Warming up for the Keys Invasion – Dry Tortugas Tech Diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dry Tortugas Liveaboard Trip Report

Day 1

Sunday dawned dark and dreary in sleepy Harleysville, PA as our divers headed towards the Philadelphia airport to begin the journey southward.  Today’s destination was Fort Myers, FL, home of the liveaboard Ultimate Getaway (www.ultimategetaway.net ) and the starting point for this week’s adventure.

All seemed to be going swimmingly well, with the flights on time, and half our team already on site, having driven down on Saturday with the double tank setups, stage bottles, multiple regulators and all the other goodies that good, safe technical diving demands.  Well, not to digress, but things were looking great, right up to the point where I found myself alone at the Ft. Myers airport; staring at the empty baggage carousel after all the other passengers had claimed their luggage and headed on their merry ways.  Yes, dag-nab it, my friends at Delta had let me down, leaving me stranded and somewhat short on gear and very short on clothing to make it through the next five days on board our dive boat.

“Not to worry”, the smiling baggage claims girl said, “I’m sure they’ll be on the next flight at 7:30”.  OK, well with a boat departure from the dock scheduled for 6:00 that was not the greatest of news.  Let’s make a few calls, get a hold of someone, and see what’s happening at the dock.  As luck would have it, the boat came in an hour late from the last trip, so we had a little leeway in our time schedule.  So Rich Peterson picks me up at the airport and runs me over to the boat, to meet the rest of the divers, including Fantasea Scuba owner Jim Joseph  ( www.fantaseascuba.com), who had organized the charter along with Richie & Carrie Kohler, of Shadow Divers fame ( www.RichieKohler.com ).  Greetings, hugs and handshakes for all, and no problem, they are going to be a little late in leaving, so we have time to run back to the airport and pick up my bags on the later flight.

So Rich & I boogie on back to Ft. Myers International, and I patiently wait by the carousel as the crowd of passengers from the later flight start to gather around me.  Yes, this is what it should feel like;  you can the look of anticipation on their faces, thinking as each bag magically appears on the belt, “is that one ours?”, “maybe that one?”, until finally each passenger has been paired up with a matching bag or two and they head off, leaving only me there, alone again!

Well, the confidence in the baggage claim office sags, as they tell me the next flight that my bags MAY be on is at 11:30 that night.  That’s too late to roll the dice and hold the boat at the dock, so we switch to plan B.  What can I possibly be missing that I can’t either borrow on the boat or buy at Walmart?  So off to America’s Superstore we head, grab a cart, race through the aisles, couple of t-shirts, toothpaste, hairbrush, undies, a bathing suit, what else can we need?  Oh yeah, beer!  OK, well you can get it all at Walmart, so we load up the truck and head back over to the boat, with me looking a little like a diving Minnie Pearl with price tags on everything I am wearing.  A quiet cheer erupts from the crowd as we board, and then a quick briefing by the captain, and we push off!  Hurray!

As we head out to sea the talk turns towards anticipation of tomorrows events, thoughts of artifacts to be recovered, fish to be speared, great photo opportunities and everything else that may be encountered.  Gear is inspected, adjustments made, gas is analyzed, cylinders are tied down, and it’s time to review the dive profiles planned for the first dive tomorrow.  Laptop computers are running all over the salon with different profiles and gas mixes being considered for the next day’s dives.

The wreck we are heading towards is the WWII German merchant ship M.S.Rhein.  In December of 1940, the Rhein had sailed east in an attempt to escape from the port of Tampico, MX where she had been hiding since the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1939 had banned all Axis shipping from American waters.  She was in imminent danger of capture by patrolling American warships, when her crew set her afire in an attempt to scuttle the merchant vessel.  As she burned, her crew was picked up by a British destroyer and she was sent to the bottom by a barrage of cannon fire from the warship. 

The Rhein sat undisturbed and forgotten until 1991, when deep diving legend Billy Dean of Key West happened upon her and identified the ship.  They had actually been searching for the wreck of a Panamanian freighter, the Hermis.  Originally they thought they had found the Hermis, until they recovered the ship’s bell from the bridge which proved undoubtedly that the wreck was that of the Rhein.  Since then she has been explored a number of times, but the distance, depth and expense tends to keep the crowds small and few between.  Today she sits upright in 250 feet of water, with her superstructure rising to within 140 ft. of the surface.  The Rhein is 453 ft in length with a 58 ft beam, and displaced 6,049 tons.

Day 2

Morning broke bright and sunny across the near-flat waters of the Gulf of Mexico as we approached the end of our 124 mile, 14 hour run from Ft. Myers.  The seas are less than 2 ft with gentle rollers, not a whitecap in sight.  The sky is bright blue and cloudless, the air temperature a balmy 80 degrees.  A sumptuous breakfast is served up by the crew and the team digs in!

Today our dive plan calls for 25 minutes at 230 feet, followed by 75 minutes of progressive decompression.  Our bottom gas mix will be 15/37 (15% oxygen, 37% helium, 48% nitrogen) with 50% Nitrox for deco and 100% O2 for the final stages.  We’re carrying double 119’s on our back, with two 40 CF stage bottles slung under our arms.  Deco will start at 170 ft and continue all the way to 10 ft where we’ll end up breathing 100% oxygen for a good final “clean-up” of our tissues.  We’ll follow that with a four hour surface interval while we refill the tanks, and then head back down for a second dive with a similar profile.

Finally, the moment we have been waiting for!  The engines slow, the crew activity picks up, lines are readied, and we are finally on-site at the Rhein!  The captain slowly circles the wreck, determing wind & current direction, to best drop his anchor so that our ship will lie directly over the wreck.  A toot of the horn and the clang of anchor chain lets us know we are close to dropping in.  Once the main anchor is set, the crew drops the 80 lb grapple hook and 250 feet of line and it snags the wreck, picture perfect!  Richie & Carrie drop in first and set the hook by tieing it off with an additional line to the wreck, and they signal ‘mission accomplished’ by shooting a lift bag to the surface.  That’s all we need to see and off we go over the side, quick bubble check just under the surface, and then we descend down, down, down. At 160 ft we can make out the wreck, and we hit the deck at 195 ft.  The fish surrounding this wreck are unbelievable in quantity and size, with groupers of all flavors, snappers, jacks, and the usual cast of characters.  The barracdia are sized as one might expect in 250 ft of water – huge!

Rich and I drop over the side of the wreck and begin a slow tour towards the bow, circling it and taking in the mass of this great ship.  Time & nature have not been kind to the Rhein, so many of the hull plates have been torn away or fallen off, revealing the ship’s skeleton and its innards.  Beautiful purple tip anenomes sweep the current for food, and large oysters cover the steel plating, closing their colorful shells as we near.  Two portholes are already hanging fom lift bags as the scavengers among us are busily working away with pry bars and hammers.

Our 25 minutes of bottom time passes all too quickly, and it’s time to begin our slow ascent.  A total of an hour and fifty minutes pass before we re-surface and board the boat, smiling from ear to ear.  Once on board, lunch is served, and the crew gets to work mixing gas and fllling the tanks for our second go-round.

At 6:10 we finally splash for a twilight visit to the wreck.  The fish life is quieting down, the barracuda are starting to stack up above us with their “If anyone is getting eaten tonight it’s not me!” strategy of safety in numbers.  We hit 233 feet as we explore aft of the bridge, and penetrate through a hole under the wreck, passing from port to starboard.  The black grouper abound, and a couple of very sizeable Goliath groupers follow us around to see what we are up to.  The Kohlers locate the ships horn, and have it tied off for an attempted recovery in the morning.  Another porthole comes up, and I locate a ceramic tile from the original cargo – nice find!  Another nice slow ride to the surface, to the amusement of hundreds of bar jacks who constantly buzz us during our deco.

Back on the boat, we break down our gear, and head in for a great dinner prepared by the ship’s cook.  Richie K brings out a bottle of Reisling that was sent to him by a surviving member of a U-boat that he has been in contact with, so we drink a very appropriate toast to the reminder of the Second World War we are diving below.

Day 3

Another fantastic morning at sea after a night of gentle rocking while we slept, and we start to get ready to explore the wreck further.  After breakfast we get to work mixing today’s gas, and prepare to head down, with the plan to travel all the way to the stern of the wreck.

Rich and I splash and head down, all is cool, bubble checks pass, and we swim towards the stern.  We round the stern, check out the rear cargo hold, pass thru the bridge area which is quite collapsed now.  Very nice views, big Jewfish lounging on top of the masts, too bad the camera is in the shop, but none-the-less we enjoy a leisurely 25 minute swim, with a maximum depth of 236 ft.  Ascent is good, but this time we decide to ride the computer up rather than the written plan, and here is where the day turns a bit less than expected.  We end up on the surface about 15 minutes earlier than planned.  Back on board however, Rich and I experience significant pain in our mid-sections and the skin blotches tell the story – skin bends, or epidermal DCS.  Not pretty and definitely painful. 

Lunch and a solid nap help things get a bit better, but Rich decides to sit out the second dive.  I splash in after a four hour surface interval, and enjoy a nice dive at 217 ft for 20 minutes.  Now this time I come up with the written deco plan, even adding a few more minutes at the stops above 65 ft, where I am breathing EAN50.  At 20 ft I switch to 100% O2 and hang there an extra 40 minutes, even dropping closer to 30 feet and pushing a ppO2 of 2.0, while flushing all those nasty gases out of my system with the pure oxygen.  I surface after an hour and 50 minutes and feel great. Mission accomplished, successful in-water recompression complete. Note to self:  be more conservative!

Diving for the day is over, the hook is pulled, the engines fire up and we head over to our second location, that Araby Maid.  Dinner is served up and everyone is excited about the next days dives. Richie Kohler holds court in the galley this evening, sharing some videos and stories of diving the Titanic and her sister ship, the Britannica.  Very interesting and informative, to say the least.

Day 4

What a difference a night can make, as we woke up to a rockin’ & rollin’ boat this morning.  Wind is up, some currents are evident, but hey, what can you expect when you are 130 miles out to sea?  Rich & I splashed at 9:45, and dropped in to see the wreck materialize from 130 feet.  The bottom was 213 feet, so we explored the exterior then jumped inside this fairly intact steel-hulled sailing vessel, which sank in 1906 after a collision with another vessel.  Lots of large marine life, the sounds of hammers a’wailing as the scavengers were hard at work trying to claim more portholes for their collections.  After 25 minutes we headed up, and while we were hanging we were treated to a very large turtle swimming by to check us out, then after that a 7 ft Silky shark cruised through and around us on and off for another 20 minutes, very curious about what was hanging in the water.  His approaches were very close, less than 10 ft, so it was at the same time amazing and unnerving.  Very cool.  We spent additional time taking advantage of the 100% O2 at 20 feet to get a good flush of nitrogen from our system. 

After another great lunch and a nap, we headed back in for our final dive of the trip. This time we were searching for souvenirs and trinkets amongst the rubble of the deck, and we ended up with a few nice items.  On the deco we had dolphins playing around us and African Pompano swimming by, curious about the visitors to their world.

Finally, our last great meal, gear is broken down and packed, and the ship starts the 14 hour run back to port.  Great trip overall, we’ll be back!