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… 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!!

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011


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

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

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

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

More to follow…

A Very Special Indian Valley Divers Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

A Record Turnout at the Indian Valley Divers August Club Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Allure of Lobster Mini-Season

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

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

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

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

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

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

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

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

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

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

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

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

Tec diving, Key West style!

Indian Valley Scuba doesn’t just pride itself on offering great training opportunities year round, it also provides the places to go and dive the sort of dives you’ve been training for!  Case in point, our Extended Range, Trimx and Advanced Trimix programs – we need wrecks in the 200 ft depth range, and we need them year round!  What better place to find some of them than off the waters of Key West?

Kris & Michele Gosling joined Dave for a long weekend of technical diving in one of our favorite locations, Key West.  I flew down while the Gosling’s drove, and boy, while I think I pack a lot for a dive trip, these guys have me beat hands down! Good to know if I need to make any on-site repairs, Kris has at least one, if not two, of whatever I need on hand!  Once again, this darn weather thing has got to get better, as the marine forecasts are hinting at one lousy weekend on the ocean!

We really try to give our business to the little guy, but shop we used to supply us with gas mixes and rental tanks in January has not returned our calls or emails for the past two weeks.  Such is life with some businesses in the Keys…is it any surprise the failure rate is so high?  So, rather than making this a technical snorkeling trip for myself, I stop at IVS-Key Largo, and pick up the tanks we keep in storage there.  Downside is that the double 100’s have been filled for some shallower diving on the Speigel Grove, so my ppO2 will be a tad high on our dives tomorrow on the Vandenberg.  Well, the living DAN medical research experiment continues, so I’ll just make sure my affairs are in order before the morning drop!

Friday morning came and we got our 7:00 a.m. report from Capt. Chris Norwood, of Florida Straits Diving.  Wind is blowing at 25 knots plus from the southwest, and seas are 8 ft outside the reef.  Hmmmm….not the sort of conditions that the 26 ft Lucky Dog handles well on that ocean.  So, we turn our sights a bit, and Chris finds the Southpoint Divers boat is heading out this morning for a double dip on the Vandenberg.  Perfect! Or so it seems…

So we head over to the shop, and get squared away with Eric the manager.  Quick Quiz – what is Rule #1 of scuba diving?   Fill out the waivers, of course!   So we take care of the necessary paperwork, and drive the truck over to the Hyatt where the boat is docked.  As we pull into the lot, there are four Key West roosters (real roosters, not any other kind, thank you!) strutting across the lot. I know what they are thinking as they watch me drive up…”he’ll slow down”…he’ll turn to avoid us”….”he sees us”…….’holy smokes, he’s gonna hit us!!”…and with that last thought the feathers explode as the roosters careen out of the path of the truck, with the leader flying up against the drivers door and letting me know, in rooster terms, just what they thought of my sense of humor!   Gotta love me!

So rooster incident over, we unload the truck into the carts, haul them through the Hyatt’s pool area, and as we load our extensive pile of gear, are thankful we are on a 46 ft Newton cause we sure had a lot of stuff! Doubles, multiple stage bottles, pelican boxes, camera cases, even a few milk crates thrown in to give it that Northeast US dive boat look!  Our able crew today included Capt. Tim, first mate Henry, aka Cuban Henrik for his uncanny ability to fall off the dive boat, and the girls, Amber Whinery and Lucja Jakubowska.  Amazingly small world that we live in, Henry formerly lived in the Lehigh Valley, and Lucja used to volunteer with O’Donnell Diving working with disabled divers at the Variety Club in Worcester, about five miles from Indian Valley Scuba.  Amazing! OK, I digress……, we headed on out and this fast boat had us on the site within about 40 minutes.  The mooring balls were visible, but not by much, indicating some significant current at least at the surface.  But the good news was that the water was clear and blue as far down as we could see.

So we briefed, geared up, and splashed in, making sure we had a good grip on the granny line to avoid a stressful surface swim with all our gear on.  We opted to leave the cameras on board until we figured out how bad this current was.  Smart move!  As soon as we splashed it was a serious hang on the granny, as we went hand over hand, pulling ourselves forward, trying to avoid getting our breathing going too hard, as this would come into play with our gas management plans later.  Finally, we are there on the mooring line and we start to descend to the wreck.  Whoa!  What happened to the blue water?  What a tease, that layer was only about 10 ft deep, and now we are in some serious soup.  It only gets thicker as we descend, to the point where I am straining to see the wreck, and finally I am within 10 feet of the mooring tie off, and I cannot see anything past the metal structure that the line is tied to.  Wow…this is gonna suck!

OK, so it is hand over hand down the structure as I strain to see any sort of deck or other parts of this ship…I know there is a 540 ft long ship here, and my hand is on it, but boy I cannot see it!  Finally I touch a flat surface, and shimmy to my right, to the edge, and realize I am on a deck on the superstructure.  So Kris and I drop down another level, to the next flat surface, and start to make our way forward, with the plan being a “hole in the wall” tour to show this ship off to it’s newest diver.  As I started forward, I finally ran into a wall, so I figured we might be at the back of the ship’s bridge, maybe.  So a little to the right, and whoops, I fall over the edge again, so we weren’t on the deck!  OK, now I slide to the right, and there is the gunnel and some railing, so I know I am on the edge of the ship’d deck now!  Kris and I move forward, keeping four sharp eyes out for the gaping 20 ft x 20 ft hole that would be our entrance to the innards of this wreck.  Well, four sharp eyes evidently were not quite enough, as we keep looking to our left while keeping the gunnel and railing to our right, and guess what we found?  The bow of the ship!  How we knew this, you ask?  Cause our starboard gunnel just ran into the port side gunnel and the deck got kinda pointy, that’s how!

Well that would mean one thing….we have missed the cargo hold entrance!  So now we turn around, and head straight down the centerline of the ship, go over the huge anchor windlasses, over the #1 cargo hatch entrance, and finally, there it is, the #2 entrance. How did we miss this on the way past the first time?  Tells you something about the visibility for sure!

So a little communication at the top, Kris is ready, and we drop, straight down the shaft, until we hit 130 feet.  There we have an entrance towards that heads toward the stern and should serve as our jump off point for our Hole in the Wall tour.  So I start in, being careful with my buoyancy.  I am waiting for the viz to clear, figuring the messy water outside would not have filled the inside of this wreck too,  Wrong!  I penetrate about 50 to 60 feet into the ship, and cover my light, only to discover that not only is there any visible light ahead, but there is equally none from the direction we just came.  We are essentially totally silted out with the low visibility right in the middle of the day!  OK,,,survival thinking mode kicks in here, this has all the makings of being my final dive, so I do the prudent thing and turn the dive.  I have enough room to spin around, and do so carefully to keep track of the definition of “around”, meaning I am pointed back in the direction we came from.  Viz was that bad!  So we kick on back, and eventually the area around us opens up, and I “think” we are in the shaft.  I cover my light, and look sraight up, and I can just make out a light glow of daylight through the murk, still with 60 feet of shaftway above us, and a total of 130 feet of water,  Man, did I say this viz sucks?

Well heck, we’re here, and we’re training, so let’s do some reel work!  Kris unclips his reel, and as he does, his carabineer pops off, and slowly drops into the murky abyss.  Instinctively I start towards, it, and then realize how bad the viz is further down the shaft (like I somehow forgot that!) and I give the ‘throat slashing’ signal to Kris, letting him know that Indian Valley Scuba has a fine array of carabineers for him to choose from when we get back to Pennsylvania!  Yes it would take some serious narcosis for me to miss a sales opportunity on a dive, even at depth! 

So we tie off, and I have Kris lead, and we head inside on the 110 feet level.  Past piles of jumbled file cabinets, desks, bookcases, all sorts of junk left over from the ships cleanup.  We get into a hallway, drop back a bit, make a 90 degree turn, then straighten back out, heading towards the stern.  Viz is a steady <10 ft throughout.  Finally Kris has had enough, and we turn, actually we back up, cause we are in a narrow hallway and there is no real chance to actually turn around.  So we back it up, never losing contact with the line, and finally I am able to turn, as does Kris, and we make our way back to our entry point, reeling up the line as we go.  Still lots of denizens of the deep for us to see, shrimp running around on the walls, qull clams, juvenile fish, and many flavors of silt and particulate!  We get back to our tie off point, and Kris has had enough, so we turn in the direction that appears to be up, and make our way back up the shaft to the deck level.  From there we navigate back to the mooring point, and begin our ascent to the surface.  Thirty minutes of bottom time at 130 ft, and only a 13 minute ascent, so overall not a bad run.  Lots of practical experience gained and Kris has shown great buoyancy control skills, good reel handling (except for that carabineer incident, but we’ll discuss that at the cash register next week!), and he also demonstrated why he is wearing double 130’s on his back – this boy can breath!!  We’ll work on that too!

Topside, the wind is picking up, and one by one the others on the boat are turning green and scratching dive #2, so it is now or never for Kris and I.  Twenty minutes of surface interval works, so we shift gears and plan to dive our computers for this second drop.  I am using my Cochran EMC20-H, and Kris is sporting a VR-3 and has a Suunto Cobra as a backup, so we have two good dive computers here, and one excellent snorkeling computer!  We gear up, move to the rear of the boat, and are disappointed to see that the blue water we had on the surface for the first dive has now disappeared.  Oh well, in we go, dragging ourselves back up the granny line, locate the mooring line, quick bubble check, all good, and we head down.  Upon reaching the wreck, we waste no time in dropping down on the port side, away from the current.  We tour along the deck a little, passing under one of the huge satellite dishes, this one being the one that broke off during the sinking, so it is held in place by some heavy cables to the superstructure.  Once past that, it’s time to do some drills, so Kris does his gas shutdown procedure, drops and replaces his stage bottles, and scores well on both.  Now for the tour…..we head around to the stern, and wow, there is a Goliath grouper in six to eight foot length watching us approach.  Very cool!  From there, we swing forward, enter the hatch down to the laundry shoot, Kris ties off again, and we drop, parachute style, straight down this tight chute,  There are no exits once you commit to dropping until you get to the bottom, so the adrenalin rush is good!  We hit the bottom at 130 feet, and I show Kris the laundry area, where the viz is much better than what we have seen so far on the wreck.  From there I drop down a hatch into shaft alley, where the main propeller shafts are located.  We check that area out at 140 ft, and watch as our deco obligation starts to accumulate.  We turn the dive, and head back up from where we came, not daring to attempt an alternative passage, with the viz as bad as it is.  The penetration line serves as our version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, leading us back to the relative safety of the exterior of the wreck.  Once back up on the deck, we made our way forward to the mooring point, and started our ascent.   Thirty minutes of bottom time at 140 ft, and we had a twenty minute deco obligation to satisfy before we could see the sunlight again.  As we hang, the Cochran clears, then the VR-3 gives us the OK to surface.   The Suunto?  It is “bent” beyond belief, and will need a couple of days in the divers time out chair before it is ready to submerge again.  Did I mention it makes an excellent snorkeling computer?

So back to the dock, and at least it is a beautiful day topside, although a bit breezy. We unload the boat, and head out to get gas….of course no one is there, so we shift to plan B, and take our tanks over to our friends at Sub Tropic Dive Center.  We get back to the condo, expecting to find Michele there to greet us with cold drinks in hand.  But no, she is not, and we call and there is no answer on her cell phone either!  Well, as it turns out, Michele is a bit, shall we say technically challenged?  Seems she took Kris’s new Nissan Maxima out this morning when we were leaving, and Kris started it up for her and had it running when she got in.  Well Michele stopped to do some shopping downtown, and made the mistake of shutting the car off!  Well when it was time to leave,  she could not figure out the Japanese version of how to fire this chariot back up!Seems you need to have the electronic key placed just so, press the ‘start; button, and make sure you have the gas pedal depressed at the right time.  So she spent some time searching for a place to insert the manual key, and finally went back to the last street vendor she had bought things from, and he came and figured out that tricky ignition.   I promised Michele we’d keep that secret just between us friends, so please friends, don’t tell anyone else!!  With that in mind, I won’t even begin to share her GPS story!

So finally it’s time to turn in, and during the night I awaken to what for a moment I thought were jets from the Naval Base flying by….and by…and by.  And just before I was fully awake, I could swear that was Dorothy tapping on my window, with Toto in her arms, seeking refuge from the storm! Nope, it turns out that is the wind, it is absolutely howling here, trees are shaking, rigging on the boats in the harbor is whistling, and that tapping?  Well it turns out it was only a tree branch outside my door whipping around in the wind…..oh well.   

Saturday morning comes and as you might imagine from the night, it isn’t much better.  Chris Norwood calls, his boat is scratched for the day, and so are most of the others.  The Sea Eagle from Captains Corner did head out to the Vandenberg, could not find the mooring balls as they were completely under with the current, and spent a half hour trying to tie in.  That failed, so they headed to the Cayman Salvor, and still could not hook in, so they headed about 12 miles west to try to find some quiet water on the far reefs.  So here it was, 11 o’clock in the morning and as I am talking to Leslie who runs the operation, she tells me the folks on board have still not gotten in the water for their first dive of the morning….man there must be some green faces on that boat, and we’re not talking a St Patty’s day event!  Needless to say there will be no diving today, so the Goslings head out to tour the town, and I stay in, to type this blog!

Saturday night in Key West would not be right without a party, and we have to look no further than next door to find one.  Turns out one of our local friends is celebrating his 50th, and the owners of the Hogfish Bar have shut the place down in order to throw a huge private party for him.  Well gosh, it is good to know people, we Michele, Kris and I are ushered into the party, and wow what a neat affair!  All you can eat buffet, all you can drink, all you can dance…..this place is jamming!  The band is fantastic, and the guest list reads like a Who’s Who in Key West.  Of course Joe Weatherby is in attendance, as is Chris Norwood, and some of the other captains and crews I have come to know here, plus George, the former mayoral candidate, Bobby, owner of the Hogfish, Dave Sirek from ABC news, and many more.  And even better, the owners of both Sea Tow and Tow Boat USA are there, and those who know me recognize how valuable these friends might be!  All in all, lots of fun, lots of laughter, great time had by all!   

So now it is Sunday, and the wind is still kicking, so most of the boats are headed west to the reefs.  The water is still too rough for Florida Strait’s boat, so Chris calls around to find us someone bold enough to take us south to the Vandenberg.  As the day progresses, most afternoon boats cancel due to the conditions.  OK, one boat available, $300 is the ransom for the ride in the washing machine… thanks!  Looks like we’ll be wrapping up this training in May!  Time to check the airline for earlier flight options home.   

Down we go, deep, deeper, deepest! Technical diving in Key West


Time to get the nitrogen levels back up in the bloodstream, and what better way to do that than to head down, way down, on some deep wrecks off the sunny shores of Key West?

Steve Lewis, VP of TDI, along with Joe Weatherby joined Dave V on a technical diving excursion to explore some of the deeper wrecks located off the southernmost key.   Sadly, the weather gods are not giving us any good signs for this weekend, so we are heading south with fingers crossed for the best!

Thursday evening we arrive at IVS-Key West’s base on Stock Island and set up camp in our condo there.  This is one nice home away from home for sure, and we are thrilled to have met the owner, Mike Bullock, through our favorite dive operator here, Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving.  Three bedrooms, accommodations for eight, newly refurbished throughout, this is living large indeed!

Friday morning comes and with it the 7:00 a.m. NOAA marine weather update.  Ruh roh – six to eight footers on the outside today with twenty-five knot winds whistling through.  Not the perfect recipe for a small boat and heavily laded divers on the ocean!  So, do we cancel?  Are you kidding?  We get a slightly larger boat! 

Our friends at Sub-Tropic step up and offer their boat for the day, which coincidently was available since no customers wanted to head out in these conditions!  Works for us, and we loaded up our gear, and motored out to the Vandenberg.  Seas were, shall we say, a bit testy, but we managed, and in spite of the topside conditions, the ocean below was perfect, with minimal current and 200 plus feet of visibility in the clear blue water.  Nice!

We dropped right into the #2 cargo hatch, descending down to 130 feet, and slip inside for Joe’s exclusive “hole in the wall” tour, covering over 400 feet of this wreck’s interior and never popping out until we drop into the engine room in the stern.  What a cool tour it is, lots of tight passageways, many turns, some areas with no alternate exits…all good for a great dive and a nice adrenalin rush too!

We spend 46 minutes at depth, finish off a ten minute deco obligation, and climb back aboard with big smiles.  The ladder is a bit challenging, balancing doubles on our back, and two slung stage bottles each, but we manage, and get ready to enjoy a few minutes of de-briefing and relaxing on board. 

OK, few minutes are up, it is time to dive again!  Gear back up, splash, and drop down, this time towards the stern of this majestic wreck.  Take a quick look-around at the stern, then we head up to the hanger area, where they used to store the weather balloon.  Once inside, we drop down the chute to the laundry room, at 140 ft.  This is a very cool drop, as the chute is about an 80 ft vertical drop, and it is only one diver wide.  Best part?  Once you enter, there are NO outlets till you get to the bottom, so commitment is key here! 

We exit out the bottom, and take a tour of the former laundry room, still full of steam presses and washers and dryers that completed their duty at sea.  This is a real tight area, and you have to by uber-careful to not silt things up once inside.  Buoyancy control and situational awareness is key, cause things could go to hell in a New York minute here.  After some good photo op’s, we head out the rear stairwell, up one level, then begin a tour forward through lots of crew berthing areas.  Bed frames, toilets and sinks, and personal storage lockers tell the story of what these spaces once were.  All sorts of new life forms are here now, “scouts” in a sense for a whole generation of new critters to come to these areas of eternal darkness (OK, except for the occasional zillion megawatt divers lights!),  Very cool to be witness to a sort of evolution as the sea reclaims this vessel.

Another forty minutes of bottom time passes too quickly, and we head back up, finishing off with a little 50% and 100% O2 mixes on the way to the surface.  A good day of diving, great wreck, great boat and crew from Sub-Tropic, and it’s time to head back in.  The sunset ride in just tops the day off, and we grab a quick bite and prepare our dive plans for tomorrow’s activities. 

Saturday morning comes and the wind continues to blow hard, from the south, which is a bad thing, cause there is a lot of ocean to blow across between here and Cuba, giving the wind, and the waves, time to build themselves up nicely.  None the less, we are here on a mission, so in spite of being the only boat heading out, we’re going diving!  We head our after lunch, and our first stop is the USS Curb, a former naval tug that sits upright now in 185 feet of water.  There it is on the sonar, so we check current direction, and make a few passes over the wreck to confirm we are on it.  The grapple is dropped, and we hook into it (there are no mooring balls).  One, two, three, we drop down into the abyss, and are greeted with views of the wreck from well over a hundred feet away. 

An absolutely amazing quantity and variety of life live on this wreck, sitting like an oasis in the middle of miles of flat, sandy plains.  From the smallest baitfish (what do you have to do wrong in this life to come back as a baitfish?  You don’t even get a name for your species, just “baitfish”) to huge 400# Goliath groupers (at least they get a name!), this wreck is a haven for life.  Marauding amberjacks and horse-eye jacks make passes at the smaller fish, and the fray is exciting to watch as someone goes home with dinner, while some else becomes a dinner.  Enough eloquent waxing on my part, back to the wreck!  Covered with snagged fishing nets and miles of monofilament, this wreck is a snagged diver waiting to happen, so make sure you have your line cutter or z-knife handy, and a bigger blade for the larger stuff. 

We’re diving a mix of 20% oxygen, 25% helium, and 55% nitrogen on this dive, so we enjoy 20 minutes of bottom time at 170 feet, followed by a nice 30 minutes of deco as we ascend.  The conditions remain perfect so the hang time is a pleasure with all sorts of things to watch as we pass the time.    

Stop number 2 is the Vandenberg again, but this time it is a night dive, as the sun has dipped below the waves for the day.  We hit 146 feet as we spent a lot of time exploring the engine rooms and machinery areas, racking up another 35 minutes of bottom time on our remaining trimix.  My friends spent most of the time shallower, but I wanted to pictures of the machinery, and these conditions would be tough to match another day, so my entire dive was spent below 140 ft.  Of course this comes with a price, that being a fifty minute deco obligation, with the last thirty minutes alone, hanging in the dark, catching the occasional silvery flash of a barracuda or other night time predator as they flew by, checking out the life form that was hanging there in the water.  Finally, an hour and twenty-five minutes after descending, I am back on board, and we enjoy a few beers as we toast the day’s events.  The sea had even laid down a bit for us as we headed back to the dock, making our nocturnal journey a little more mellow!

So it was time to grab a late dinner, so my friend Steve, who is Canadian and has traveled extensively through Cuba, and Joe, who is not, but somehow has also traveled frequently to Cuba, decided that is what we need to eat tonight – Cuban fare!  Well anyone who knows me would realize that Dave and any food containing spices don’t match up well, but I go, figuring there should be enough Presidente Light to wash down whatever I am convinced will be safe for this gringo to eat.  Dinner is fine, service is great, and we call it a night again.

Sunday, the winds are down a bit, but not gone, and our target today is the former naval cruiser USS Wilkes Barre, which likes almost 20 miles north up the coast from Key West.  So we batten down the hatches and head out, staying inside the reef as long as we can to minimize the seas, but eventually heading out to find our wreck.  This 650 ft long vessel was being used for the testing of underwater demolitions, and the test worked great, being detonated directly underneath the ship, and the concussion essentially ‘breaking the ships back’, as it lifted, ripped apart, then settle to the sea floor.  The stern is sitting perfectly upright in 240 feet of water, and the bow is settled a short distance away, laying on it’s port side.  Are target is the stern so we can enjoy this multi-level treasure and really get a chance to some some exploring.  We pick it up on sonar, sure enough it has a huge signature, and the grapple is dropped.  We complete our final gear checks, and splash.  Our blend today is 18/35, the lower oxygen content to avoid CNS toxicity and the resulting convulsions and death that typically accompany it, and the higher helium blend helps reduce the nitrogen in our mix, better to avoid being narc’d out of our minds and forgetting to do things, like maybe ascend!  We complete our ensemble with a couple of stage bottles, with our flavors today being the tried and true 50% and 100% oxygen mixes.

Well we start down the line, and we descend, expecting to reach the top of the wreck at 165 ft or so. This is where it gets a little weird, cause there is no wreck there.  OK, 175, 185, hmmmmm….finally, as we pass 200, there it is, a huge wreck, laying, well, on it’s side!  What the heck!  We are hooked to the bow section, not the stern!!  Time to rethink the dive plan a bit, but we’re OK, as we had planned a pretty aggressive dive depth-wise, and now the conditions matched our plans!   So we dropped down to 230 feet and spent about ten minutes there, checking out the gun turrets, deck fittings, and piles of things that have been snagged on this wreck over the years and lost by other boaters.   Up to 200 feet for another 12 minutes, then let’s grab the grapple hook and tie it off to itself so it doesn’t snag on anything else.  Well, the current had evidently picked up on the surface while we were down, cause when we unhooked the grapple, it took off like a kite, with Steve and Joe trying to tie it off, and me trying to hold the line down below our first stop depth. 

On another dive this might have been fun, but with our bodies chock full of helium, the rate of descent is very critical.  Those little molecules really like to jump out of our cells easily, so they need sufficient time for us to breath them out of our systems.  So, after a little struggling, we get the hook tied up to itself, and stabilize our depth, and begin our 50 minute, 13 level ascent to the surface.  Once there, we are careful to avoid the Portuguese Man ‘o Wars that are sailing by in the stiff breeze, with tentacles a’trailing, looking to sting something into submission, like us!

Well that was enough excitement for the day, and we call it, heading in for our last night in Key West.  A light dinner and beers at the Hogfish Cafe, conveniently located right next to our Key West condo!

Monday morning we started our journey back north, but we still had some diving to do! So we headed up to visit our friends at Conch Republic Divers in Tavierner, and get one final tec dive in on the Speigel Grove.  Forty eight minutes of bottom time below 120 ft, followed by forty minutes of staged deco, wrapped up one great weekend of Florida Keys technical diving. 

Florida Lobster Fest ’09

They came in droves, the spotters, the netters, the snarers, and the grabbers…….specialists all, with a common goal – to put as many tasty spiny lobsters into the pot for Friday nights annual Indian Valley Scuba Lobster Festival in Key Largo.  This event is held each year, to coincide with the Florida Lobster Sport Season, a two-day hunt held the last contiguous Wednesday & Thursday in July.  This mini-season precedes the opening of the regular hunting season, and is only open to divers, snorkelers, and netters – no commercial take is allowed. 

Team IVS arrived on site Tuesday evening, and set right to work prepping the gear for an oh’dark-thirty departure in the moming.  Final checks, calibrating the gauges, making sure the snares worked smoothly,  trying on the new gloves, installing new batteries in the lights, and the oh-so-important task of making sure the zipper on your lobster bag was nice and closed – all important tasks necessary to ensure our team would do it’s part for lobster population control on the reef.

It’s three thirty in the morning and the alarm is ringing……yikes!..time to get up and get ready!  Brush the teeth, grab a bagel and diet Coke, and start loading the boat at 4:15.  Capt. Joe and First Mate Lindsey delivered the safety briefing at 4:30 and we pushed off into the darkness, with an air of anticipation of what laid ahead.  Our team consisted of Ray Graff, Bev & Butch Loggins, Randy & Connie Rudd, Joyce & Charles Kichman, Tricia and Jeff Mento, Sue Douglass, Brian Laspino, Mike & Lin Gusenko, Terry Gibbons, Bob Benson, Wendy and Alex Lepore, and John Glodowski. For a few, this was not only their first ocean dive, but also their first boat dive, night dive, hunting dive and drift dive – what a way to get baptized in scuba, eh? 

We splashed at the legal opening minute of the lobster hunting season in Monroe County, 5:48 a.m.  Lights were shining back & forth, as the divers scurried about., looking to be the first to get a “keeper” in the bag!  In order to take a lobster here, they need to be of a minimum length, which we measure with a gauge prior to bagging them, and they must also not be bearing eggs.  Thus it is important to exercise caution and catch them in a kind and loving fashion, in case they fail to pass one of those tests, and we need to set them free, to grow (or hatch their eggs) and hopefully visit us again next season!   This is also why we are careful not to damage the lobsters or break their spiny antennas, as they would have a difficult time defending themselves if they don’t end up qualifying for our dinner pot.  We completed three ninety-minute dives this morning, each one better than the previous, and ended up with 21 lobster tails in the freezer by noon.  Time for a quick lunch and siesta, and then we’ll head back out and do it again.  

Our new crew, Captain Dan and First Mate Andrew, arrived, and we loaded up and headed out at 3:30 for the afternoon three-tank trip.  Three great locations, three more hour-plus drift dives, and we were “on the meat” at every one!  36 more lobsters joined our growing collection in the freezer, making Friday’s night feast looking all that much better.  Last splash was at 8:00, allowing one last hour of night diving before the season closed for the day at 9:10 p.m.  We got back at 11:00, just in time to crash into our beds and get a few hours rest before the alarm clock rings again!

Just to keep things exciting, we decided to head out a little earlier this morning and try our luck up north a bit, around Carysfort Light. So we loaded up at 3:30 a.m., and cast the lines at 4:00 to make sure we didn’t miss a minute of hunting time.  Well today our luck was not with us, even with the efforts of the ‘Lobster Charmer’ Tricia Mento, giving her best effort.  Only 8 more bugs were added to the pot, so the pressure’s on for this afternoons team.  Lots of mouths to feed tomorrow night!  Maybe we should have them make some extra salad and dinner rolls at the restaurant!

Thursday afternoon found most of the rest of the gang showing up, including the rest of the Valaika clan, Brad Creveling, Rich Kessler, Keith Wallerman, Bill & John Zyskowski, Rob & Jen O’Donnell, Stephanie & Cynthia Shaeffer, Niki & Csaba Lorinczy, Steve Holak, Judy & Ron Monaco, June Malinowski, Beth Long and Alex Pulsilze. Local IVS-South instructor Dave Hartman joined the gang for the last lobster run this evening also.

Thursday afternoon also marked two very important milestones in the Indian Valley Scuba dive family – Tricia Mento celebrated her 100th dive this afternoon, and even cooler than that, she celebrated her fourth consecutive 29th birthday in the most wonderful way, diving for lobsters with Team IVS!

The boat returned at 10:30 and with 28 more bugs in the bag, the final lobster count ended up at 93, a few shy of last years record 106 bugs.   We need to work on this for sure!!!

Friday morning and the weekend officially starts, with most of the group boarding the Amoray Diver for a run out to the reef, while our newest divers joined Dave and some of the IVS staff for a ride over to do our first two open water dives at Jules Undersea Lodge.   The Amoray Diver headed enjoyed two reef dives in perfect conditions, and the group had a great morning.  Meanwhile the Jules gang enjoyed some cool dives getting all those necessary skills out of the way, and preparing us to head out on the open seas after lunch. 

The afternoon boat headed out at 1:00 and our first stop was the Coast Guard Cutter USS Duane. To say the current was “RIPPING” would be a gross understatement.  It was truly smoking all the down to the wreck at 105 ft.  Four teams of divers headed down and once on the wreck we had some great visibility and lots of large animals taking refuge in and around the wreck, so the sightseeing was great.  Major gathering of very large horse-eye jacks kept circling the wreck and buzzing us – where’s my speargun??

Once back on board, we headed over to the Winch Hole site on Molasses Reef, and enjoyed a great dive with minimal current and super visibility, and just loving that 87 degree water!  Back to the dock in time to freshen up, and head over the the Key Largo Conch House for our lobster dinner festival.  Reservations for 48 were made earlier this year and our friends at the Conch House did not let us down a bit!   From their award-winning lobster bisque, to broiled lobster tails, and all the fixin’s that go well with that, our group had a truly pleasant evening under the stars, chatting, dining, sharing dive tales, and generally enjoying the social interaction that is such a huge part of the dive life. 

Saturday morning brought us another dose of the weather that entitles Florida to be called the Sunshine State – absolutely perfect, sunny, with clear blue skies.  We laoded up and headed out to French Reef, the oldest of the reef systems that lay just offshore of the Keys.   Our first location was Christmas Tree Cave, an area chock full of swim throughs formed by the mature corals growing over hundreds of years and fusing together on top of the reef, forming large open archways along the sand.  These are great spots to find great numbers of smaller and mid-size reef fish taking refuge from the surge while enjoying protection from predators, and often you’ll also find some larger species also, such as groupers.  They were all out in force today, and our divers were treated with turtle sightings, actively feeding stingrays, sharks, eels and all the rest of the usual cast of characters.  Dive #2 of the day was just a few mooring balls down the reef, at the last dive site on French Reef, apropriately named North French Reef.  Similar to the first dive, conditions just as nice, and the sea life just as abundant.

Back to the dock for a quick bite to eat, change tanks, and the ride back out to sea.  Location #1 for the afternoon was the Spiegel Grove, and the seas were a’rolling, with waves breaking right across the deck of the Amoray Diver.  We were almost wet enough to start counting our bottom time before we even got hooked up to the wreck.  We tied into the port crane, and the current was as strong if not stronger than yesterday’s Duane experience.  We organized into teams on the boat, conducted our group briefings, and slipped into the water.  Pulling against the mooring line was something akin to swimming up a fire hose, with the water just about ripping our masks off and regulators out.  What a rush indeed!  Hand over hand, we made our way down the line to the wreck, hitting the top of the crane at 65 feet.  Once on the wreck , we were able to use the ship to shield ourselves from the current and the diving conditions were superb.  Every team was able to enjoy the dive to the level they planned, from simple sightseeing about the exterior to some of Dave Hartman’s fine deep, dark, interior tours.  By the end of our dive, 37 of our 40 divers made it back to the Amoray boat – we won’t mention any names, but let it be known the Spiegel has a newly named mooring ball now, called the “Z” ball, in honor of couple of navigationally challenged IVS diving brothers and their fellow Polski sidekick.

After that it was a short ride to the Benwood for a good chance to see the wreck before we re-visit it for our night dive.  It never ceases to amaze me how the sea life can change so greatly on a specific location, within just a few hours. And it does this every night of the year – amazing!  Another hour in the water, and it was time to head back in, re-fuel, and load for the night dive.

Nighttimes on the Benwood are always a blast, and 17 of us descended into the inky black waters to check out the night life on the reef.  Lots of cool critters, some octopus sightings, all the other great nocturnal attractions, and an 80 minute dive to boot!  Laughter, brewskis and fun all the way home, and everyone gathered at the Paradise Pub for a thorough debriefing afterwards!

Sunday morning brought another perfect sunny day, and we headed out to visit some spots on the Elbow Reef.  The ride out was a hoot, with 4 to 6 foot rollers breaking across the bow of the Amoray Diver and running down the decks – everyone grab your gear!   The seas calmed down as we got to the reef, but the slow progress on the way out cost us first dibs on a spot on the City of Washington, so we settled for her next door neighbor, Mike’s Wreck.  Final set of skills for our newest open water divers, with navigation patterns and bouyancy skills checked off to complete their National Geographic Open Water certifications.  Congratulations to Jen & Rob O’Donnell, Anna & Alexis Valaika, and IVS Instructor Rich Kessler’s first two Open Water divers, Stephanie & Cynthia Shaeffer!   We also managed to get our penetration reel work done, so congratulations to Todd Gibson and Brian LaSpina, our newest Wreck Specialty graduates.

Dive #2 was on the City of Washington, and wow was the sunlight and water clarity perfect, combining to make this picturesque wreck even more beautiful for this Sunday morning visit.  Supersize Goliath Groupers and some nurse sharks joined us on the dive, swimming in and out of our group, looking for a handout.  We completed a couple of REEF Fish Surveys on this dive, helping that great organization with their work on the fish population database programs.

Back at the dock, and I said my goodbyes to the gang as the family and I were headed down to Key West for some vacation and a visit to the Vandenberg, Florida’s newest major wreck.  As luck would have it, the seas had turned, for the better, and the group headed out to the Speigel Grove and enjoyed nearly current-free conditions and fantastic visibilty – what a change from the last two days!  After that, it was some deep reef exploring offshore from the Benwood, some swimming and cavorting on and off the boat, and a slow return to the dock as one engine had decided to take the rest of the day off – talk about timing, eh?

And speaking of milestones, this afternoon the face of IVS Key Largo, Dave Hartman, logged his 1,000th dive, of course doing it surrounded by the IVS gang!  He marked this special celebration with a personal signing of commenorative Spiegel Grove t-shirts for his Ultimate Speigel Grove Deep & Dark Dive Tour Team.

With the boat down for repairs, any Monday morning dive plans went by the wayside, and the group headed to the airports for their rides home.  Meanwhile, in Key West, I hooked up with Southpoint Divers, who had hosted Csaba, Niki, Bill & John earlier in the week, and set up a two-tank double dip on the Vandenberg for Tuesday morning.  Woo hoo! 

Tuesday morning came and I boarded the Southpoint boat at a nice late 8:30, for a 9:00 departure.  What a difference it was to not be with Team IVS divers – it is just an amazing contrast as divers were asking how their computers worked, how to set up gear, were clueless on weight requirements, didn’t know how to set up a weight belt “because I only dive integrated weights”….geeeeesh!

On top of that, we are scheduled to do two back-to-back deep dives on the Vandenberg, and the only gas they have on board is air.  Amazing.  None the less, the crew is friendly, so we listen to the briefing and fire up the nice fast Newton diesels and make the 35 minute run out to the wreck.  En-route, I get “insta-buddied” with Deb from Cherry Hill (the weight belt expert), and listen to her rant about the shop staff and how they would not refund her money for the trip since she work up with an ear ache and was not sure she could clear…..i am sensing an interesting dive ahead.  Finally we’re on site, and we splash.  Current is moderate so they had run a descent line down, and a tag line to the anchor.  Only problem is the boat is about 46 feet long, and the tag line they used is about 150 ft long, so it starts at the mooring line, passes under the boat, extends about 50 ft past the boat, circles back on itself, and finally ties back into the descent line.  What a mess of entanglement possibilities!  I drop down and begin my descent and thankfully my buddy du jour is keeping up with me – so much for that ear clearing issue I suppose.  As we approach the wreck the viz is terrible, maybe 20 ft at best, and we finally see the forward kingpost rising out of the murk.  We drop down to the deck, and cruise about, as I attempt to get some decent video despite the gloomy conditions.  The captain’s briefing, geared to the touristy crowd, was for a 20 minute dive, max depth 90 feet.  That’s exactly why I bought my Cochran dive computer, so I could do profiles like that…..NOT!  Forty minutes later I surfaced, and the crew was amazed – not in deco, still in excess of 500 psi in tank – geez, just a regular IVS dive!  Of course all the other divers were back on board, looking nearly dry, so I figured they had a 20 or more minute head start on their surface interval. 

During the break I am talking to some of the locals, and they are lamenting about this years lobster season, how they only got one dive in before getting “blown out’ by the weather.  Seas were rough, they said, and it was dangerous, so they called it early Wednesday morning and never attempted to go out on Thursday.  Wow, I say, where were you diving?   Key Largo, they tell me!   Hmmmmm….I guess that local perspective on sea conditions sure is different than ours! 

Finally our magic 45 minutes of surface interval has passed, so it’s time to head back down with my buddy Deb for a second dive.  During our break, however, the current had picked up and some wonderfully clear blue water had moved in, making the wreck visible from the surface.  Sweet!!  Of course, during that time, nothing was done about the excessive lengths of line in the water, so that mess of rope still had to be dealt with.  I dropped in, and as I started to make my way forward, one of the locals with a huge camera system smashes right down on top of me……good to see such a display of excellent dive skills & buoyancy control!  I firm up my grip on my own video system, brace for the rest of the divers to visit me, and pull myself down and out of the crash zone.  As I head down to the wreck it is obvious how the viz had improved, and I can see well down the wreck in both directions from the mooring line.  We drop down the kingpost again, and boogie down the port side of the wreck towards the stern, passing the one radar dish that had broken off during the sinking and is not tied in place with cables, past the one still attached, and past the rear stack.  The ship protected us from the current on this side, and when we decided to turn back, we simply swam over the the starboard side and enjoyed the full effect of the current as we sailed back towards the bow – nice ride indeed! I managed to score some decent footage and snap a few shots of the wreck along the way, and finally, after another 30 minutes of bottom time, it was time to head on up.  I enjoyed a leisurely ascent, clearing my 3 mintes of deco obligation along the way as I did my deep stops, and got up to the 20 foot mark for my final hang.  I feel a nibble on my leg, and look down, and there is a juvenile file fish, maybe 3 inches long, biting my leg and using me to hang on in the current – very cool!  He stayed with me during my entire hang, enjoying a break from fighting the current and some protection from predators at the same time. The DM is on the line, and she is indicating that she has 2 minutes of deco hang remaining, so I signal that I am OK and I’ll hang here.  She signals me again that she has two minutes of hang, and again I indicate no sweat, I’ll stay with her.  Well this goes on for another ten minutes, and I wonder exactly what kind of computer she is using.  Turns out that like many things in Key West, the signals are a little different too!  Her two fingers in the shape of a “v” meant nothing, just her way of saying “are you OK?”.  Yes, strange but true.  Reminds me of a certain instructor from Lake Sheridan, Wyoming…..but that’s another story all together!  We finally surfaced, after fifty minutes, and headed in.  Good dives, but I’d do it different next time for sure.

After that it’s another day or two of Key West, then up to South Beach for some more culture shock, before the Valaika clan head home Friday morning.  Great couple of weeks in the Keys for all!








Memorial Day Weekend Diving Extravaganza


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II – Coral Reef Restoration & Key Largo Diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III – Conch Republic & Cooper River Shark Tooth Diving

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

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

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

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

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