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!

Manatee Wrestling & Other Fun Stuff!

Alrighty, caught your eyes there, didn’t we?  No, we are not manatee wrestling, but we are here in Homasassa Florida to go diving with them this weekend.  That, plus visit a few of our favorite rivers, caverns & caves that Northern Florida is known for!

The trip started off on a great start, with me getting to the Philadelphia airport with plenty of time to spare.  That pretty much summarizes the great start portion of the journey for me!  I check my three big bags of gear at the curb, pass through security with no issues, and start down the terminal to my gate.  Hmmmm, it seems a little busy here today….what’s up with that? 

Well here’s what’s up – seems that a teenage airplane passenger using a “Jewish prayer object” caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.

According to the Philadelphia Police, a 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small black boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps. 

When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.

“It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever,” said the FBI spokesman. 

Friggin’ amazing, I guess no one aboard the flight had the Chutzpah to actually ask the young man what he was doing, assuming they are not familiar with this Hebrew practice.  But noooooooooo, we have to sneak around to the crew and they need to pass the word up to the cockpit and the captain needs to get his flight plans diverted to make an emergency landing and a rendesvouz with the Philadelphia Bomb Squad just cause of one religious American citizen.  Cheeeeesh!

OK, so all is good, and we reset Gov. Tom Ridge’s famous Homeland Security Threat Level Status light pole from ‘Red’ back to ‘Orange’ and get on with our lives.  That makes me wonder….do they even have bulbs in the blue and green lenses?  Will we ever see them lit? But I digress………….

By now of course, my flight is late as it gets caught in the queue of delayed flights from Philadelphia. So of course I miss my connection in Atlanta, which on it’s own would not be such a bad thing, except for the fact that I am picking up Dan Leone in Orlando and driving him to the resort!  Our plans were for him to arrive about a half hour before my flight, and come meet me when I landed.  Well I hope he packed a book or two, cause that is clearly not in the cards today!  When I get to Atlanta, the next flight to Orlando is oversold, so no sneaking onto that one.  And, the one after that is also!  Finally I am confirmed on the third flight to Orlando, and scheduled to land at 9:30, only four hours after my original plans.  So, I take a peek out of the big window at the gate, and realize I can see all the way to the next gate…….hmmmm…let’s look again, cause I am sure my view should be blocked by a big ol’ Boeing jet that I should be boarding in a few minutes.  Well no, my first glance was correct…..there is no jet there, cause it hasn’t even arrived yet!  Not looking good for Dan in Orlando, that is for sure!  Finally, an hour later, our plane arrives, we go through the unloading/cleaning/boarding  ritual, and we are off, heading southbound towards the land of Disney.

When I de-plane in Orlando it is after 11:00 and Dan is looking a bit haggard from his extended wait in the airport tavern!  Let’s get my bags and roll I say, and sure enough, there are my bags, heck they have been here and waiting for me for close to 4 hours!  So much for that official airline mantra about no checked bags flying without the passenger who owns them…just more rhetoric designed to appease the public.   We check in to EZ Car Rental, pick up our nice new Ford F-150 pick-em-up truck, and head west to the Homasassa Riverside Resort, our base of operations for the weekend’s activity. 

I pull into the resort and Bubba, the night clerk, hands me my stack of keys for the four rooms we have reserved.  “Hold them horses, pardner” I say, “we are four divers not four rooms!”  Oh no, he says, as he points it out in the reservation book, I have four rooms.  I can see that this argument is not going to go any place positive here at 2:00 a.m., so I say “how about we start small, and I only take one room tonight?”.  OK he says we can do that….I shake my head, collect our keys, and Dan and I go and move in.   Like a good daddy, I spend a couple hours nervously pacing until finally Dave & Natalie McLoughlan safely arrive, and by 3:30 a.m. I have everyone tucked in for the night, power-napping away in preparation for our first full day of diving.

Friday morning comes way too early, but there is no rush (can you imagine me saying that?) case we “own the boat” today, and Carl & Dave, owners of Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, are as laid back as us!  So we get our gear together, pile into the van, and head up the road to connect with the Adventure Dive Center crew.  We arrive and the banter and joking begins immediately, if I did not know better, I’d swear we were in Indian Valley Scuba-Crystal River!  I love these guys!

So after the introductions, initial sarcasm & general abuse that is part of the IVS tough-diver-love program, we get to the ‘meat’ of the matter (what…did someone mention something about manatee’s tasting just like chicken?).  Whoa, whoa….let’s keep it politically correct here!  Remember Rule #1 of Scuba Diving? Of course we all do – Fill out the waiver!

So, paperwork completed, it’s time to watch the manatee movie, sponsored by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.  Actually a pretty informative flick, and with some great videography, it prepares our crew for what we are about to see – 1,000 pound sea cows frolicking amongst us, as we dodge the kayak-based manatee nazi’s who’s sole purpose in life is to keep the manatees separated from those that love them the most! 

A short hop over to the boat, and we load up, hear the Cliff Notes version of the Coast Guard safety talk, and motor out into the Crystal River to our first location – Kings Spring.  This site is a little different, as it is a nice deep cavern very well camouflaged in the middle of an otherwise flat and lo-visibility river.  The bottom of the river in this area is 5 to 8 feet deep, and usually murky.  Today was no exception and the viz was around five feet or so in the river.  Two manatee refuge zones are located here, separated by a narrow gap where you can dive or swim to access the cavern entrances.  It’s really, really important to NOT swim into the manatee refuge areas, as they pointed out in the video.  So, I turn around to find the crew, and hmmmmmm…..I am alone here, let me surface and see where they have gotten off to!  Well, is that a manatee over there blowing those bubbles I see on the surface?  Nooooooo, it’s Team IVS, off the beaten path and smack dab in the middle of the refuge!   Psssst!  Hey – get over here!  Hurry!!!  Note to self -navigation might be good thing to emphasize this weekend!

OK, we re-regrouped and swam right over the top of the cavern area. Once you are there, the bottom drops into a rocky hole about 30 ft deep, and then you slide down the side, squeeze between a couple of rocks into a very dark slot, turn left, and viola!  you are inside the cavern!  That wasn’t too scary now, was it? 

Once inside, the cavern opens up a bit and by all standards, while the cavern is not deep, you clearly cannot see natural light from most vantage points once you are inside.  But oh well, who are we to point this discrepancy out?  The hole goes back about 100 ft, dropping to a depth of 48 ft inside.  Water clarity is phenomenal as this is entirely fed by crystal clear spring water.  It’s just dark!  And OK, maybe a little tight, especially if you follow me into some of the side shoots and little holes to see the catfish that like to hang out there!  But that’s all part of a good adventure!

So after our first initial drop into the cavern, we come out and ascend, and let everyone’s heartbeat fall back into a more normal range.  Breathing slows down, and I ask if we’re ready to go back in and actually see the cavern this time?  All answers are ‘Yes’ so we drop down, squeeze back in, and this time everyone is relaxed, and we enjoy cruising around inside, looking at the rock formations, wondering when it actually was that the big rocks we are swimming over fell from the ceiling, and even crawl into some of the catfish holes.  There’s a nice halocline at about 46 ft, where the salt water is mixing with the fresh, and it’s cool to stick your head into it and realize that no matter how hard you try, you can’t focus on anything!

After another half hour of play in and around the cavern, and we swim back out to the boat, taking the official path between the refuge areas this time!   Once there, we spend a little time searching for Dave M’s light in the silty murky bottom, but that official DIR-color black light isn’t giving away it’s position, so after a thorough search, we decide Dave needs a new light from Indian Valley Scuba (preferably yellow or some other bright color!). Cha-ching! “Oooops!  Was that my outside voice?”

Our second location is Three Sisters Springs, and as we motor up to the site, we can see where all the manatees have been hiding!  The water is thick with them, and there are manatees swimming, and resting, and nuzzling the snorkelers, and getting tickled and scratched – all cool!!  Of course, there are quite a few manatee-huggers, under the guise of “informational guides” crusing among us in thier kayaks, ready to give you a quick swat on the head with their paddle should you look menacing in the direction of any of the manatees.  We slip/fall into the water (it’s only four feet deep!) and walk over to the manatees.  A few of the local rocket scientists share their observation with us that our scuba gear might be a bit of an overkill for this depth, but we soldier on.  Everyone gets some great manatee photos, and some nuzzling and tickling, and finally it’s time to head up into the spring.  So we drop into the water, and swim through the narrow entrance to the springs themselves.  It is a very pretty swim, water depth varies from 5 to 8 ft, and the clarity is maybe, oh, 100 ft plus! As we swim we can start to see the sand boils, where the springwater is coming in from below, and the sand above is literally boiling as it tumbles and churns with the force of the water stream passing up from below – pretty darn cool! 

The springs branch off into three offshoots once inside (hmmmm…..maybe there was a reason to call it Three Sisters!) and although relatively small, they are beautiful, with white sandy bottoms, tree lined shores, a sunny day overhead, and lots of little fish and critters to amuse and entertain us.  And as we start to get a little bored with all that, here come the manatees – the union meeting must be over, cause they are starting to pile in!  First one, perhaps a scout, then here comes mom and a baby!  Very cool, very tolerant of us, very photogenic! Our morning is complete!

So back on board, we motor back to the dock, unload, and prepare for this afternoons dive on the Rainbow River.  But we have time for lunch, and the boys at Adventure Dive Center recommend the Taste of Philly Sub & Cheesesteak Shop across the street.  OK…..we are 1,000 miles from home, and all our zip codes start with 19xxx, so we are quite skeptical as to the authenticity of our sandwich experience.  Well one step inside the shop, and we think we have been transported right back to 9th & Passyunk in South Philly!  The owners fit the mold to a “T”, including the look, accent and mannerisms that you’ll experience at Pat’s or Geno’s – not to mention understanding what “wit” and witout” mean!  Needless to say, our sandwiches are absoutely delicious, and we have a new spot to recommend to everyone passing through Crystal River, FL!  

So we say our goodbyes, snap a few memory photos outside the shop, and drive up to meet Dave and the boat at K. P. Hole, the launching site for our Rainbow River drift dive.  Heading upstream towards the headwaters, the river is just beautiful, with lush woods, a few nice homes, and water as clear as can be flowing from the springs – as you might imagine when you get 400-600 million gallons a day of spring water coming up from deep inside the earth!  We stop just short of the end of navigable waters, and drop in at 5:30 p.m. for what is about to quickly become a night drift dive!  Gotta love the adventure – let’s do a first time drift dive for some of our party, in a new location they have never dove before, at night!  Like they say in the Guiness commercials – Brilliant!

 Well the dive turns out to be just fantastic and we see all sorts of cool things, including alligator gar, turtles, bass, catfish, even a couple of wild otters swimming with us – an hour and 10 minutes of drifting, cruising, up, down, around, just all great – OK, maybe almost all great, as this body of water has somehow managed to snatch another one of Dave M’s dive lights – those things must have magnets in them, set for the bottom of Florida’s waterways!  What a way to wrap up our first day of diving!  By the time we get back to the condo, Dan crashes for the night, Dave & Natalie head out for a quick snack at the restaurant, and I sit down to type this blog!  Such dedication, yes, I know!

Now it’s Saturday, and we have a surprise for our divers! In lieu of heading up to one of the springs today, we are going to have an opportunity to drift dive down the Silver River.  This river is totally primitive, completely surrounded by untouched forest preserves, and chock full of really cool critters above and below the water!  No one except Adventure Dive Center dives this river, and they only got the idea after years of running bird watching and nature lover tours on this untouched piece of Florida’s natural beauty.  The river can only be dove in January and February, cause during these two cooler months, most of the alligators and water snakes are in some state of hibernation, and unwanted underwater animal encounters are less likely!  How’s that for Indian Valley Scuba taking our divers safety and well being to heart?

So we head up, and it’s almost a two hour run to Ocala where we’ll launch for the river dive.  We load up the boat with gear, supplies, food, and beverages, and start the journey upstream against some really strong current.  The river is full of sunken logs and half-submerged logs and other hazards to navigation, and our captain is still learning the ropes, as he demonstrates with a few unintended 180 degree turns as a result of putting the boat a little too far into a turn for the current we are running against.  Oh well, we manage to get ourselves turned around each time, and the trip upriver is a photographers dream come true, with Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Ibis birds out and about, wild Rhesus monkeys hanging from the trees, turtles of all sorts, and some really nice large American alligators sunning themselves on some of the half-submerged logs in the river – wait…did these guys not get the memo about it being hibernation season until February???

Our two dives there are great, with the current varying from mild to ripping as we go along, and some really cool buried underwater tree entanglement/death traps that we manage to avoid as we cruise along.  Armored catfish up to 30″ long are all over (those are Plecostomus to our aquarists), and the alligator gar and pickerel really added some nice new sightings to our fish list.  Lunch on board included Cheetoh’s and canned sardines, either packed in soybean oil or cajun style ( those who know me will be able to pick the flavor I chose!), beverages, and some good joke telling with our new friends Shane Rickman and Keith Fisher, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, and a local cracker, Capt. Jason Scott.  After that we pulled the boat, and headed over to Ken’s Winghouse, a Florida version of Hooters, complete with scantily clad waitstaff and icy cold brewskies – I’m thinking what more could we ask for?  (Natalie was rolling her eyes when I brought that up – go figure!)

And talk about small worlds..while I am eating my cell rings and it is none other than our Vandenberg connection, Joe Weatherby!  And he’s calling cause he just got to Crystal River and wanted to know who we would recommend going out to see Manatees with!  Well how much easier can this get, I hand the phone to Dave Mittelstadt, and Adventure Dive Center suddenly has a charter for Sunday! 

Sunday we opted to visit two of the more unique springs from our original itinerary – Blue Grotto and Devlis Den.  Blue Grotto is our first stop, and we check in, fill out waivers, and watch the informative (but frightening) video about diving the site.  Needless to say, this sorta freaks out part of our party, so by the time we are waterside,  it is touch and go whether to dive or not.  Thankfully we all agree to go in and check it out (liek the hundred or so other lemmings there that day) and turns out that it is not as scary as it was made to sound.  So we do the shallow loop, then the deep one, and work on our buoyancy skills, and have a nice dive.  After our first loop around the bottom, we head back towards the entry area, and Dan signals to me that he is low on air, so he is going up.  OK I signal back, and continue to work with Natalie on her hovering and bubble management, which is going great!  So we pop up and I see Dan hightailing up the stairs back to our staging area – strange, I think!  So I spend another ten minutes or so in the water with Dave as he is looking for a dive knife that he found (if you’re keeping score that is two lights lost, one knife found, for a minus one score so far for the weekend) but that he somehow dropped out of his BC pocket (making the score minus three).  So we look around, come up empty handed, and I take one last loop around the bottom of the cavern, and we surface.  Well there’s our friend Dan, standing at the dock, ready to go diving with a fresh new tank!  ‘Sup, I ask, and he says he’s ready to see the rest of the cavern.  Uhhhhh Dan, sorry to diappoint, but that was it – in spite of the video and the owner’s long explanation about the deep dark place, we have just seen it all.  Talk about disappointed, he was sure there saw more to see down there, and didn’t want to be low on air while exploring it!  Sorry!   And to add salt to the collective wounds, while Dave and I were down searching for Dave’s newly found (and newly lost) knife, Natalie reports that some kid taking a class came up and was proud as a peacock ’cause on his checkout dive he found a really cool knife!   

So anyhow, we got over all that, and we throw the gear in the car, jump in, still wearing our wetsuits, and drive about a mile down the road and across the street to Devils Den.  This is a really cool place if you have never dove it, with a subterranean chamber that is spring fed, and only accessible by your choice of either rappeling down through a small hole in the ceiling, or taking the more conventional approach, walking down the stairs.  We opted for the conventional approach today, and geared up and walked on down into the cavern.  The water is of course perfectly crystal clear, with depths to about 50 ft.  The entry point is a platform set on a pile of rocks that fell from the ceiling (making one wonder if more are due to fall today!) and the dive is a complete circle around the perimeter, with swim-thru’s, crawl-thru’s and just lots of neat things to explore and see.  A couple of large catfish patrol the place, there are some nice signs complete with the Grim Reaper and “DANGER OF DEATH IF YOU PASS THIS SIGN” messages – good guidelines to follow!  A few turtles, some smaller fish living in fear of the big catfish, and some barred-off entrances to the back cave areas that are really tight to squeeze through (whoops…was that my outside voice again?).  All in all a neat dive, and we spent another hour and twenty minutes there enjoying it and wrapping up a nice weekend of very different diving.

Driving home we stopped at Cody’s Steakhouse, and what a fine time we enjoyed over a great steak dinner and a super waitress.  Jokes were flowing, the laughter never stopped, and boy were those 32 oz beers all around good!  We ended with a great chocolate brownie sundae that fed four – talk about size matters!  Great cap on a great day with great friends!  From there it was back, a few hours for the gear to drip dry, pack up and head to the airport for our respective rides home.  Great trip, we’ll be back next year!  

PADI Instructor Training @ IVS – Key Largo style


Deliberately different, is how we like to think of Indian Valley Scuba and how we operate.  And this weekend is no different, with our Instructor Development Course candidates heading down to warm and sunny Key Largo for thier PADI Instructor Examinations.

Last weekend we had the honor of welcoming Richie Kessler into the instructor ranks, as he survived the chilly waters of Dutch Springs and competed his exams with honors!  Bogden Bachmatiuk joined Richie in our local waters, and they both made us proud.  Way to go men!!

However, the rest of the class decided that a nice, warm water instructor examination sure sounded more alluring than braving the near-icy waters of Dutch, so we headed to Key Largo for this weekend’s exam.  Steve Clem, Bill Zyskowski, and Csaba Lorinczy came down to IVS South, aka the Hartman Estate, to spend the weekend in their little PADI coccoons, ready to break out and hopefully spread their wings as Open Water Scuba Instructors come Sunday afternoon.  Of course I had to come down and assist in this endeavor, and sure, it’s convenient that the Keys Full Moon celebration party is tonite, and a coincidence that the Christmas boat parade is tomorrow, but none of that had anything to do with me being here to cheer the men on and support them in their endeavor.  it’s all business!!

Dave Hartman has rented us a private boat for the weekend, and our plan is to use that to finalize our inventory of lobster-laden dive sites for next season’s lobster mini-season.  But first we needed to make sure the guys were prepared for the start of the instructor exams tomorrow.  Tonight we had our orientation, with introductions, a review of the weekends’ activities, assignments being given out, and a general overview of the goals and expectations for the next 48 hours.  After a brief stop for dinner, the men hit the books, reviewing their assignments and preparing their academic presentations.  It got a little testy at times, with some harsh words as teaching aids were claimed and reference books grabbed.  But after a little while, everyone calmed down, and great stuff started to come out as they practiced their presentations before each other, critiquing and evolving the process with the goals of maxxing out tomorrow with scores in the high 4’s to perfect 5’s.  Finally, time for a break, and some reminiscing about how this whole process has evolved, from learning to dive, advancing through the various levels of certification, and finally getting to the point they’re at today.  Well let’s get this paperwork completed, Dave says, so we spend another two hours wrapping that up!  So as the clock strikes nearly 2:00 a.m., our little butterflies retire to their bunks to rest up for the big two days ahead.  

Saturday morning dawned bright and early as our candidates headed off to the first day of the examination.  Meanwhile, Hartman and I headed out to pick up our boat for the weekend.  We chose a nice 23 foot center console, with 225 Yamaha horses on board.  After a brief review of the boat’s features, we motored on out and headed through the canal systems to Dave’s house to load our scuba gear.  At 10:30 my cell rings, and Csaba gives me the update – confined water presentations and skill demo’s completed!  Yahoo!  Now they are heading in for the written exam portion.

Dave & I load the boat and head out to sea.  We have a brisk 20 to 25 knot wind coming out of the north, and the ocean is awfully full of white caps and chop.  Our selected site for our first recon mission is Carysfort Light reef, which is about a 9 mile run from Dave’s house.  Let me tell you, it is one loooooong nine miles as we are pounded incessantly heading into the seas.  It’s a wet and rough ride, and the boat & crew are getting a serious workout.  As we near the reef, we can see 5 and 6 foot waves rolling and breaking over the shallow portions of the reef – just the picture you want to see to start your dive!  And with the sea conditions, it is not surprising that we are the only boat on the ocean, in fact, we only passed two boats in the canals on our way out, so it’s awfully lonely out here!  And, while we were heading out, our depth finder decided to take the day off, so now it’s a crap shoot on the depth under us, making the site selection even more diffficult.  We finally choose our first location, and drop the anchor in a sandy clearing just outside the reef.  With the confused wind and seas, the boat is spinning on the anchor, giving us the sinking feeling of being caught in a whirlpool….hmmm, is that a sign??  Well, we didn’t sail this far out to sightsee, so we gear up, roll over, and head on down.  First stop – to inspect the anchor!  Why, you may ask?  Let me share a little story of a dive from my past…..

Some years ago, I was out in my own 23 foor center console, diving alone about 8 miles off the Jersey coast.  That day had a lot of similarities with today, with some strong winds and choppy seas, but I was full of bravado and knew I could prevail against whatever Mother Nature decided to throw me.  Ah, the foolishness of the young man!  On that day, I was alone, so I anchored the boat on a rock pile in about 90 feet of water, headed on down, gave the anchor a quick look, and set off searching for lobster.  It proved to be quite the productive dive, with quite a few bugs in the bag, and finally my doubles were getting a bit low, so I headed back to the anchor.  Well, at least I thought where the anchor was.  So I looked around, pretty darn sure that this was the rock the anchor was set in, but hmmmm, maybe it was that one, …no, maybe that one over there!  Finally, after expanding the search pattern to the limits of the dwindling supplies of gas left in my tanks, I knew it was time to head up and sort things out on the surface.  So I slowly ascended, did my safety stop, and broke the surface, spinning slowly as I did, looking for the boat.  OK, let’s spin again, and find the boat.  Alright, maybe three times is the charm……no…..ok….not so funny now, and my mind starts to run through the possibilities….boat was stolen…boat sunk…..the common denominator being me here, boat not.  I spun around again, and again and again, and it was obvious the seas had picked up from when I first went in, with gentle rollers now in the 5 or 6 ft height range, making my view of the sea around fairly limited.  It was probably on my 12th or so rotation, when finally I was on the crest of a roller, and so was my boat, that I realized what had happened.  As the seas picked up, my anchor must have lifted out of the rocky crevice I left it in, and my boat had slowly drifted away, driven by the wind, but thankfully slowed by the dragging anchor on the sea floor.  Never-the-less, the distance between me and the bobbing boat was close to a mile, so I kicked back, and started the long and tiring swim to my little floating island of salvation.  An hour or so later, I finally was there, at the side of my sturdy vessel, and after an extended rest, I tossed my bag of lobsters on board (yes, I had never let go of my catch – priorities, you know!).  I climbed on board, and vowed to never dive alone again!

Well, here we are today, and although I am not diving alone, technically, with both of us in the water, that sorta makes for the same situation, with no one on board to monitor the boats position.  Oh well, what/s the odds, I ask?  So, that being said, let’s double check that anchor, and sure enough, it is solidly buried in the sand, so we begin our dive.  We circle the entire reef, and my mind keeps flashing back to that day long ago, but I maintain control of that demon, and finally, we return to our starting point, and sure enough, our boat is still there!  Woo-hoo!  Cross that calamity off the list!  After that, we hit a second location, and although we see lots of lobsters, they are all shorts, so our take for the day is zero.

So we start the long and pounding journey back in, and on the way, the cell rings, and the men are reporting in the good news – Team IVS is shining in the instructor examinations.  A few glitches, but we are well on our way to becoming PADI instructors.  I am thrilled, and we decide to celebrate by taking the boys out to see the Christmas boat parade that evening on the bay side in our sturdy little boat.  All the horror stories we have shared over the years with boats breaking down on our trips, this time we are feeling good, in command of our own little vessel, which has performed so well so far!

We get back to Dave’s dock, clean the boat, the guys return from the exam, so we pack the coolers with refreshments and head out to enjoy the parade.  Yes, we heard the warning about operating the boat after dark, but heck, Hartman is a local, so he knows the route through the mangroves!  The wind has died down, so it is flat calm as we head out for the 4 mile run through the mangroves.  It is pitch black out tonite, as the sky is terribly overcast, making navigation a bit of a challenge, but my captaining skills are up to the challenge.  We enjoy the ride, and finally make it to the ocean side of the cut through the island.  The boat has gotten quite the workout today, with lots of serious pounding on the ocean, and our depth finder is still not working, so we are careful in our voyage through the darkness.  As we pass through the cut, Bill is on his phone, struggling with text messaging in the dark, so he moves to a spot near the stern, where he can get a little illumination from our stern light.  Wow, it’s wet back here he says, and as I slow down to turn and look, it goes from wet to about 6 inches of water running across the deck – Holy Smokes, we are sinking!!! 

We check to see if the bilge pump is on, but it is too deep to get down and confirm.  We think “need to find a dock”, and start to look towards the Marriott Resort or the Sundowners docks….no, this water is really starting to rise, so scrap that dock plan, we need help!   Trying to pick up speed to avoid the Titanic-remake, it’s challenge with all the darkened boats in the bay making all sorts of targets for us to steer around.  The anxiety picks up and bit and the boat is getting hard to steer as we sit lower and lower in tthe water.  Well, the boating gods were smiling on us, and who is the next boat we can make out in the darkness??  SeaTow, the boat rescue people!   “Hey, we are taking on water” we say, and they pass us a small bilge pump and a battery to pump it out.  No, this isn’t going to work, this boat is going to end up on the bottom, so we’d prefer a shallow bottom at that!   We pick up the pace, and the boat is really wallowing in the water now, as we are standing knee deep in water on the deck.  Finally, the motor is too deep, and it stalls, and we are dead in the water.  Quickly, we pass a tow line to the SeaTow boat, and they drag us the last couple of hundred yards to the beach at the Caribbean Club, where we sink gracefully in 2 feet of water just off the beach, to the delight of the cheering crowd of hundreds of juiced-up partiers!  The SeaTow boat pulls up tight to us, and we break out the big 2 inch gas powered pump, and as we are passing lines and hoses back and forth, I look up and who is crewing the SeaTow boat but our own Captain Anna from this years lobster trip!  What a small world it is in Key Largo. 

Finally, we we pump enough water out to realize we must have been torpedoed or something cause the inflow is like a small fire hydrant.  The boat is light enough now that we are able to enlist the help of some of those on shore, and we drag it half onto the beach.  I get down and inspect the hull, and it appears that it has split open on a joint for about 5 feet of the waterline – no wonder we are taking on water!   I can stick my hand in right through the crack!  No doubt the day of pounding on the ocean was a bit too much of a test for our little craft, and thank goodness that this took this long to open up, or we’d have been in deep doo-doo!  So our crew slogs ashore, McArthur-style, and we trudge through the Caribbean Club, leaving our vessel.  We grab a cab, head down the road to grab a pizza dinner, and call it a night!  Enough excitement, but at least we did get to see the parade!

It’s Sunday morning now, and I head to the Jules Undersea Lodge for the final part of the exam with the guys.  The PADI examiner has requested my help to move things along and get everyone done this weekend.  Seems a lot of the other candidates have a hard time understanding the concept of “brief” being a key part of the briefing, and they are waxing on way too much to maintain their audience’s attention.  This is so important, and something we preach AND practice at IVS – it’s not about the talking, it’s all about the doing!  So today’s activities are the open water teaching presentations along with the rescue workshop, and I take care of the rescue aspect while the examiner takes the two teams underwater for their presentations.  Finally, the debriefings are given, and congratulations all around as we welcome a total of ten candidates into the society of PADI instructors! Way to go men!  


Key Largo Memorial Day Trip

Thursday May 27th saw thirty divers from Indian Valley Scuba descending upon quiet Key Largo, FL for a long weekend of diving and controlled mayhem.  Our group’s origins included PA, CA and FL. The weekend weather looks superb, sea conditions are perfect, and the recipe is just right for a great trip for all!

Quite a few of us got in early enough on Thursday to start off the trip with a night dive, including myself and Rich Peterson, fresh in from our deep diving in the Dry Tortugas. Along with Abbie & Bri Pagliaro, Mike Conn, Frank Gabriel and Erle Petrie, we headed out to the wreck of the Benwood, leaving the dock at 7:00 p.m. Night dives from many dive operators range from twilight dives to “rush hour” dives, and you end up out of the water before the sun has even fully set.  Well the IVS gang is clearly not afraid of the dark, and the folks at Amoray Dive Resort leave the dock extra late for us so we are entering black water after sunset to begin our dives.  And the effort paid off – we saw several octopus, turtles, hundreds of sleeping parrotfish, lobster galore, crabs a’plenty, tube feeding anemones, basket stars out and feeding, and all the other critters that make for a fun night dive experience.

Friday morning our group split up, with Frank and I, along with Sue Douglass, heading over to Jules Undersea Lodge with Randee, Kerri & Joe Bates, Rebecca Dyke, and John Herbach for our first two open water checkout dives. Conditions were good, water was warm, and the morning went well.  Meanwhile the rest of the gang headed out to Molasses Reef for a couple of great dives.

Lunch was quick, as usual, and the boat was loaded with Nitrox and fresh tanks as we headed back out to explore the Speigel Grove and the Benwood.  IVS-South Instructor Dave Hartman and Houston-based Instructor Michelle Winkel joined us for the afternoon, and we enjoyed a good dive under less-than-stellar conditions on the Spiegel, with three teams exploring the wreck from different levels and different directions.  Kudos to Don Yowell on his gas consumption improvement!  Good big deep wreck initiation dives for Jim DiQuattro, Richard & Francine Black, Marvin Dyke, Frank, Erle, and repeat visits to the Keys greatest wreck for Dave & Sandy Herbert, Kim & Michel Naucodie, Mike & Lin Gusenko, and Mike Betz.  

The second dive was a visit to the fishiest wreck in the Keys, the Benwood.  After a colorful briefing, we headed in and enjoy nearly an hour of bottom time, constantly surrounded by the full spectrum of tropical fish colors and flavors.  Our OW students had a great dive and everyone returned to the boat with smiles and stories to tell. 

Friday night found us at IVS’s Key Largo Training Center, aka the Hartman Estate, where we enjoyed a splendid offering of pizza, wings, brewskies, and blender-prepared fruity concoctions of all sorts and flavors.  Following that, we ended the evening with a session at Sharkeys, the most local of the local taverns, where we finished the evening with stories, observations and fun.

Saturday morning was even more perfect weather-wise than Friday was, with bright blue skies and not even a hint of a breeze.  Divemaster Bill Zyskowski and Miami-based IVS divers Tamy & Camillo Romano joined us for the day on & in the water.  The inshore weather conditions didn’t change when we hit the open ocean, and the seas were flat, viz was great, and the morning yielded two super dives on French Reef for the IVS crew.  Sightings included turtles, large morays, lobsters, eagle rays, and the usual cast of tropical characters.  Water temp was a balmy 82 and viz was 100 feet or greater.  No surge, no waves, nothing to deter from great diving.

A quick lunch (as usual) and an on-time afternoon departure (not as usual!) had us back out at the Spiegel Grove for a 3:00 entry.  All our new Open Water divers joined us on this traditional graduation dive, getting their first combo Wreck/Deep/Nitrox dive in to start their Advanced Open Water training.  As might be expected, everyone came up smiling from wet ear to wet ear, with lots of good stories and experiences to share with the others.  A second dive to the Benwood for some relaxing fun finished the afternoon off, and we came back in to prepare for our night dive.    

We splashed at the Benwood at 8:30 p.m., already night and dark, and enjoyed  a great 60 minute dive there.  While we were under we noticed a bit if current picking up, and by the time we started heading up it was obvious something was going on as our boat was not where we left it on the mooring; rather it was turned around completely.  A storm front had moved in, whipped the sea into a bit of a frenzy, making it a howling-wind white-capped swim back to the very bouncy boat – pretty cool!  And, on the surface, we then had to deal with a visiting Sea snakes (where he came from no one knows!). The dive was great though, with more turtles, octo’s , rays, and all the other great critters we know and love.

After our night dive a group of us went out to personally inspect the brand new Paradise Pub, and we were not disapppointed!  It is now smoke-free, clean, brighter, and friendly.  Heavily tatted and always interesting barmaid Dawn is gone, but the new management team did a great job.  Lousy new electronic dart board, so we asked management to address that, but otherwise a good evening of fun.  Bri Pagliaro steps up to the line and kicks butt right off the start on the dart board, then falls to the pressure of Mike Conn, who runs a three game streak. Dave Herbert is looking good, but runs a strong second-place’ish performance for the night.  Abbie Pagliaro is off her game tonight, but manages to come up to the line for a bullseye and a 150 point single round, proving once again that even blind squirrels find nuts now and then.  Dave Hartman puts in a disappointing performance for the evening, spending the entire night firmly ensconced in the DFL position. A great time anyway, and we’ll be back.  We wrapped it up and headed back to the resort for some much-needed rest before we start it all over again tomorrow!.

Sunday morning came early, as you might imagine, and it was even more beautiful than the day before.  A slight breeze was blowing, but coming from the north, meaning the ocean was relatively unaffected. We journeyed out to Elbow Reef, to make our first dive on the City of Washington.  As luck would have it, we managed to join in on a Creature Feature dive being run by the folks at Capt. Slates Atlantis Dive Center, so our divers got to enjoy the rush of nurse sharks and goliath groupers coming in for a free meal.  After getting our share of up close and personal shark encounters we got to work doing fish count surveys for REEF.  This is a key part of the IVS PADI/National Geographic Open Water certification, and also a great step towards completing our fish ID specialty and working towards our Advanced Open Water certification.  Our second location was Mike’s Wreck (formerly known as the Tonowanda), and we finished our surveys up there with another 60 minute dive.

After the usual quick lunch we headed back out to do our signature Double-Deep dives for Sunday afternoon.  First stop – the former Coast Guard Cutter USS Duane.  Pretty good surface current due to wind, and it was running completely opposite of the current below the surface.  Fun dive, lots of good photo op’s, big critters, great viz.  Second stop was the Spiegel Grove, where everyone penetrated the wreck to all sorts of levels, including the signature Hartman deep & dark tour through the ship’s innards.  These are the coolest dives for our newest divers, to really get a chance to experience diving on huge intact shipwrecks and also learning how to work in a dive team environment.  All great training and the education never stops!

Monday morning saw lots of hugs and handshakes as most of the group headed back towards the airport, but the “can’t get enough nitrogen” diehards managed to get one last set of dives in on the reefs in the a.m.  Another great trip in the logbooks, and time to plan your next visit to the Keys with IVS!

And the winners of this week’s ADD Awards (All Dives with Dave) are Bri Pagliaro, Mike Gusenko, and Erle Petrie!  Congratulations!

Dry Tortugas Liveaboard Trip Report

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

Day 4

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

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

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

Oriskany Dive Trip Report – April ’08

Day 1 – After driving 17 hours down through an overnight teeming rainstorm, our first morning in Pensacola starts off to a very interesting and auspicious start! Csaba Lorinczy, Steve Clem, Jennifer Vasinda and I got to the [name withheld to protect the innocent] dive shop at 7 am, when they opened for us, only to find we could not quite leave yet because our tanks could not be topped off ’cause the guy with the key to the compressor was not in yet. Geeeez! OK, so we hang out a bit, chat with the staff, and finally the “keymaster” shows up about an hour later, and so we topped off and left for the boat, about 7 miles away.

A short ride later, we find the marina, and we pull up to the boat, a beautiful 36 foot Newton dive boat, big, roomy and fast. As we walk up we get what has now become the traditional Oriskany “don’t unload your gear yet, we are having problems with the boat” speech. As it turns out, the new engine in the very nice boat was giving them some grief, and they were waiting for a call back regarding a needed part. Well, efficient souls that we are, we got to enjoy a great Blue Angels practice very close and overhead for he next hour or so, while the calls went back and forth about the needed engine part. Finally it was determined that the part was not coming today, so we shifted to Plan B, where the captain and/or the shop found us another boat for the day.

So now it’s back to the shop, for some more waiting time, to allow the new captain to get ready and to get his boat in the water. “So”, the shop says, “this is a much smaller boat and we are getting a much later start and the captain wants to know if we can do just one longer tech dive rather than the two we had signed up for”. Of course the answer is a diplomatic but emphatic “NO”, so we head on down, meet the new captain and load the smaller (25 foot) boat. Finally we are heading out onto perfect seas, get to watch helicopter landing practices take place on a small carrier on the way out, and finally arrive at our destination.

Finally it is time for the first dive, and as we begin to get geared up, we discover a few problems. First, our 100% Oxygen tank that we planned to use on our final deco stop was completely empty. Not sure what happened to the “please fill this with 100% O2” part of the morning’s discussion, but oh well. Not sure why, perhaps the valve had been knocked in the truck on the drive over to the marina, or maybe it was never filled, but never the less, we have no O2. We adjust the computer-generated dive plan on the fly, and start to finish the gear up. One of our divers then discovers a free flowing regulator, so out comes the tools and we switch it out with one of the now unneeded O2 regs. After all the technical details of getting the team to finish dressing, adjusting, and tweaking are worked out, the dive finally gets underway, and we enjoy a great 160 foot trimix dive (21/35 blend) for 30 minutes, followed by 47 minutes of ascent and deco on 50% Nitrox.

Meanwhile the captain has been grilling hot dogs for us in our absence so lunch is timely and good, and we spend an hour surface interval yacking and having fun, with a huge turtle surfacing next to the boat and entertaining us for a while. Then we are off to our second dive, 156 deep, 25 minutes at depth, 48-minute total run time, and an uneventful completion and re-entry to the boat. Finally, we head in, beautiful weather, cold beers for all, including the crew, and the day ends nicely. At the dock the captain even runs out and gets more beer for us all to enjoy, and then asks if we want to dive with him again tomorrow as the bigger boat is still down. Sure, we say, and we head to the shop to get our tanks filled for the next day. Gosh, he sure seems like a nice guy……more on that later in the report!

Now we are back at the dive shop with our tanks, still half-full of expensive helium trimix fills. Can you top these off? Well of course not, we have to drain them completely because the local technical dive center we are dealing with does not have a booster pump and does not have full helium tanks and so can only fill our tanks with helium first – fairly unusual for a pro dive center that specializes in tech diving….hmmmm. Then we get into talking about our fills for tomorrow and what time they will get done, so we agree to a later start tomorrow, to allow them time to complete the fills.

But to top it off, while we are getting our tanks filled, some other testosterone-filled yo-yo who did not bother to introduce himself joined out general group, and as we started to head out, we confirmed time for the morning, and the captain reminded us to remember that the seas would be a little more than today, so we said no problem, we traveled all the way here and no little wave action was going to stand in the way. So Mr. Nobody (maybe the shop owner??) says “we’ll call the shot on whether the boat goes out in the morning”. Who really needed this guy’s opinion???

So, IVS readers… do you think this will start out in the morning, will the boat go?? Stay tuned…..

Oriskany Diving – Day 2

Dawn breaks and all appears well in sunny Pensacola, but appearances can be deceiving. The group convenes and heads over to the Waffle House for a good belly-filling pre-dive breakfast. Then we truck over to the dive shop to pick up our filled tanks in preparation of heading over to the boat for another good day of diving. That’s when the drama begins…..

First, our captain from yesterday (remember the “he seems like a nice guy?”) is there, with the look of someone that needs to talk on his face. Well the look was accurate; as he starts to talk about what kind of money he normally gets for this type of diving, how much less he got because of the deal IVS had worked out with the other boat, and how we don’t have a divemaster today. And of course no one at the local dive center, who we set this entire trip up with, has anything to say; in fact they ignore us to the point of us starting to feel we are all wearing our secret Harry Potter “cloaks of invisibility”. Not looking good at all.

Well, it’s not Dave’s first time in a situation like this, so first, he thinks, let’s check out options. Cell phone call to the first captain, to check the status on the engine repair part. Sure enough, it was flown in overnight (that part of the story was true and accurate) but it actually flew into Mobile, Alabama (that part of the story was somehow overlooked with that “they’ll fly the part in” talk we were given yesterday). Well the dealer there needs to do something with the part, and then drive it down here, so the bottom line is maybe 1 or 2 o’clock before he is running. Not a boat that is heading out today. So it’s back to the group, and checking the feelings on throwing in a few extra bucks per person to negotiate our way out of this “hostage divers held captive at the dock” situation. OK, $100 will make it all better, so we begrudgingly agree to toss in an extra $25 each for today. Captain #2 accepts it, and first problem of the day is solved. And that lack of divemaster issue – well it went away with the extra $100 too.

Now let’s see how our tanks are doing. The six sets of doubles are still hooked up to the fill station, and the pressure gauge on the wall reads 3,500 psi. That sounds like a good start, so we ask “Hello, does anyone know if these are done?” “Hello? Hello?” Something is mumbled, so we think the most prudent thing to do is to analyze the tanks ourselves. So out comes the IVS trimix analyzer, and we test the tanks. The mix asked for was 21% oxygen, 35% helium, and the balance (44%) nitrogen. All six sets test out at 28% oxygen, 21% helium, 51% nitrogen. Our dive plan today is to a depth of 180 feet. That puts our partial pressure of oxygen at 1.82 ata. Now that sure sounds like a recipe for a “shaking all over while we convulse violently and spit out our regulators and drown sort of day” Hmmm……

So we ask, “hey, what’s up with the tanks?”, “what do you mean”, is the reply, then quickly “we had some problems with the helium, we don’t have enough tank pressure, and we have more coming over from the supplier right now”. “Well, I say, these tanks are filled completely, and if we dove them, we would all die from oxygen toxicity, no question about it”. “Is your tank filler a certified gas blender?” I ask. ”Of course!” is the reply. Yeah, right. I guess he was going to somehow ask some of the oxygen molecules to begin an orderly exit from the tanks, while he magically got the 2,200 psi helium supply to push its way into the 3,500 psi tanks. Maybe it’s me, but I have a hard time with that math. On top of that, I’d be dead, and so would my fellow divers. So, since the physics cannot be denied, and these folks don’t believe in gas blending software, the tanks are then opened and drained completely, once again wasting all the money in helium and oxygen that we left in there from before and the additional gas that was added by the local dive center last night. These guys apparently can only start from zero when they are filling.

And, one of our divers nitrox tanks are filled wrong, cause the fill technician had a hard time understanding the difference between a low pressure and a high pressure tank. Go figure, maybe, just maybe, that’s why all those numbers are stamped in the tank top! So instead of adjusting the mix, they “need” to drain the tanks completely and start fresh (Again, I guess that partial pressure blending concept is not practiced in Pensacola).

At least our EAN 50% deco bottles are right as is our 100% O2 hang bottle. Of course, we checked each one of these ourselves. Not a good sense of trust here with the shop personnel.

So now we wait while all the tanks that we brought over last night and that were filled last night and that caused us to delay this morning while the weather deteriorates are being refilled.

Morning fade into mid-day, various local boats are cancelling due to weather, and our group is losing the desire to go out and get beat up. Some decide to sit out the day, so of course now the financial accounting no longer works for the captain, and we decide this might be a perfect day to visit the naval base and naval air museum here in town. Enough said about diving today. The good news is that our tanks are finally full, and with the right blends this time!

After an afternoon of tooling about and enjoying the sights and sounds of Pensacola, the phone finally rings with the word from the captain of our first boat. “Gimme the good news”, I shout excitedly into the phone. “I’ve got no good news”, comes the somber reply, as he relates how the repairs to the engine did not go as planned, and he is down for another week or two.

The curse of the Oriskany continues!

Never ones to waste full tanks, and knowing that there will be no Oriskany in our plans tomorrow, we decide to plan a visit to one of Florida’s natural springs and caverns. So off to dinner we go, with laptops and mapquest and all the other tools needed to plan the alternate dive day.

Oriskany (not!) Diving – Day 3

With a revised dive plan clearly in hand, Team IVS awoke early, checked out of our hotel, and headed 90 miles east to Ponce de Leon, FL. Our destination was Vortex Springs, a site we have not yet visited, and one which certainly seemed worth checking out! We arrived on site around 9 a.m., got signed in, spent close to an hour with the very customer friendly staff in the dive shop, and finally headed out to get our first dive in. Vortex Springs is quite the gem as it has fantastic visibility, depths from zero to 160 ft, and open water, cavern, and full cave environments for everyone to enjoy! The fish life is great too, with Shadow Bass, American Eels, Koi, Bluegills and all the other usual characters to be found.

Our first dive was to familiarize ourselves with the site, and we enjoyed a great open water / cavern dive experience, with depths to almost 60 feet. We also worked on frog kick techniques for the cave environment, as well as buoyancy control and some fine-tuning on our weighting. After that, it was time to plan some limited penetration into the cave, and so we worked with the team to understand how to lay and use lines and reels, line arrows, jump & gap reels, and some of the finer techniques of avoiding silt-outs and maintaining team communications.

So off we went on our second dive, with some of the team deciding to remain in the cavern zone while the rest of us began the penetration. We managed about 300 ft of penetration into the black-as-night cave zone, passing the Grim Reaper signs, the Stop Signs, and ended with a max. depth of 100 feet when we reached the locked gate preventing us from further penetration. Some underwater discussion in a submerged bell ended in laughter as the high helium mix we were using caused all of us to sound like a bunch of diving Donald Ducks! We reached the turnaround point, using the rule of thirds on gas consumption, and headed back out to join up with the rest of the team. Another good, safe and fun dive under our belts.

Back on land, out comes the gourmet lunch fest that Steve’s wife Dena had prepared for us, and with Jennifer’s RV serving as our field kitchen, we enjoyed a fantastic lunch of home made soup, chili, spaghetti, sausage and meatballs. Team IVS sure knows how important a happy tummy is to diving! After lunch, we enjoyed a nap in the sun at waterside, just another perfect chapter in a perfect day.

So now it’s time to step it up a notch – let’s get the key to the underwater gate and see what lies beyond! With key in hand, we enter the water, and begin our descent again, through the cavern, through the first cave system, and to the gate at 100 feet. Escorted by eels, blind fish of several varieties, darkness, and the never-ending splendor of the submerged cave system, we were ready to see where this sub-aquatic path might lead us. Checking gas supplies, reconfirming the deco plan, we unlocked the gate, secured the lock to avoid being locked in, and began our penetration. We explored an additional 500 feet of the cave system, through some minor restrictions (read: scraping and clawing through but making it with all gear intact) and finally reached a major restriction at 156 ft depth, which coincided with being close enough to our turn-pressure to call the dive there and start to head back out. Through the restrictions, past the variety of sights and critters that dwelled there, closing and locking the gate, and finally emerging back into daylight – what a great dive!

Back on shore, the quiet is broken by the sound of the brewskies being opened, and the team enjoyed a round of fine Pedrone cigars while toasting a great upturn in what could have been a very disappointing dive trip. Moments like these really show the character of IVS divers and the ‘git’r done’ attitude when it comes to making the best of every dive opportunity that comes our way.

Count on a visit to Vortex Springs to be part of next year’s Oriskany dive plans!