet Ondeyne, Darryl’s instructor and right-hand staff member.  She gives us a briefing about the boat operation, the dive site, and our dive plan, taking into consideration that she’ll be leading Wayne on his DSD experience, and I’ll just be off on the fringe shooting some video and enjoying the view.  Her briefing method and presentation is nothing less than spectacular, and when PADI is ready to produce their next instructor training video, I am going to recommend her for the role!

I ask her about her unique name, and she shares that her mother was a bit of a free spirit, naming all three of her daughters after mystical Nordic characters.  Ondeyne is actually the name of a Scandinavian mermaid who fell in love with a human and had to make a decision between walking on legs next to her love or keeping her tail and living in the sea…..wait one dog-gone minute! I have always wondered where Disney got the inspiration and story line for Ariel and the Little Mermaid….mystery solved!

Well with briefing behind us, and my favorite red head from the sea sorted out, it’s time to follow the boat down to the water in the safari truck for a surf launch.  Here they have a nice reef line running parallel to the beach, so it greatly reduces the size of the waves.  We slip the boat off the trailer, walk it out a bit, jump on, don life jackets, and off we go!  Seven minutes later, we are on the dive site, and as suspected, there is not another boat on the ocean, or for that matter, even on the beach, from horizon to horizon, it is just us.  Not many places you see this!

We backroll in and the viz is 150 ft or so in the 85 degree water.  We gather for a moment at the surface, make sure Wayne and Sandi are good, and drop down to the beautiful reef. Huge Potato Bass swim up to check us out, and the abundance of sea life on this reef is amazing.  Large honeycomb moray eels, anemones and clown fish, leaf fish, a few sharks, a couple of turtles, giant sting rays, all the usual critters, and another new one for me: eggshell cowries, all make for a fantastic dive.  And that was just the first one!

We head back to shore, and tie the boat to a rock while we enjoy a little surface interval and breakfast on the beach.  The lodge has sent down a complete breakfast setting for us, and it is served up on a table overlooking the vast empty beach and majestic sea views. We sit in the shade, sharing stories of what we saw, and how exciting it was for the Wayne and Sandi.  I think they’re hooked, and hope they return for their lessons – I know they’ll be in good hands!   They opt to not do the second dive, so we run them back to the lodge, and Darryl, Ondeyne and I head back out, the only boat on the sea within 30 km, for a very private second dive.  An hour and half later, Ondeyne and I surface, my two video cameras memory cards full, and our tanks nearly exhausted.  We head back to the shore, and of course, in customary last dive of the day fashion, as we approach, it’s maximum throttle as we hit the beach and launch the boat completely clear of the water – what a great adrenalin pumping way to end your dive!

Enough time to actually relax for the first time on the trip, so I catch some southern hemisphere rays laying by the pool.  Lunch is served, and we arrange to head back out for another turtle run tonight. I meet with the new managers coming down to the resort, and talk about how a great destination like Rocktail Bay Lodge must make it onto everyone’s ‘Bucket List’.

Our timing for the beach drive is based on the incoming tide, so it changes every night.  We are allowed on the beach two hours before high tide, and must only drive in the hard sand along below the high tide mark, so as to not inadvertently drive over any turtle nests which are made above the water line.  We head north and sure enough, there’s the tracks of a large turtle that had come in from the surf, and we stop to take a look.  Right before our eyes, there’s a huge female Leatherback just finishing up laying her eggs, and covering the nest with sand.  She turns and begins the difficult task of dragging herself all the way back to the sea, but we need to ask her a few questions first!  We measure her, and tag her, so she can be added into the conservation agency’s database for when we hopefully see her again.  I’m wondering if those were some of her babies that were hatching last night, as a turtle will typically come in to lay 3 or 4 nests of eggs on approx 30 day intervals, before heading off to explore the world for a few years until it’s time to breed again.  Finally, our “interview” is over, and she makes it back into the sea, disappearing below the waves.

It’s high-fives all around and we pile back into the truck and head south for a bit.  Movement ahead, so we stop, and well look at that….an army of little Loggerhead turtles are popping up out of their nest and marching to the sea.  We enjoy this spectacular miracle of life for a while, then head a little further south, and wouldn’t you know it, but another Loggerhead nest is hatching.  So very, very cool to be part of this, and I am so thankful for all the forces that came together for me to be here, right now, experiencing this.

Day Ten – Rocktail Bay and transit to Falaza Game Park

The diving yesterday was too good to not get another one in, so I’m back over to the dive center first thing this morning.  It’s only me, so we throw the gear in the boat, jump on the tractor, and head down to the beach.  The boat’s in, we jump on, and run out to the reef for one last splash.  Again it is totally private, just me and Ondeyne in the water, and not another boat in site, or for that matter, another person on the beach except Darryl driving the boat.  More great life, a few sharks, leaf fish, lots of nudi’s, just a fantastic hour and a half in the water and a fantastic final dive on this adventure.

Too soon and it’s time to head out, so I pile into the 4 x 4 for the ride back to Coastal Cashews to meet with my drivers for the next phase of my adventure.  We head off, leaving the shore behind us, and arrive at Falaza Game Reserve & Spa.  Falaza is an upscale tent camp, which means each room is in a separate tent structure, with a hardwood floor, beautiful furnishings, and a full bath.  That “tent” part is hardly noticed; nothing like my Boy Scout camping days from years gone by!

I’m greeted by the staff again, with the customary welcome drink and an escorted tour around the grounds to get familiar with the property.  My bags show up, carefully balanced on the heads of a couple of staffers, and I’m all set up in my room.  No time to relax though – we’re ready to head out for a game drive!  I walk back up the entrance and meet Game Ranger Justin, who will be our guide & driver, along with Athol & Carin from Johannesburg area.  We immediately connect and there’s no doubt this is going to be a fun ride through the bush in the Land Rover. As Justin drives along and shares jungle-life factoids with us, Athol and I am one-upping each other cracking jokes.  It’s a laugh a minute for the next two hours as we crawl along four wheel drive trails and see Giraffes, Zebras, Blue Wildebeest, Nyala, a couple of Warthogs  w/babies, Impala, Red Duiker, and Vervet Monkey.  We get out of the vehicle a few times, and inspect Foaming Nest Frogs, poisonous Toad Trees, and massive Kite Spiders whose webs stretch across the trail, and in some cases, the entire roadway.  Not something you’d want to walk into in the dark, that’s for sure!

Another critter that is common here is what the Egyptians call Scarab Beetles, but are locally known as Dung Beetles.  These are pretty interesting creatures, and get their name from the fact that the males locate a pile of animal droppings (dung) and carve out a tennis-ball sized chunk, and then roll it around and work it with their legs making it rounder and rounder.  Why, you are asking, would they go to all this effort?  As you might suspect, it’s the universal answer – to impress the chicks!  It seems the females are pretty selective about choosing a mate with good dung rolling skills, and once she is suitably impressed, she’ll insert her eggs into the center of the dung ball. As the larva hatch, they’ll sustain themselves from the nutrient value of the ball material, and enjoy the protection it provides from predators until they are ready to crawl out and meet the world.

We stop for a break, and just like a scene from Out of Africa, Justin brings out a folding table and picnic basket, and we enjoy some light fare under a spreading Marula Tree, the fruit of which is fermented and becomes the source of the liqueur Amarulo.  We watch the sun starting to settle on the horizon, and its time to beat it out of the bush and back to the safety of the camp before the nastier things come out.

Dinner is served on the deck, a perfect way to end a perfect day.  The food and service are top shelf, and the weather couldn’t be better for an evening under the stars. This is truly a very nice place, and again, my hat’s off to Sonja for her recommendation.

Day 11 – Falaza and transit to Duma Zulu

5:30 a.m. and time for a morning game drive in nearby Hluhluwe Game Reserve.   Well, almost nearby, so we start off with a brisk 80 km/hour drive in the open top safari vehicle to make sure we are good and awake for the “Big 5” animals we hope to see.  Hluhluwe is the oldest game reserve in Africa, founded in 1895, and the third oldest in the world.  It is the site most famous for restoring the White Rhinoceros from the brink of extinction.  We enter the massive park through the main gate, and start our drive.  This park has both gravel and off-road areas, so you can opt for a “self-drive” safari and bring passenger vehicles in as long as you stay on the gravel path.  With our 4×4 we are permitted to explore the entire park, and Justin has some strategy in mind as we turn off the beaten path into some deep brush.  We crawl along, spotting endangered African Vultures, various ground birds, various flavors of antelope, impala and the usual.  We also spot a community of Weaver Birds and their very unique nests.  Of course, in another example of sexual inequality in the animal kingdom, the male is responsible for selecting a branch in a tree that overhangs the water, to reduce predation, and also carefully strips all the leaves off the branch so snakes or lizards cannot hide and sneak up on the nest. Then, he goes about gathering grasses and carefully, painstakingly weaves a beautiful round nest, suspended from the selected branch, with a shelf inside for the eggs and babies, and an entrance hole at the bottom. Finally, when it is ready, he puts on a little show to attract a female, and when one does show interest, it’s not him she’s looking at, but his “crib”.  If he built a superior example of a weavers nest, she might decide to grace him with the role of daddy to her eggs.  But, far more likely, she’ll find flaw in his efforts, and then pick at the top of the next until it breaks free of the branch, crashing into the water and causing the male to have to start all over again.  This might be repeated up to five times or more before she is finally happy..sound familiar?

After we’ve had our fill of weaver birds and nest smashing, we go a little further up the road, and suddenly a deep rumbling growl is heard.  We stop the vehicle and wait, and hear it again, getting closer, until finally just in front of us a male Lion emerges from the tall grass and checks us out.  Satisfied we are not a threat, he walks around the vehicle, giving us a good look-over, before finally disappearing back into the bush.  No sooner than he is gone behind us, we hear another one, and sure enough, from the other side of the trail comes another male, strutting about, marking a little turf, and again, showing no fear of us whatsoever.

We spend a total of three hours on the drive, and see more of the standard fare, but the exhilaration of the two lions override anything else we saw today.  First class sightings, and not at all common to see one, let alone two!  Fate has once again been kind.  We motor back to camp, grab my bags, and then Justin runs me down the road to my lodge for the next night, at DumaZulu Village.

Day 12 – DumaZulu, Endomeni, and transit to Thula Thula

In the 1980’s well known philanthropist and Zulu activist Graham Stewart, known as “the White Zulu”, approached King Goodwill Zwelithini, the reigning head of the Zulu Nation, and proposed the development of a center to preserve and present the Zulu culture.  From that idea, DumaZulu was born, and the lodge and village opened in 1994.  Centered around a typical Zulu village, when they advertised for the twenty full time spots for people from the local community to live there, over 200 applied.  Today, in addition to the village, the site includes a full lodge, restaurant, reptile park, turtle rehab center, and more.

I met Heinz, the manager, and he showed me around the entire site.  His energy and passion for his job and the work here exuded from him as he showed me projects under construction, plans for the next phases, and what has been accomplished in the three years he has been at the helm.  His right hand man, Issac, who has been with the project since it was just an idea in Mr. Stewarts head, is my personal tour guide for the day.  A Zulu man himself, he has two wives and four children, but he’s the youngest of nine from his mother, who was one of four wives to his father.  He grew up in a village much like this one, with his father, his mother and the three other wives (who can never be addressed by their first name once they marry), his 47 siblings, and their heard of close to 200 cattle.  Wow!

Isaac introduces me to the members of the village, who live there full time and who produce many of the products sold in the gift store on site, including shields, spears, baskets, pottery, beadwork, and many other traditional village crafts.  I meet the Medicine man (Inyanga) who is preparing potions to cure just about whatever ails you, and the ‘One who talks to the Spirits’ (Isangoma) who has the power to figure out just what it is that is ailing you!  The ancient healing methods are still very much alive and well in the Zulu Nation, and they are proud of their independence from modern “white” medicine.  Before I leave, the village members gather and give me a fantastic cultural show complete with traditional drums, stick fighting, dancing, singing and all the festivities that come together for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

From there, Heinz drives me over to Endomeni Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in the rehab, breeding and release of wild cats.  I meet Carin, the facility manager, and she takes me on a private tour of the facility, showing me all they do there, and then has a special treat for me – some “behind the fence” visits to her favorite cats – Cheetahs!  She has six cheetahs on site, and has been working to entice some breeding between them, but they have frustrated so far.  Her spirit is undaunted, and she’s ready for the long haul here, to send some of her own cheetah offspring out into the wild.  She’s already achieved a great deal of success with her other three breeds of cats, African Wild Cats, Serval, and Caracal (Lynx).  Endomeni also has lodge facilities on site, so visitors can stay on the property and help with the care of the cats as part of the structured program.  Very cool!

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye to Carin and her feline friends, and my shuttle guys are back to take me to the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, South Africa’s First Natural World Heritage Site.  The third largest park in SA, it covers an area of almost a million acres, consisting of ocean shoreline, offshore protected reefs, rivers, estuaries, lakes, wetlands and coastal forest. Here we take a boat ride north into the lake, which is the home to over 200 species of fish, over 1,000 crocodiles, and 2,000 hippopotamus! The shores are lined with both white and black mangroves, and vast scenic grassy plains go on forever.  The hippos are amazing, one of the worlds largest animals, they are excellent swimmers, and can stay underwater for up to six minutes while they forage for food on the bottom.  They form social packs of a dozen or more animals, and are extremely protective of their young.  When disturbed, such as by a croc slipping into the water, the adults actually pick the babies up and support them out of the water to keep them out of the hungry mouths of predators.  We enjoy hundreds of these homely creatures in the water as we slowly sail past.

Finally we arrive at the last destination in my adventure, Thula Thula, made famous by the recent best-selling book The Elephant Whisperer.  It’s about 150 km further inland, but thankfully most of the road is paved…most, I did say!  That being said, its almost three hours before we arrive at the gate and I transfer over to another 4×4 for the two mile ride in to the camp. Here I meet Victor, one of the rangers, as he picks me up in his Land Rover for the ride into the camp.  Along the ride he shares stories of the camp, and stops at a few points along the way to show me places that were featured in the book, and it’s really a neat experience to be able to connect in such an intimate way.

At the lodge, I’m greeted by manager Anne Pickard, as she welcomes me to this beautiful boutique camp and shows me to my “hut”, which is the world’s biggest understatement.  However, as we start across the grass, suddenly I sense a presence behind me, and sure enough, here come two huge rhino’s jogging across the lawn to check me out.  Anne sees them, and turns and high-tails back to the main lodge, and I am thinking, that was odd, as I watch these guys approach.  Suddenly Anne is shouting to me to hurry, get back to the lodge, and I am thinking, hmmmm…I might actually be in harms way here!  So I do the appropriate thing, and take a wide track back to join Anne, while the rhino’s stop and watch me. That was kinda close, but cool in a strange African way.

Thankfully, each hut has a front door as well as a large back patio and entrance, so we wait until the rhino’s are resting on the front porch, and we sneak in the back.  You can hear them breathing and grunting with just an inch and a half of wood door between me and them, which really adds to this whole sensory experience!  Again, it’s no time to rest, as we have a game drive heading out in a few, and I don’t want to miss it!

Game rangers Andre, and ranger-in-training Cameron, introduce themselves to me when I return to the lodge.  Both very personable, and knowledgable in the ways of the bush, they’ll be our leaders for this late afternoon excursion.  Joining us will be Pete & Liesl from Ntunzini, SA, and the minute I meet them, I realize that this will be another wise-cracking three hours in the bush with a running commentary coming in from all corners.  We also have an older couple from the UK with us, and once they’re on board we head off.  We quickly learn the difference between a ranger and one in training, as Andre gets to sit inside and drive while Cameron is strapped in the seat on the front fender, “Daktari-style”, and manages to be the first one to experience each massive spider nest we drive through.  It’s comical to watch his seated kung-fu movements each time one wraps around him, but on a positive note, at least he’s keeping those “spiders on steroids” from jumping into the land rover with one of us!

In 2000, the late Lawrence Anthony purchased the property, which at that time was an exclusive hunting camp, and turned it into a permanent preserve for animals to live their lives safely in a natural setting.  Sadly, Anthony suffered a heart attack just a few weeks before my arrival here, but thanks to his artful planning and skillful negotiation with the government, local Zulu chiefs, and the head of the Zulu Nation, he has been able to triple the original size of the reserve and has additional adjacent properties dedicated to be donated to the reserve to allow this property to connect to other reserves and afford the animals huge migratory pathways for movement and growth.

We tour the expansive property, with Andre driving and sharing his wealth of knowledge, while Cameron is kept busy swatting humongous spiders away.   We see herds of impalas, Nyala, warthogs, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras, and finally…..elephants!  Andre spots them while we are driving along a ridge, all the way on another hillside, and asks us if we mind going over there with a bit of a heavy foot on the pedal, since the sun is starting to get close to the horizon.  It was  unanimous “YES!” from all of us, so into the thick brush we headed, taking a shortcut through some thicker stuff, much to Cameron’s disappointment.

We arrive and are greeted by another great surprise – the two herds, led by matriarchs Nana & Frankie, had come together for the evening, and we found ourselves in the midst of twenty-some elephants enjoying their evening meal.  These members of the Pachyderm family have all come from the seven original inhabitants brought to the property by a stroke of luck & chance in 2002, and now are successfully breeding and raising the next generation before our eyes.  The adults tower above our vehicle, 10 to 12 ft at the shoulders, and weighing 12,000-15,000 pounds.  The babies are born weighing 400 pounds and walking with the herd within 15 minutes of birth.  In spite of their massive size, they are amazing graceful and skilled with their trunks, gently selecting which branch they wish to eat, wrapping around it and stripping leaves, or pulling clumps of grass up, then using the trunk to hold and chew the food.

As we enjoy the view at the all-you-can-eat buffet, a bull elephant that had been on the far side of the group starts working his way through the crowd towards us.  Turns out he’s in “musk”, a annual period where is testosterone levels rise to 400% of normal, which tends to make the big boy a bit feisty.  How feisty, you ask……well how about he starts off walking towards us, so we pull back about 30 ft, resume our viewing.  He stops for a pause, realizes we must not have fully gotten the message, then turns, folds his ears back, lowers his head, and breaks into a  full charge at us, running through the brush as if we had a large bulls-eye painted on the side of the ‘Rover.  Holy smokes, this certainly raises the bar on the excitement, as Andre quickly turns the key in the ignition, thankfully the engine fires to life, and down the road we go, while the elephant, realizing he won, slows and watches us fade away, of course with me hanging out of the back and snapping photos the whole time!

Back at the lodge, I meet the other guests, a couple visiting from Austria, and another pair from the Durban area, who actually used to be employed at Thula Thula and come back from time to time to help.  As we are enjoying some refreshments before dinner, we are joined by the lovely Francoise Malby-Anthony, the owner of the property and the widow of the late Lawrence Anthony, famous in his own right for his passion for the protection of animals great and small.  We’ll dine together at one large setting, which really promotes social interaction, as we choose from the menu prepared by Francoise, who studied in the art of cooking in France before coming to Africa twenty-five years ago.  She prepares a unique menu daily for the lodge, with specialties drawn from her background and experience.  After a delightful four-course meal, we move outside to the boma, where they have a raging campfire blazing, and a number of experimental drinks mixed up for us to sample.  Yum, yum – another perfect evening under the African sky, listening to the frogs, and the hyenas singing in the bush. This is a very different, very special sort of camp, and has immediately risen to the very top of my list here!

Day 13 – Thula Thula and transit to Casa Newlands

5:30 in the morning and time to head out to see what we might find.  We don ponchos, as a light rain is falling, and Andre heads us out in different direction than we explored yesterday.  We cross the river, and stop at the pond, which was formed by building an earthen dam across the stream and making an estuary that stays full year round.  It was here that Anthony had sat and watched his beloved elephants swimming, giving their vote of approval on the project, on the morning before he passed away.   His ashes were scattered across the waters of the pond as an eternal salute to the man who did so much for those without a voice.  Today, it is a site full of life, with crocodiles splashing, birds diving and hunting fish, antelope at the edge drinking, and kudo keeping a wary eye on us from the far bank.

We continue along, spotting more of the abundant life here, and suddenly something catches our eye in the edge of the bush.  By golly, it’s an elephant, enjoying some morning browsing from the thick leafy canopy that lined the trail.  We stop, he pauses, senses we are not a threat, and resumes eating, while we sit and watch for a good 20 minutes, shooting video and snapping away with our cameras.  He is extremely photogenic, giving us some fantastic views of the range of dexterity of his trunk as he snaps branches off with ease and crunches them in his massive molars.  We can hear his stomach, emitting that low, deep rumble that elephants use to communicate with each other across miles of bush.  This is a very special treat to be a part of his day!

Back at the lodge, I get to chat with Alyson, the “Rhino Mom”.  She started her career as a veterinary nurse in the UK, then, four years ago, she caught wind that Thula Thula might be the new home of two young orphaned white rhinos, and she wasted no time in packing her things and moving to South Africa to be a part of that.  From the moment the rhinos arrived, she has spent every single day, all day, in their immediate company, bottle feeding them at first, then overseeing them as they learned to take care of themselves in the wild.  She gets  five days off each month, and spends most of them right back here, with her “kids”.  Rain, shine, or whatever Mother Nature throws at them, she is out walking with the rhinos wherever they decide to wander.  And she is not alone with them…poaching of rhino’s for their horn is at an all time high, with 37 killed already this year alone.  What is it with the Chinese and Vietnamese that they can have such a lack of respect for God’s majestic creatures and feel a need to slaughter them just for a little powder made from the horn, primarily believed to be a sexual aphrodisiac.  I hate to slip from my normal political middle-of-the-roadness here, but I think a castration process in the far east should be something to seriously consider and eliminate this ridiculous trade in exotic animal parts.  I will volunteer to hold the knife to help bring an abrupt end to the sexual activity of anyone who considers that killing a rhino makes him more of a stud.

OK….stepping down from my soapbox…..I opt to join in on the 11 o’clock Safari Walk-a-bout, a Game Drive on foot.  This is amuch more intimate experience, as we cover far less territory, but examine the bush to a much deeper extent, covering the flora, fauna, biological processes, inter-actions, and more…and once again, Andre impresses the heck out of me with his knowledge.

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye, and Cheryl picks me up to tour the coastal Durban area, downtown, and then finally to Sonja’s house north of the city.   My host Sonja has prepared a traditional braai, (Afrikan for BBQ) for me to enjoy as I meet her family.  Husband Roy comes from an agricultural background, speaks Zulu fluently, and understands the culture and society of the Zulu people from his years of running a large farming operation.  Today, he works for the government, developing and implementing projects that directly benefit the Zulu people, from agriculture, to economics, to school nutritional programs that support the local community, and more.  His versatility is impressive and the proven results of his efforts speak volumes about this man.  On top of that, he is an avid fisherman, diver and participant in triathlons, marathons, mountain biking, and other grueling sporting events.  I also get to meet their kids, Luke and Hana, ages 6 and 4 respectively.

Dinner is fantastic, and Roy introduces me to Phoenix beer, an excellent pilsner brewed on the tiny island nation of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar.  Good to support an even more local economy during my travels!

Day 14 – Taking the Long Road Home

Great morning with Sonja summarizing the good, great and otherwise on this journey, and how to make this affordable and enticing to Americans to travel here and experience what I did.

And you know, you can never get enough Amazingly Small World stories….I’m driving back to the airport with my friend Cheryl and she tells me someone in her office wants to talk to me.  It seems that when she took my business card back the other day, it caused quite a stir in the office.  So she calls, and I speak to her office manager Thiloshnie, who, it turns out, did a stint as an au pair a few years back in Harleysville, and now her sister lives there full time.  She asked if I knew where Henning’s Market was, and of course I do, and she tells me that they like to get their manicures at Fancy Nails there in the Meadowbrook Shopping Plaza.  Is that amazing or what?

And now I have a chance to do my part to make it an amazingly small world for Cheryl’s group of Villlanova University nursing students coming in May – Indian Valley Travel is hosting a welcome beach party and traditional braai for them when they arrive in Africa.  What a surprise that will be for them, eh – a zillion miles from home, and a gift from a friend back home!  We’ll treat the Mavern Prep students with the same when they arrive a little late.  It’s good to plant seeds, near and far!

Finally I’m at the Durban airport to begin my 30 hour journey home.  I bid farewell to Cheryl, and having learned my tricks in navigating the South African Airlines excess baggage fee system, I walk right up to the First Class counter (with my economy ticket) and strike up a nice conversation with the young man there.  We get to talking about scuba, and he starts to mention that my bags are both overweight and I have too many of them, when I suggest that SAA has a sporting goods exemption, and he smiles, knowing that I know at least a little.  So he picks up the phone, chats a bit, and then asks if I am going right to security or if I am going to shop or eat first since I have plenty of time.  Seems that he needs an “over-write code” and the supervisor that can give him that is in a meeting, so he asks if I can just leave my bags with him and come back a little later for my boarding pass.  I smile, and agree……another system figured out, and another way around it in the traveling tool kit!

Finally 30 hours later, I arrive home, exhausted yet thrilled, and so excited about going back with friends to share this most amazing place!

The End!

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!!

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……..

A Memorable Memorial Day Weekend in Key Largo

The IVS Memorial Day Weekend trip started off early this year with a return visit to Key West by David Valaika and David Hartman.  Following on the heels of the past weekend’s Wreck Racing League event, Dave V has been invited to speak on Monday and give a presentation on Dive Propulsion Vehicles (DPV’s) to a class at the Florida Keys Community College (FKCC). The students were enrolled in the class “Emerging Technologies for Crime Scene Investigation”, and consisted of a combination of State Police, Coast Guard, Public Safety Divers, and some other military enrollees, who were learning to use the latest and greatest tools and equipment to assist them in solving underwater criminal mysteries.  Working alongside FKCC professor Robert Smith, Dave Valaika presented both an in-classroom presentation and poolside demostration about DPV’s before allowing the students to enter the FKCC pool and try different types of Scooters. The 15 students of the Crime Scenes Investigation Class had a great time and took turns on a variety of scooters made by Hollis, Dive Xtra, Torpedo and Sea Doo.

David Valaika Gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

David Valaika gives a DPV Presentation at FKCC in Key West

After concluding the class assignment, it was time to go diving!   We had been invited to come out today with Mike Ange, technical instructor and owner of SeaDuction, an on-line publishing company which bills itself as “A Fun Site for Serious Divers”.  Gosh, that sounds like Indian Valley Scuba!  Well in any case, Mike had a class of Advanced Wreck Divers and Technical Wreck Divers heading out on the Lost Reef Adventures boat, and he had a couple of open spots that he offered to Dave Hartman, Joe Weatherby, and I.  So who are we to deny an opportunity to dive, so we piled the gear, and a scooter, on board for a visit to the Vandenberg.  Also on board are the three Canadians who participated in the Wreck Racing with us too,  so it’s like a mini family reunion!

Seems I had a personal mission to accomplish on today’s dive – yesterday, while diving with John Glo, he inadvertently dropped one of my lion fish kill sticks as he removed his fins to climb up the dive boat ladder.  We were moored off the stern ball, and the current was mild, so I knew the hardware should be laying somewhere aft of the ship in the sand.  It seems that Natalie Weatherby had a case of the ‘droppsies’ too, and had lost the entire mesh bag of start and finish flags for the Wreck Racing League, along with some other gear.  So like Roseanna Rosanna-danna from the early Saturday Night Live episodes, “I clean up, OK” was my mantra for today’s dive plans.

In we dropped, with Joe & Dave buddied up for a little interior touring, and me heading off alone with the scooter to see what I could find out in the sand.  Down I dropped, and dropped, off the stern, and I began my search pattern in the sand.  Now, I had not really given this aspect of my dive plan much thought when I said, “Sure, I’ll take Nitrox” when we loaded the boat.  So my 32% mix was just a tad on the ‘hot’ side as my computer showed me approaching 150 ft of depth.  Guidelines, guidelines, yes I know, but hey, was that a twitch I just felt??? My ppO2 hits 1.8 ATA and is edging towards 1.9 as I settled on the bottom, so the key for this portion of the dive was relax, don’t work hard, breath deeply and slowly, and keep an eye out for any of those nasty Ox-Tox VENTID signs!!   I started at the rudder and slowly scootered out into the gloomy viz, carefully dragging one hand in the sand to create a furrow that I would use as the baseline for my search pattern, as well as to serve as my ‘breadcrumb trail’ to find my way back to the wreck.  I headed out about 200 ft, moved over 20 ft, and returned to the wreck, with nothing to report.  OK, shift twenty feet to the other side of the baseline and repeat.  I did this again and on the fourth run out, sure enough, there was the glint of shiny stainless in the sand!  I found my lionfish tamer!  OK, I am thinking, one more pass to look for Natalie’s bag, and as I turn at the end, there it is!  Woo hoo!  Two for two!  I pick her mesh bag up now, balance it in my arms with the lionfish kill stick, remind myself, ” No Exertion!”  and begin heading back to the wreck.  Wait…there’s something else….and I stop to investigate a piece of wreckage.  Alrighty, and guess what is living here…a lionfish!   So I put down the scooter, and the bag full of flags, and slowly (remember – no exertion!!) swim over to the unsuspecting lionfish, draw back on my tamer, and ‘Slam!” I bury the shaft squarely through his bony skull!  One less reef raider in the ocean today!!  OK…..get that breathing back under control….check for twitching..all good, swim back to the scooter, pick up the bag, re-orientate, and finally begin to head back to the wreck and some shallower water.

I cruise the length of the deck and manage to dispatch three more lion fish before I run into Joe & Dave, and we end up completing our ascent together.  A little surface interval to de-gas and drink some all all-important water and Divers D\Lyte for hydration, and we are back in for dive #2.  This time Joe wants to explore some interior spaces he has not visited since the ship was above water, so heck that sounds like an adventure for sure!  Down the line we go, into the #2 cargo hatchway, and down to about 120 ft.  Zip, in we go, and Joe begins leading us down a narrow hallway that judging from the substantial depth of the fine silt, has not been home to many if any divers in a long, long time.  We squeeze along, around a corner, over some fallen equipment, more squeezing, pulling, and twisting, and this is pretty cool – these areas are well off the beaten path, and I would not have considered exploring them with any divers that I trust less than Joe and Dave.  We didn’t run a line, relying more on faith and the hope that there is an outlet at the end of one of these halls.  Well silly us!  We end up in a series of dead-end rooms, and there is no choice now but to head back out the way we came in, the primary difference being that we have now managed to silt those hallways out pretty darn good with all our twisting, squeezing and breathing.  Hmmmmm…..a little line would be a good idea now, eh  Oh well, no horror story drama in the making here, three cool heads work their way back out, high-five’s all around upon exiting, and we can check off that the adrenalin glands are working well today!!  We wrap up the dive with a leisurely tour down a more well-known path through the ship, and finally head back topsides to call it a day.  Another great dive on the Vandenberg with great friends!

Back at the dock we grab something to eat with Joe and the Canadians, and as the conversation unfolds, it turns out these are no ordinary “Great White Northern neighbors”, but in fact, are officers in the Canadian Artificial Reef Foundation.  They’ve been sinking ships since the 70’s in British Columbia, and turn out to be a wealth of stories, knowledge and information about so many of the wrecks we know of and dive on.  We end up spending nearly four hours at dinner, learning, sharing, and really setting to like our new friends from the North!  Better yet, they’ve got a great new wreck they are working on and invite us up to participate in the preparation and sinking of the vessel…watch for an IVS adventure trip in the near future to jump on that!!

The rest of the week was spent at IVS South as David Valaika and Sue Douglass took care of addressing some expanded responsibilities for Team IVS in the staghorn coral restoration business with Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation on Tuesday & Wednesday, followed by Dave V conducting some Poseidon rebreather training on Thursday at Halls Diving Center in Marathon. The real excitement of the weekend started Thursday night when the IVS group arrived in Key Largo.  The rest of the group for adventure includes Tom Brennan, Mike Parzynski, Jack Sandler, Seth Greenspan, Judy Mullen, Diane Widmaier, and Harry & Denise Naylor .  In the training department, Michael Stellato and Shannon Jefferson will be earning their Advanced Open Water this weekend, while Brian Hubler is here to complete his TDI Trimix course with Dave later this week, and finally, rounding out the team, Barbara & Gary Millar, along with Bruce Augusteuson, are here to complete their PADI National Geographic Open Water certifications.

As fate would have it, Team IVS was in the right place at the right time this weekend, as three rescued Pilot Whales, survivors from a mass beaching on nearby Cudjoe Key on May 5th, are in a state of critical rehabilition at the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) in Key Largo.  The IVS team was fortunate enough to hear an early Friday morning presentation by Robert Lingenfelser, the Director of Standing Operations for the MMC. A number of the IVS Team members volunteered for four-hour shifts over the course of the weekend to be in-water helpers during the Pilot Whale’s 24 hour rehab program.  Others stepped right in and began in impromptu fundraising program to help provide needed supplies to the MMC, ending up raising a total of over $500 during the weekend!  Way to go team!!

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

The IVS Team Listens to Presentation at Pilot Whale Rescue Pen

As soon as our presentation was completed, Dave H started his first  4 hour volunteer shift and right away was assigned in water husbandry to Pilot Whale #300 who he opted to call Fudgy!! The 3 Pilot Whales left in the Key Largo based rehabilitation facility are too weak to swim on their own and will drown if not held with their blow holes out of the water. During his shift, Fudgy had blood and vitals taken, received her morning feeding and conducted a few therapy drills to learn how to swim again. Our team of volunteers on Fudgy also moved the Pilot Whale close to a viewing platform so a team of physical therapy students from Univ. of Miami could view the whale’s muscle damaged tail.  Dave was back at the Pilot Whale Rescue Pen on Saturday morning, and again at 4 am Sunday morning to lend more help for ground operations and to support Sue Douglass who went in the water to care of Pilot Whale #301. Sue finished just in time for her morning dive with the IVS Team at Amoray Dive Resort – talk about stamina!

Sue Douglass Tends to Pilot Whale #301 at the Rescue Pen in Key Largo

Sue Douglass tends to Pilot Whale #301 at the Rescue Pen in Key Largo

After the MMC presentation, most of the IVS crew headed to the Amoray Dive to start the weekend dive program. Sue and David Valaika headed to Jules Lodge Lagoon with the new students of the group to conduct the first Open Water check out dive. The group on the Amoray Diver enjoyed fantastic conditions on Molasses Reef with 100 foot blue water viz and calm seas as they played on Molasses Reef to start what had all the ingredients of a great weekend in the making!

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The IVS Group Boards the Amoray Diver

The USS Speigel Grove was on the schedule for Friday afternoon as the entire IVS team reunited at the Amoray Diver for the 45 minute ride to the Grove.  The divers were divided into groups based on level of activity and comfort with wreck penetration. Most of the IVS team went with Sue Douglass for her famous “Lame-O Tour” while Mike P and Judy Mullen went with David Hartman for his “Ultimate Behind the Scenes Spiegel Experience” or the “Nooks and Crannies” Tour.  There are new places to go and new routes to dive on the Spiegel every time an IVS group is in town in part thanks to a recent unauthorized alteration to the well deck of the Spiegel discussed in the April Blog trip entry.  The Spiegel had comfortable diving conditions, 60 feet of viz and NO current plus the Amoray Diver was moored to the favorable #6 mooring ball on the port side superstructure of the ‘Grove’.  All the divers had a great Spiegel experience thanks to the combination of conditions and group leadership of the IVS instructors. Most divers witnessed a HUGE school of Tarpon near the #6 mooring ball towards the end of the dive.

The "New" Entrance to the Well Deck of the Spiegel Grove

The "New" Entrance to the Well Deck of the Spiegel Grove

The second dive of the afternoon was at Christmas Tree Cave on French Reef.  Conditions on French Reef were spectacular: 90 feet of blue water viz, no current, calm seas and lots of swim-throughs to explore.  The group of divers (Tom Brennan, Shannon, Michael, Mike P., Jack Sandler) led by David Hartman nailed most of the major swim-throughs within 100 yards of the Amoray Diver including Hourglass, Five Caves, Donut Hole, Sand Bottom Cave, Christmas Tree Cave and the Branch of Christmas Tree Cave (Personal favorite of David Hartman named the swim through).

Mike and Mike by the Large Star Coral Above Xmas Tree Cave

Mike and Mike by the Large Star Coral Above Xmas Tree Cave

The group of divers thinned in numbers throughout the dive until only Mike P. was left for the last “Branch” swim-through but our entire group had an amazing dive. The rest of the group had self-proclaimed leadership issues and explored a variety coral ledges and outcroppings and decided involuntarily to forego all the famous swim-throughs in the area. After a wonderful dive on French Reef, the Amoray Diver headed back to Amoray Dive Resort so the IVS team could prepare for an evening of food, spirits and festivities at IVS South HQ- David Hartman’s house or affectionately know as Club Dave!!  The party at IVS South worked out great with Sue and Barbara handling the shopping, Seth Greenspan taking on grill duty and David Hartman focusing efforts on entertaining and making his world famous Pina Coladas. A big thank you to all those who helped out with the barbecue party!

Michael Navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Michael Stellatto navigates Hourglass Cave on French Reef

Saturday morning it was back on the reefs for two more dives in near-perfect conditions, with flat seas, great viz and the usual laughter and fun on the boat.

On a sensitive note, Dave V actually passed on this morning’s diving, as well as this afternoon, as he was one sick puppy with all sorts of things going on with his sinuses, glands, eyes….just a mess for sure!  And a guarantee to be handing out the coveted “More Dives than Dave” awards later this weekend!

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Shannon Hovers over the Wreck of the City of Washington

Saturday afternoon called for a return to the USS Spiegel Grove and it was time for the first time Key Largo divers to take a deeper look at the Grove.  Sue Douglass took the group newly certified divers on another rendition of the “Lame-O tour” and Mike Parzynski honed his soon-to-be-divemaster skills with a group of veteran Spiegel divers.  PADI Advanced Open Water students Shannon and Michael went with David Hartman to complete their Deep Adventure dive and to see some of the famous interior rooms of the naval ship.  After a few deepwater skills, Shannon, Michael and David H explored upper superstructure of the Spiegel and then ventured through the wheelhouse and radar room.  Air consumption was excellent by the students so the tour was extended to view the machine shop, prep and tool rooms near the aft section of the superstructure.  Shannon, who was reluctant on French Reef on Friday to partake in most swimthroughs, now appeared to be a wreck diving expert on Saturday eagerly taking in each turn inside the hallways of the massive wreck. I believe it is safe to say that Shannon is now hooked on wreck diving! Kudos to the entire IVS team for a fantastic Spiegel dive.

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Spotted Spiny Lobster on the Wreck of the Benwood

Both the second dive on Saturday afternoon and night dive Saturday night were on the Wreck of the Benwood.  The shallow shipwreck which grounded after a collision with the USS Tuttle during World War II is perfect venue for night dive because the all that remains is the hull of the ship which attracts all kinds of sea creatures and a variety of coral growth. On the afternoon dive, Shannon and Michael completed their PADI Underwater Navigation adventure dive in the sand patch off the starboard of the Benwood while the other divers in the group circumnavigated the shipwreck to check out all the marine life.  Shannon and Michael executed their Underwater NAV skills admirably although the “navigate a square” skill appeared more like “navigate the letter P.”  Both managed to redeem themselves on their “natural navigation” skills later in the dive.  The viz on the Benwood was below average in the afternoon with no current but water clarity was improving throughout the dive which was a good omen for the night dive.

A Midnight Parrotfish Finds a Sleeping Spot at Night on the Benwood
A Midnight Parrotfish Finds a Sleeping Spot at Night on the Benwood

After a brief dinner break at Amoray Dive Resort, the IVS crew as back board the Amoray Diver promptly at 7:15pm to return to the Benwood for Saturday night dive.  The viz on the Benwood was much improved versus the afternoon dive as IVS divers took to the water at twilight.  Shannon, Michael, Gary and Bruce completed their PADI Night adventure dive towards their Advanced Open Water course. Part of the dive included a lights out drill which was a bit of a challenge since the dive started at twilight. David Hartman waited until latter part of the night dive for the drill to ensure the divers could experience complete darkness.  The divers descended upon the sand patch off the starboard bow again for skill work but only to be followed by the rest of the IVS group shining their lights on the students looking to see what was so interesting on the sand patch.  Finally, the rest of the IVS team caught on about the lights out drill and the students were able to experience some cool bioluminesence. During the dive, the team saw tons of lobsters (good news for lobster season) and at one point left David Hartman to chase after a Huge Porcupinefish who hid under a large torn off piece of the hull of Benwood to escape from the peeping eyes of the IVS group. Great night dive and it was off to Amoray Dive Resort for a quick shower and then to Paradise Pub for traditional late night Cheeseburgers in Paradise and to listen to some karaoke or open mic….oh wait that is actually a paid performer hurting my ears……..WOW ………Not good!!

Sue Douglass and Judy Mullen Relax on the Amoray Diver after Morning Reef Dives

Sue and Judy Relax on the Amoray Diver after Morning Reef Dives

Sunday morning and Dave V called in sick again..this is not good!  But the rest of the team dove in his honor and enjoyed two more wonderful reef experiences.  When they returned, I had rallied enough to determine that I was not about to miss out on any more dives, so I enjoyed lunch with the gang and we loaded up for the PM trip.

IVS Divers Enter the Wheelhouse of the Duane
IVS Divers Enter the Wheelhouse of the Duane

 Sunday afternoon called for famous double deep wreck dive of the US Coast Guard Cutter Duane and the USS Spiegel Grove. The Duane is the recommended first due to the average depth of the wreck-the dive starts at 75 feet or deeper depending on the mooring ball.  The winds had kicked up in the afternoon which created white caps everywhere. Other boats were already at the Duane so Capt Dan of the Amoray Diver was left to tie up to the bow mooring ball.  The chopping waters made it hard to determine the strength of the surface current but judging by the fact other boats were sitting sideways to the seas we knew that some current was expected. Some meaning……..RIPPING CURRENT!!  The Duane didn’t let us down, quickly becoming one of those adrenaline-filled dives that you hear about from the IVS crew.  Horizontal bubbles and a face full of salt water was on tap on the Duane but the current brought in some 70-80 feet of viz and a variety of large marine life including Barracuda, Permit and a school of HUGE Tarpon- I mean like 8 feet long and shiny silver. David Hartman took Gary on his PADI Adventure Deep dive and hit the water first for the IVS team. At 75 feet, David Hartman decided that fighting current to get to the bow at 100 feet was no fun and decided to turn the Duane into a speedy drift. As part of their dive plan, Gary and David H. let go of the bow mooring line and sped past the wheelhouse and stack until reaching the shelter and calm waters of the aft superstructure under the Crow’s Nest.  Gary and David were near the stern of the ship before some IVS divers even hit the water!!.  Gary was doing well on air consumption for a new diver so David led him on complete tour of the Duane including entering the wheelhouse, CO’s cabin and galley.  Gary and David had a solid tour of the Duane and headed back to the bow mooring line from the top of the wheelhouse down the forward superstructure to get some shelter from the blasting current. The return to the bow went okay but Gary managed to suck down around 1000 psi in the short run into the current – so much for a great air consumption dive on the Duane for a newly certified diver.  The rest of the IVS team was just reaching the bottom of the Duane when Gary and David started to ascend. Nearly all the IVS divers performed well considering the challenging conditions on the Duane; however, there is a story worth sharing that hopefully will benefit other divers who may find themselves in less-than-stellar conditions on a deeper dive.

It turns out one of the divers on board, who, coincidently or not, had NOT been trained by the staff of IVS, had managed to suffer through a good variety of problems and issues all weekend long.  This diver, who we’ll refer to as “Diver X”, had worn out the welcome mat of helpful Good Samaritan IVS’ers who are always looking to work with someone who needs a little refresher or some tips on improving their  skills and becoming a better diver.  I had already been spoken to by the ships captain and mate regarding this diver, along with some of our own divers, so there was clearly a trend and some serious issues here.  So now we find ourselves moored up to the USCG Duane, a 300 plus foot long wreck sitting in 120 plus feet of water with significant currents present. Hmmm…I look around for volunteers to raise their hands, it seems that everyone is suddenly busy adjusting gear, defogging masks, etc…you get the picture.  Well it matters not, this is my job, so I break out from the group I was part of and inform Diver X that I will be their  buddy.  I brief on the wreck, strongly emphasizing the need for good communication between buddies, following the leader (me), paying attention, being the best diver you can be, ’cause there is far less room for error here than on the shallow reefs.  Have I gotten through?  Let’s find out, I am thinking, as I finish gearing up and prepare to enter the water.

I enter the water and wait for Diver X….finally they are in water.  I get an OK sign, and we pull ourselves forward to the mooring, sampling a strong surface current which only hints at what might lie below.  One final OK is exchanged, and down I go.  Diver X follows, slowly….terribly slowly….I wave encouragement, get the “ears not clearing” sign…but don’t see any ear clearing actions….just hanging there, burning up gas in this current…”come on” I wave… I get another 2 or 3 feet of descent…more of the same….”please….come on”.. and this repeats all the way down to the deck at 105 ft.  I am wearing sidemount 40’s, normally more than ample gas reserves for me and a rescue or two, but I had not factored in over 10 minutes to make this descent.   Finally, on the deck, another exchange of OK’s…we start aft.  “Follow me”, I motion, careful to reinforce what I briefed on the deck, that I would be following the easiest paths and using the ship to shield our bodies from the current.  I am along the deck and I turn only to see Diver X 10 ft above the deck, struggling…..OK…what part of the briefing was that in??  I swim up, pull Diver X down to deck level, and try to reinforce the “follow me” part.  I pass through one cut out, turn, and find myself alone, again…..Jeeeez!  Finally here comes Diver X, and I motion, to please move it along…gas reserves are critical.  We move along the deck, with the current, finally looking like a pair of divers in sync..for a bit.  We get to the back of the superstructure and I tap Diver X to stop…no response…tap again…nothing….finally grab the leg firmly and get a shocked look back.  “We’re turning here”, I motion, and I start across the back of the structure and turn towards the bow.  I make it about 30 ft up against the significant current and turn back to find myself…you guessed it…alone again.  “My gosh”, I am thinking, or something like that, and I turn back, burning up more gas, and find Diver X exactly where I said to turn.  “How does turn here” translate into “wait here forever?”.  None the less, I motion “let’s go” with some urgency, and around the structure I go, into the current again, and I turn back, only to see Diver X imitating a kite, sailing with the current in the wrong direction, well off the deck.  “Holy smokes”, I am thinking, this might end up as something more than educational experience, and I swim back again, grab Diver X, pull them down once again to the deck, firmly grab their hands and place them, one by one, onto things to hold on to and pull themselves forward, as kicking is futile in this current.   I place the hands 4 or 5 times, and I see the hands move on their own a 5th and 6th time…I think we have a breakthrough moment.  Forward we go, but I am careful to look back about every 3 seconds to make sure I am not fooling myself here.  We make it up alongside the bridge, and have to slip out through a cutout into the force of the current.  I check gas again for the umpteenth time, getting low but not yet critical, and I stop before we slip out the opening. emphasizing as best I can the use of the hands to firmly grip and pull forward…bottom line…”FOLLOW ME!!”  Out I go, making sure I demonstrate good hand holds and how easy it is when you grip firmly, I move forward and get out of the way, making room for Diver X to come out, and sure enough, here they come, kicking with their fins and using no hands at all.  Yes, you can predict this, off like a kite they go, and yes, I respond even more quickly, flying after them, grabbing onto whatever I can on the wreck to now pull both of us back into the full blown current.  I am about exhausted and thankful for the healthy adrenalin glands I possess cause I need every sweet ounce of that.  I pull Diver X down to the deck once again, breathing hard through my regulator, and check their gas again.  OK, this is not funny, and now it is getting critical, very critical, and we are alone, as everyone else has managed to make it to the line and began their ascents.  With every last bit of strength I take Diver X’s hands and use them to pull the two of us across the bow, the current flooding my mask, my breathing losing efficiency as I go.  I switch over to my nearly empty first tank to keep as much reserve for Diver X as possible, and continue to claw ourselves along to the mooring line.  We get to the line and Diver X is out of gas, so I pass my regulator over.  It is meat with a blank stare and continued slashing signs across the throat…talk about a classic case of sensory shutdown under stress.  I am screaming into the water column to “take this reg” as I hold it right in front.  Finally, after more prescious time has passed, the regulator is taken, and I get my hands on the line, and begin to pull ourselves up.  Diver X looks like a steam train blowing out volumes of precious gas with each inefficient breath, and we are still 105 feet down and in a lot of current.  Up we start, I am fighting both current and a “flight instinct” on the part of Diver X who wants to race to the surface.  We NEED a slow ascent, Lord knows what is going on inside our tissues with all this stress.  We are working our way up and approaching some of the other divers who are hanging on the line, like sheets in the wind, when Diver X gives me the sign I dreaded most – MY tank was empty now!   Without hesitation, I pulled the last regulator out of my mouth and passed it over, and amazing, had to repeat the same “Take this freakin’ regulator” screaming match in the water for Diver X to snap to and accept my gift of life.  OK, they are breathing now, but I am not – I have nothing.  I quickly look up the line and there I see it….a stage bottle hanging on Brian H’s kit .  He sees me coming, dragging Diver X with me, and deploys the stage, which I take with a huge smile of gratitude.  The rest of the ride up the line, and safety stops are completed without issue, and we finally reboard the boat.  Time for a serious chat now, after we have caught our breath.

I assure our readers that there was no exaggeration in this section, and I hope it serves as a useful tool to take into consideration when diving with someone with lesser-developed skills.  Here is a case where, in retrospect, I should have just said “No” to Diver X about making this dive, but I gave the benefit of the doubt, which proved to nearly be my undoing.  Needless to say, there was no dive #2 for Diver X today, and there will be no hesitation on my part going forward of the need for a return to the basics before being allowed to recklessly endanger the lives of others again.

Machine Shop of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32
Machine Shop of the Spiegel Grove LSD-32

The next stop on the double wreck afternoon was a return trip to the Spiegel Grove.  The second deep dive of the afternoon called for a more conservative dive profile as the IVS team divided itself into different groups based on dive route preferences.  The Amoray Diver was all alone on the wreck and decided to tie up to the port crane (#4) mooring ball after two straight days on the shallower #6 mooring ball.  David Valaika and Brian took to the Spiegel with Hollis DPV’s and Sue Douglass and Judy Mullen strapped on a Pegasus Thrusters to their tanks for some extra power when touring touring Grove.  Some IVS divers were happy to skip the second dive after an exhausting current filled Duane adventure. So that left Mike P. and Michael S. assigned to David Hartman for an advanced follow the leader Spiegel tour. David H took the two Mikes on a fast tour of the Spiegel’s laundry room, comprehensive tour of Level 01 including machine shop, Snoopy, main galley and mess halls and even had time to visit select rooms in level 02 including the CO’s cabin, officers galley, rec hall, main head and ship’s offices quarter.  While David H and the Mikes were playing on the inside, the other divers were whirling around the outside of the Spiegel taking full advantage of their DPV’s and the ability to see so much more of the
bigger picture” with the scooters.

Congratulations are in order for our newest Indian Valley Scuba divers, Gary Millar, Barb Millar and Bruce Augusteuson, who all completed their PADI National Geographic Open Water Diver certifications, Peak Performance Buoyancy specialty, Coral Reef Conservation specialty, and Boat Diver, Michael Stellato and Shannon Jefferson who earned their Advanced Open Water, along with Boat Diver this weekend, Gary Millar (again) who completed his Adventure Diver, Jack Sandler on his coveted Boat Diver cert, and finally Brian Hubler who came to complete his TDI Trimix course with Dave (more on that in the next blog!) later this week.

And a most special round of IVS applause to the “Most Improved Diver’ of the week, Barbara Millar, who went from the ‘deer in the headlights’ look at Jules on Friday to the cool, calm, ‘no wreck too tough for me ‘ persona just three days later – way to go Barb!

IVS Key Largo Weekend Summary

Dive sites: (All boat dives with Amoray Dive Resort)

Friday May 27, 2011: Day 1: Morning-Jules Lodge Lagoon Spa & Resort; Afternoon: Spiegel Grove (#6 ball) and Xmas Tree Cave on French Reef

Saturday May 28, 2011: Day 2: Morning-Christ of the Abyss at Key Largo Dry Rocks and North Dry Rocks; Afternoon: USS Spiegel Grove (#6 ball); Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

Night Dive: Wreck of the Benwood (starboard bow)

Sunday May 29, 2011: Day 3: Molasses Reef: Permit Ledges and North Star; -Afternoon USCG Duane (Bow Mooring Ball) USS Spiegel Grove (#4 ball-Port Crane)

The IVS Crew Wraps Up the Trip with a Pizza Party at Upper Crust

The IVS Crew Wraps Up the Trip with a Pizza Party at Upper Crust

2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

Indian Valley SCUBA at the 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

IVS at the 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix

The team from Indian Valley SCUBA headed down to Key West this past weekend May 20-22nd to represent and participate in the Wreck Racing League’s first race of the Formula H2O Racing season: The 2nd Annual Vandenberg Underwater Grand Prix in Key West, Florida. The first season of underwater scooter races proved the popularity of the sport and season two looks to further increase the participation of racers and exposure to national media. The race weekend started with an early evening arrival in Key West just in time for the race race registration and opening ceremonies at Hogfish Bar & Grill in Stock Island just east of Key West. Numerous racers, event organizers and crew of the M/V Spree turned out to discuss the two days of diving over the weekend. Co-founder of the Wreck Racing League, Joe Weatherby, welcomed the crowd to the first race of the season and described how each day was to unfold.

Wreck Racing League Opening Ceremonies at Hogfish Grill

Wreck Racing League Opening Ceremonies at Hogfish Grill

Both days of diving on the weekend would be from the M/V Spree liveaboard boat based in Stock Island with scooter practice and certification classes on Saturday and race day on Sunday. After the opening ceremonies at Hogfish Grill, the IVS crew head over to the Spree to check in and setup gear for the weekend. The IVS pickup truck had just arrived in the Keys on Friday afternoon and was packed to the brim with dive gear, video equipment and some killer Hollis DPV’s. However, our ride was no where near the most packed vehicle on the road in comparison to pick up truck we saw in Big Pine Key headed Key West jam packed dangerously high with boxes of event chairs. Ironically, the chairs were headed to a facility right next to Hogfish Grill in Stock Island for a big party on Saturday, and we got to see them again when they arrived…OK, well except for those two that flew off the top of the load in Marathon!

A Pickup Truck Full of Event Chairs Even Impresses David Valaika

A Pickup Truck Full of Event Chairs Even Impresses David Valaika

After unloading the IVS truckster, the gang headed down to downtown Key West for some late evening eats. The team enjoyed an excellent meal at Thai Life Floating Restaurant just off Route 1 in Garrison Bight. What better way to enjoy a meal in Key West than on a floating restaurant. The food was excellent, the weather was perfect and we all enjoyed watching Big David Valaika sweat buckets over the mildest Pad Thai dish ever. Good thing David V. did not add any red pepper to his dish!!

David Valaika Wonders Why He Chose Thai Food for Dinner

David Valaika Wonders Why He Chose Thai Food for Dinner

Saturday started bright and early on the M/V Spree with detailed boat and race briefings as we traveled to Western Sambo Reef for check out dives and DPV practice. The viz on Western Sambo was limited the topography fairly flat near the Spree but the few coral heads around provided an abundance of marine life. One coral head had 8 lobsters laughing at us since lobster season is months away and the coral head lies within the protection of the National Marine Sanctuary. We also saw a couple of nurse sharks and plenty of the scooters racing as all the racers tried out their rigs and worked on their racing technique.

Eight Spiny Lobsters Cram into a Coral Head on Western Sambo Reef

Eight Spiny Lobsters Cram into a Coral Head on Western Sambo Reef

After Western Sambo, the Spree traveled to the Wreck of the Vandenberg for race course setup and some serious practice with underwater scooters. David Hartman and Natalie Weatherby took care of the race course setup placing markers from the start finish on the forward balcony on the forward section of the exhaust stack all the way down a few hundred feet to the large tripod structure on top of the aft section of the forward superstructure. The bottom of the Vandenberg’s hull rests on sand in approximately 150 feet of water, but the ship is so massive that its superstructure begins about 45 feet below the surface. The course was perfect and the viz was low but manageable enough for the racers to handle the turns since there was no current all day on the Vandenberg. Each racer took a few practice runs before refilling tanks for a brief second practice dive before the Spree was to head back to port on Stock Island.   Dave Valaika even managed to spear five lionfish off the wreck as he scootered along; perhaps planting the seed of an Underwater Scooter Jousting special category for the race events…hmmmm.  Finally back on board, all the racers approved of the course and were excited and amped for an early race start on Sunday morning. Saturday night was a quiet affair for the group as all racers decided to crash early to prepare for race day.

John Glodowski Navigates the Far Tripod Turn on the Vandenberg Race Course

John Glodowski Navigates the Tripod Turn on the Vandenberg Race Course

Sunday was race day and the Spree was scheduled for an early departure to ensure placement on the proper mooring ball on the Vandenberg and to give the racers plenty of time to prepare for the big event. Viz was still poor but no current and a favorable race course setup called for speedy scooter race conditions. The racers went off in two separate groups competing in multiple classes to achieve the fastest speeds while staying within the race course. Mike Vivona won the Modified Class, Rick Iossi won the event’s Expedition Cass and Kelly Friend of Key West won the recreation Class, all racing faster than their competitors around the superstructure of the 523-foot-long former U.S. Air Force missile tracking ship. John Glodowski from Team IVS took third place in the Expedition Class with an impressive showing. Check out the video highlights of the big race in the video below and view recorded live race feeds filmed on race day on the Spree on the Formula H2O Racing Facebook Page.

The Wreck Racing League or WRL is the sanctioning body for Formula H20 Racing: the action packed sport which combines underwater scooters and scuba diving racing on artificial reefs.