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!  

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Memorial Day Weekend Diving Extravaganza

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II – Coral Reef Restoration & Key Largo Diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III – Conch Republic & Cooper River Shark Tooth Diving

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

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

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

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

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

Manatee wrestling & alligator diving

Once again it’s time for Team IVS to head south and enjoy the manatees and diving of western central Florida. 

Tony ‘one-glove’ Johnson, Jim “where’s that light” Dalhberg, Christian “I’m working on my screaming-in-terror” PADI specialty Johnson, and Dave Valaika headed down to Homosassa Springs Thursday evening for a five day dive adventure to the Crystal River area of Florida. We checked into the Homosassa Riverside Resort to two spectacular riverfront condo’s, complete with kitchens and patios.  First class start to what we hope ends up being a first class trip! 

Friday morning we headed up to see our friends at Adventure Scuba in Crystal River.  Carl & Dave run a first class operation, with the proper amount of “laid back” factor to fit right in with us.  We chatted for a bit, exchanged good diving stories, talked about the Lorinczy’s recent visit, and headed out with Capt. Henry for a morning boat dive on the Crystal River.  As we loaded the boat we had the opportunity to watch a pair of Osprey parents catching fish and flying it up to the nest to feed the young ones.  Pretty cool.

We loaded the boat and headed out to our first stop, Three Sisters Springs.  This is a cool little cut in the middle of an island in the river that has several natural springs boiling up through the sand, providing visibility in the 100 foot plus range.  Nice little 20 ft dive to explore the area, and the only thing missing was, the manatees!  Seems we planned our trip a few weeks late this year and the majority of the local manatee population was already off enjoying the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  That didn’t deter our adventurers as there is plenty to see and enjoy even without the big mammals.

Second stop was King’s Spring, which is a cavern located right out in the middle of Crystal River.  The downside is that the viz in the river was maybe 10 feet (actualy better than last year!) and you have to plummet down about 30 feet into a hole in the rocks to find the cavern entrance.  But the adrenalin rush is worth it, as the cavern opens up to a nice large area, with a couple of tighter side shoots, and the vis inside is great.  Tons of fish hanging around made for some great photo opportunities too.

Well we’re heading back in now, and hey, we still have gas in our tanks!  Can’t send them back like that, where can we dive?  So we opt for Catfish Hole and head across the river to find it.  It is actually located directly underneath a private dock, so we geared up, make a hot-drop as we pass the dock, and swim on in, Helen Keller style, through the zero viz of the river.  Finally the clarity improves, and there’s the entrance – big enough for two divers at a time.  We slip inside, and sure enough, this spring is loaded with catfish!  Pretty cool to see, and quite a bit of flow too!  It’s small though, so definately not a headliner, but a great little stop on the way back to the dock.

We head back to the dock, unload, meet up with Dave at the shop, and head north to K.P.Hole state park, the launch point for our Rainbow River drift dive.  We board the pontoon boat and Capt. Henry motors us up to the headwaters.  We encourage him to take us all the way to the top, and he obliges.  As we motor upstream, Christian is thrilled with seeing the alligators sunning themselves on the shores and tree branches along the edges of the river!  Wooo hooo!

We drop in, and being a 100 minute drift down the river – yes, 100 minutes!  Way cool as we sail over and through all sorts of grasses, through rocky areas, boiling sands, and more, taking in the variety of cool life we see, including alligator gars, turtles, bass, and more.  Very nice way to wrap up the last dive of day #1.  On the way home we are trying to locate an Outback Steakhouse, and we stop for directions at a local gas station / convenience store / live bait distributor, and we connect with a local gal who happens to be “heading that way”, and was only stopping by to load up on Bud Light.  So we follow her, and it is like 45 minutes into the woods, as we all begin hearing the theme song from “Deliverance’ playing in the back of our  minds, before we finally return to civilization, and our Outback!  Whew!

 Saturday morning it’s time to head up to a few of the springs, but we opt to stop by Adventure Diving.  When we get there we learn about an open house being held up at Forty Fathom Grotto this weekend, so how can we deny ourselves that?  So we sign up, via fax, and head off to our first location, Blue Grotto.  The place is a’hopping, and we get the pleasure of watching the antics and procedures of some of the local shops and instructors as they prep for the water.  It’s always great to watch how others conduct their programs and see if there is anything we can take home to improve ours.  Today, that was not the case!  So we gear up and head in, with Jim & I taking the longer, deeper route, and Tony and Christian opting for the more cavern-like entrance area.  Tony, just recovering from some major ACL surgery, is feeling some pain in his shoulder so he stays shallow.  Interesting but clearly depth (or pressure) related.  We wonder whether it is the depth or his dive gear that is causing the discomfort.  After a few good passes through the darkness, we’re ready to head on to our next location, practically across the street.

It’s called Devils Den, and rightly so, for the intimidating entrance down a set of stairs and into the cavern.  Once inside, it opens up to a huge cave, complete with a hole in the roof for natural lighting, and filled with crystal clear water to a depth of about 65 feet.  They’ve got a couple of platforms there for training, and there are plenty of tight little restrictions to practice on as you swim around the edges of the cavern.  Lot’s of bars and signs clearly mark the recommended limits of diving here, but hey…am I hearing “guidelines”?  So Jim & I venture in a wee bit further, and even Christian got into the adventure, as long as we gave him a bright light to explore with!  Tony’s shoulder is really acting up so he surfaces early from this one.

Well it’s only 3:00 and our gear is already wet, so hey, let’s go diving at Forty Fathom Grotto!  We motor up and as we pull up, who is there to greet us but John Galetsky, our OMS sales rep!  Small world, eh?  John gives us the nickel tour, and we learn all we need to know about this 240 foot deep hole in the ground.  As we are touring, I think I hear another voice I recognize, and as I turn, there is my favorite mermaid Angela, so how can we resist pulling up a chair, grabbing a microphone, and sharing a little IVS live with America? And all we kept thinking was “where is Eric?”.  If you missed the live broadcast, you can go to www.scubaradio.com and click on the archives for the show that day!

After that radio interview session, we decided to explore this new Florida dive site. So Jim & I slipped beneath the conspicuously dark waters to see what lay below.  And guess what it was?  More darkness, as you might imagine.  At 70 feet we completely lost sight of any indication of light above us, and the viz remained a solid 5 to 8 feet, so Jim & I enjoyed a ‘night dive in the Cooper River’ experience.  We dropped down to about 140 feet but there was no sense in going any further, as this was never going to clear up.  So we circumnavigated the main area a few times, saw all we could see, and finally called it.  We got topside just in time to see the last of the free hamburgers being given away, so we settled for chips and some leftover salads.  Not exactly the Indian Valley Scuba foodfest we’re used to, but hey, a new experience.

Sunday morning Tony decided to sit out, with his shoulder really bothering him, so Jim and I decided to up the ante on adventure and add another new location to this trip.  So we headed out to find Paradise Springs, which was pretty highly touted as a good cave location.  We drove along and finally saw the dive flag under the mailbox, and turned up a long dirt trail into the woods.  We must have traveled 5 miles up that road and were just beginning to think this was a joke, when we saw another little sign, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  So we kept going another mile, and entered a property with another sign, continued driving further through the woods, past the horses, past the fields, and finally pulled up to a single family home.  A young lady greeted us outside, asking if we were there to dive (not sure what the other options were!) and of course we said yes, so she said come on in here to the combo garage / orientation center / full-service dive shop, and watch the video and fill out the forms.  The desk was a tailgate from the truck which was conveniently parked in the garage and obviously had not moved in years, and the video was informative.  Jim & I headed down to find the spring, and there it was, a little hole deep in a hollow, measuring maybe 15 ft x 25 ft in size.  And it sat about 50 feet below grade, so we humped our gear down into the hole to check this out. 

We were not disappointed at all, as the small opening really widened as you went below into a very wide area, chock full of fossils in the walls and a lot of cool fish, including large plecostomus catfish.  Jim and I explored the cavern area, then headed down into the abyss, to lay some line and explore the cave down to about 165 deep and maybe 400 feet of penetration.  Jim handled it very well, and it was a good dive overall.  He was gushing when he came up…he’s hooked!

After that we headed over to Ginnie Springs.  This is a first class operation, with a professional staff and a system that is both efficent and customer friendly.  We got our gear and headed up to the first spring, and who do we run into but Larry Green, training director of NACD (National Association of Cave Divers).  Great chance to chat and get caught up, and finally we’re ready to dive.  The area was completely flooded with the Santa Fe river running about 4 or 5 feet above it’s banks.  The river was completely black, and the folks at Ginnie had erected canvas barricades to keep the river water out and let the spring water flow outward, keeping the cave inlets clear.  Smart folks there!  We dropped into Little Devil, and explored this fissure down to about 40 feet, just checking out the “no-mount” entryway into the limited cave system beyond.   There is something fundamentally wrong when you have to take your tanks off to get INTO a tight space to explore….maybe it’s me?  In any case, we opted to keep our gear in place, and swam down to the next inlet, Devil’s Eye, where we dropped in, and explored about 200 feet of penetration, finally emerging through Devil’s ear, but out in the river.  The water was so black and moving so fast that as soon as we cleared the opening, we could not relocate it to go back in and reverse our path.  Absolutely amazing.  So we swam back over the barrier, and dropped back in, and this time laid line to explore the cave system under the riverbed, penetrating about 300 feet into the labyrinth.  Again, very cool system, and Jim did really well.

After that we drove the car over to the main spring, past the flooded campsites, and got in a nice dive in the ballroom.  Nice wrap up to a great weekend, and we headed back to pack and head back to the airport (and reality) tomorrow.