Frank, where are your fins? And more adventures from the Keys!

Heather & Sue with IVS Diver Extraordinaire, ‘Finless’ Frank Gabriel

Aaah, the Florida Keys…we can never get enough of them!  And the last week in July each year is even more special, as Team Indian Valley Scuba enjoys a full week of diving, fun, and food in America’s Caribbean!  This annual adventure is centered around the annual Florida lobster mini-season, a two-day event held each year on the last contiguous Wednesday and Thursday in July.  This is a special spiny lobster hunting season, open only to recreational sports divers and snorkelers, and it’s a great opportunity to catch some of the delicious crustaceans before the commercial season opens in another week or two.

Our “pre-adventure” actually begins on Saturday, when the first of our divers begin to converge on Key Largo.  Hosted by Dave Hartman, one of the faces of IVS-South, the first arrivals included last year’s reigning ‘Lobster Queen’, Bill Zyskowski, Scott Bruce and his dad, Steve Holak, Heather Hiester, ……..and  “Finless” Frank Gabriel (more on that later!).

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

After an overnight stay at Casa Hartman, they headed out in the eye of an impending storm Sunday morning to dive the Spiegel Grove with Chrissie and the gang from Blue Water Divers.  Two great dives exploring this massive wreck from the inside out, and as they motored back to port, the clouds were closing in.  The weather radar was predicting some big storm activity was brewing, so with the afternoon boat cancelled, and the crew enjoyed a nice early dinner at Shipwreck’s Bar & Grille before heading the 110 miles south to Key West for the night.  As it turns out, the storms never materialized, but it made for a nice relaxing start to a marathon week of diving we had planned. Two and a half hours of beautifully scenic driving later, they arrived in Key West, where they were met with the rest of our advance group, quasi-locals Carlie & Leslie Adams, and representing the western side of the IVS family, Jesica Tyre and Berry Smith from Los Angeles.

Monday started off with the group meeting at Sea-Duction, the rebirth of the former SubTropic dive center, now owned by my friend Mike Ange.  Based in North Carolina, Mike has teaching tec classes in the Keys for years, and has experienced much of the same frustration as we have, with a general lack of support and very few dive centers that take technical diving seriously, or can provide the gasses, tank set-ups, and even rebreather support materials that we need to effectively conduct classes and execute tec dives there.  Til now, only Silent World in Key Largo could be counted on for supporting tec programs, and the owner, Chris Brown, is absolutely first class.

So the gang analyzes their nitrox fills and head out for the day, with the plan being two dips on the Vandenburg, and the third on the Cayman Salvor or Joe’s Tug.  Now on IVS trips we have a tradition, and that is, that the boats we use break down at some point.  Just about every trip photo gallery has a shot or two of a captain or mechanic on his knees, head buried somewhere down the engine hatch.  I’m not sure what this black cloud is that sometimes follows us, and it always makes for good stories, but it is, truly, a tradition.  And today was not going to be any different! 

Dave Hartman taking a turn at steering Seaduction’s boat to the Vandenberg

As Sea-Duction’s boat approached the mooring balls on the ‘Vandie’, the crew prepared the boat hook and their lines to tie in.  Approx 100 yards from teh wreck, the captain shouted out “Sh*t..we have a problem here!”  One of the mates jumped down and pulled the engine hatches off, and, true to tradition, buried his head in the engine compartment.  Seems that the steering failed, and the rudder is not responding to the helm.  Hmmmm……not a a good thing!  

So out come the tools, and now all three of them are in the hatch, and lots of colorful language is coming from the crew.  Our guys are enjoying it, and heck, there doesn;t appear to be a lot of surface current, so maybe we can jump in and swim to the wreck!  Well the crew finally figures it out, and via some big-ass wrenches, a lot of sweating, colorful metaphors, and shouting from the helm to the hatch, they are able to man-handle the rudder and guide the boat to the mooring ball.   The crew ties in, and the diving begins! 

Conditions are perfect, and our group enjoys this fantastic 500+ ft. long wreck and all the penetration and exploration it has to offer.  While the plan was to make only twoi dives here, the challenge with the steering makes the decision to stay for a third an easy one, and everyone is happy with that.  Back to port, with the modified steering system in effect, and while the docking proved to be a bit of a challenge, finally all the lines were tied, and it was time to clean up and head down to Duval Street for an evening of good dinner, a variety of hydrating drinks, people watching and sightseeing.

Tuesday morning and time for a leisurely drive back up the Keys to Tavernier, where we have chartered Conch Republic’s boat for a couple of dives this afternoon.  Gary & Brenda, owners of Conch, are there to greet the group and they get off on time, with the first dive on the wreck of the Eagle.  After that our second visit is to Pickles Reef, a nice location that we rarely visit out of Key Largo due  to the distance.   Another good dive in the logbook, and back to the dock they head.  From there it’s a short hop another ten miles up the road to check in at Amoray Dive Resort, our base of operations for the next six days of this adventure! 

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

Joining the team there are more of the IVS gang, including Steve Zingale, Shaquanasia Morris, Paul, Quinton & Esther Gehman, Ray Graff, Nick Chiarolanza, Jeff Herber, plus joining us from the Tampa Bay area are Marabel Grajales, Reinel Correia, Cathy Levesque, and Emanuel Martinez, and finally the O’Donnell gang, Rob, Jen, Ryan, Alyson & Kristen .  A great team with one focus for tonight – get some rest and be ready to kick butt in the lobster hunting department tomorrow!

The 4 o’clock alarm comes early on Wednesday morning, and the crew slowly shuffles down to load the boat for the first lobster trip.  We’re shoving off at 5:00 a.m., to be in position and geared up to splash at 5:45, the legal start of mini-season in Monroe County. Another member of the team shows up for the boat, Craig Lloyd, who brought his family down for some vacation time while dad gets in some diving & hunting.  His lovely wife and two beautiful daughters are not divers…..yet…but we’ll work on that! 

The hunting starts off a little slow, and the morning boat only produces 13 keeper bugs over three hour-long dives.  Ruh-roh…might be a lot of salad and bread served up at Friday nights lobster dinner!  The team needs to improve on this for sure!!  We’ve got quite a few rookies on board, and a few ringers, like Lobster Queen Bill Z, but we’re missing some of our best, like Bill’s brother John.  And as part of our “rebuilding year”, we also traded a few of last years players down to the minors, but all in all, our team is having a great time!

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

After a short siesta it’s time to get serious and get back out on the hunt!  Tanks are loaded, and the 4 o’clock departure heads out, and with a little extra coaching and mentoring, the team more than doubles the morning take.  Way to go..dinner is looking better already!

Wednesday 4:00 a.m. and the activity begins dockside with some new faces showing up, including Sue Douglass, Judy Mullen, and yours truly.  It’s time to kick this lobster hunting into a higher gear!  Out we head for our morning trip and we put another 40 or so in the cooler…now we’re talking!  Back to the dock, and there’s no rest for the weary, as Steve Holak and I head over to Jules Undersea Lodge for a couple of Open Water checkout dives with newcomer Fred Shue, Nick C,Paul & Quinton G, and the O’Donnell tribe – Ryan, Alyson & Kristen.  Conditions are very nice there, and somewhat surreal as there is a whitish cloud hovering a couple of feet off the dark bottom; really makes for a cool visual effect!  Skills completed, the crew heads back to Amoray and we load up for another three-tank final trip out to secure the main course for Friday night’s dinner. By the end of the night the count is 101 bugs in the cooler, so we’re looking good for dinner with our triple-digit production!  After 14 dives over the past to days, the bed feels really good tonight for some reason!   Friday morning dawns as another absolutely beautiful day in Key Largo – blue skies, no wind, flat seas…this trip has truly been gifted as far as conditions go.  Let’s hope we get three more days of it!  John Reider has arrived during the night, so the team is finally complete.  We head out to the reefs for two shallow dives this morning, and our open water students complete all their required skills with flying colors!  I can’t say how proud it makes me to be part of this positive energy and karma that comes from motivated students and a great instructional staff – these guys really rock my world! 

Heather, Judy, Jen, “Finless” Frank, Berry, Jesica & Dave V hamming it up for the camera!

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

And now, with their official recognition as PADI Open Water Divers, our newly minted graduates enjoy their first deep / wreck / adventure dive on the wreck of the Spiegel Grove.  The conditions remain stellar, and it is a perfect way to launch thier next levels of training…gosh..is there a strategy at work here?  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew enjoyed some great dives, and of course Dave Hartman led his signature tour  – “The Belly of the Beast” – through the lowest levels of this massive wreck.  Another great day under and on the sea!

This evening is another one of our celebrated annual events – Lobster Dinner at the Key Largo Conch House restaurant.  We have been doing this for five years now, and the owners of the Conch House spend all day preparing our tails, making various dishes of lobster fritters, lobster bisque, broiled tails, and more.  A great dinner with about forty attendees, including the Lloyd family girls, Michelle from Amoray, and a couple of our local Key Largo friends also.  Great night, great food, great company – Life is Good!

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

Ray and his ladies at the Conch House, while the rest of us scramble to replace the batteries in our AED….just in case!! With Heather, Sue, Judy & Jesica

The O’Donnell family enjoying a great lobster dinner with Team IVS at the Conch House

Jesica & Judy sharing some ocean-inspired body art with us!

I know we’re sounding like a broken record, but again, we are greeted with perfect conditions on Saturday – truly a picture perfect day as we headed out to Molasses Reef for two nice shallow dives.  And what could make the morning even better?  How about Steve Holak celebrating his 500th dive with Indian Valley Scuba this morning!  OK, or even better?  How about Judy & Jesica modeling full body tatt’s for a boatload of admiring eyes!

The afternoon our plans are to re-visit the Spiegel Grove, then go on to the Benwood in preparation for tonight’s night dive.  The teams prepare and brief for their individual group goals and plans for the dive, and final equipment checks are conducted.  Stage bottles are checked, reels and lift bags verified, computers set.  Each team of divers approaches the bow of the Amoray Diver as a group, so they can enter the water one right after the other, and minimize descent and waiting time, (i.e. burning through precious gas reserves), while waiting for the entire team assemble.   Some groups with more experienced divers have planned some slightly more aggressive tours, while some of the others follow Sue D’s “Lame-Oh” tour agenda, staying outside the wreck and taking in the beauty without the risks of penetration.  Sooo, as the Hartman group heads up for a deep, dark tour, one by one they splash, Dave H going in first, followed by Bill Z, and then Frank G.  Funny, but Frank seems to drop a little deeper under the surface than the others on his entry, as if he had less drag to his body. Hmmmm….as he finally surfaces and begins to kick over to the line to join the others, he does not seem to be making much headway….perhaps because he has NO FINS ON!  Yikes…..perhaps he took that part of Dave’s briefing, about using your hands inside the wreck and not kicking with your fins to stir up silt, a little too literally!    Not to worry Frank, this little faux paus will be a secret just between us…and the entire internet!!  Yes, you know it when the group shouts out almost in unison, “That’ll make the blog!” 

After “Finless Frank’s” entry, the rest of the dive goes well, and everyone else enters the water with ALL their gear on.  Rob O’Donnell completes his ‘very’ Advanced Open Water training with stage bottle drills, running wreck reels and wreck penetration, and even helping Dave V nail a big lionfish.  A great dive, nearly an hour of bottom time with the big tanks most of us are wearing, and finally we head over to the Benwood.  Frank is checked closely by the crew prior to his giant stride, just in case, you know.  The dive here is absolutely magical, from a giant baitball of silverside minnows, to the hungry teams of groupers coordinating feeding attacks, to the huge snook hanging out there, to the cruising nurse sharks over the wreck, just absolutely magical.

The evening  found us back at the site of the Benwood for a true night dive.  The sun had set, and the sea was black; no “twilight” dive for this crew!  Into the ocean we splashed, and down the line we went.  Magical moment #1 – a turtle swims over to us at the bottom of the line and checks us out…you just know this is going to be a great dive!  The best part is that ten year old Kristen O’Donnell is leading us, with no fear or apprehension at all!  And the turtle visits us again during the dive, just cruising with us and allowing the divers to gently touch and stroke its shell, making no attempt to avoid or move away….really cool cooperative animal interaction!

Most of the troops head over to the one of our favorite haunts, the Paradise Pub, for some Cheeseburgers in Paradise, a few pitchers of beer, and a boatload of laughter and story telling that is part of every great IVS trip. Including, of course, the tale of Finless Frank!  And of course, the thing that warms my heart the most……folks planning their next IVS dive trip!!  The stamina and energy of our divers never ceases to amaze me, and half the group stays and closes the bar.  And….they all make it out on the morning boat!

Our last full day of diving is Sunday, and we are not disappointed with the conditions.  More blue skies, more flat seas, and two great reef dives to kick off the morning.  We head back in, grab a bit of lunch, and head out for our ‘graduation dives’, a visit to the Duane and a final tour of the Spiegel Grove.  As we motor south to the site of the Duane, we pass the balls marking her sister ship, the USS Bibb, which is laying on it’s side about 1/4 mile from the Duane.  The balls are absolutely lifeless in the water, with no indication of current at all.  We can’t pass on the chance to dive this wreck, as we rarely get conditions like this when we vsiit it. So, scratch the Duane…. we’re diving the Bibb today!   Of course, no good change in plans goes without some whining, but I step up and help everyone who just listened intently to Dave Hartman’s Duane briefing…. “take everything you just heard, and turn it sideways!”  OK.. briefing done..let’s dive!   

Soooo, I am diving solo on this one, as is Bill Z, as both of us are carrying Lionfish spears and looking to score.  So let’s just set the stage here…this is a 300 ft long wreck, intact, laying on it’s side.  It’s a former Coast Guard cutter, so it has (1) pointy end (the bow), and (1) not-so-pointy end, with a couple of huge 20 ft diameter propellers and rudders (the stern).  It has exactly two mooring balls on it, one at each end of the wreck.  Just saying…..more on this in a few minutes!  So, as we  drop down to the wreck, the visibility is forever, and I tap Bill and point out how cool the props and rudders look as we approach them.  He sees them, or at least I think he does, and we continue down, hit the side of the wreck and separate to hunt for our quarry.  Nice dive, cool wreck to see and for those of us who have dove the  Duane numerous times, it is very interesting to see the difference between the two identical wrecks in terms of growth, marine life, fish populations, especially that the two are just a little over 1,000 ft from each other.  So….fast forward…..I nail another lionfish, and actually show it to Bill as we pass each other, and finally my 35 minutes at 130 ft max is up….time to ascend and rid the body of a little excess nitrogen.  I’m alone now, so I swim over the props, and grab the morning line, and as I turn towards the surface, I can enjoy the view of all our other divers on the line doing nice deep stops and safety stops.  Well OK, most of our other divers. 

Capt. Rob & Mate Alysa getting ready to toss the coin and figure out which one is going to swim the rescue float out to wayward Bill Z

It seems that when Bill decided to come up, he also headed to the mooring line, and began his ascent.  He was diving with a larger tank than most of the others, so his first clue something was amiss was the fact that no one was already on the line, as he expected to find.  Hmmmm.. well at this point he was committed, too far away from the “proper” end of this wreck , so he completed his ascent, and surfaced 300 ft behind the Amoray Diver…about exactly the length of the Bibb!  So, much to Bill’s chagrine, Capt Rob and the crew unroll the 300 ft. rescue line on the boat and they swim it out to Bill.  You know what is going on inside his head……”Darn it…this is going to make the blog!”  And here it is, proving him right.  It should be noted, that Bill gave it a lot of thought, and has an official story – and he’s sticking to it!  It seems that he set a personal goal of having a mooring ball named in his honor on every wreck that IVS visits!  Move over “Z-Ball” (named after Bill and his brother John on the Spiegel), and the “C-Ball”, named in honor of Csaba Lorinczy on another two-ball wreck on the St. Lawrence Seaway.   

After the laughter finally dies down, we motor over to the Spiegel for one last fantastic tour through the wreck.  Berry Smith wants a little adrenalin rush, so he joins me and we drop right down five decks through hatchways, and spend nearly 30 minutes on a long penetration with nary a bit of outside light (or escape path) until we finally emerge near the stern of the wreck.  Everyone else comes up smiling too, enjoying the fantastic conditions on our favorite underwater funhouse.  Very cool way to wrap up a great week of diving!  Time to rinse gear, get one last night of rest, and head for home to get ready for our next IVS trip!

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

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

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

 

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

The Allure of Lobster Mini-Season

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

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

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

Lobster Tails Abundant at the IVS Lobster Feast

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

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

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

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

A Special Wreck Trek Starts Off Lobster Week

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

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

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

The Z Brothers on the USS Speigel Grove

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

Florida Lobster Fest ’09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

 

       

 

  

 

 

The Lobstah’ Whisperer strikes gold in Jersey!

 

Team IVS headed out today for some lobster hunting off the coast of New Jersey.  We sailed with Capt. Al aboard the Sea Lion, seven hearty souls with a common goal…lobster in the pot!  The day started off a bit overcast and raining, but more importantly there was no wind.  The affect of this was apparent as we cleared Manasquan Inlet – the Atlantic was flat as far as the eye could see.

Our first location was the wreck of the Mohawk, and early ‘passenger liner / cruise ship’, sailing from New York to Jacksonville and onward to Havana, Cuba.  It collided with another vessel on a crystal clear cold night in January, 1935.  Nineteen souls died, primarily from exposure, before the rest were pulled from the sea as the vessel slipped beneath the waves.  Originally it went down on it’s side, but six months later a summer storm uprighted it, Speigel Grove style.  In fact, with the depth at 80 ft to the sand, the masts were actually sticking up out of the water, and this is how it remained for until the Army Corps of Engineers cut it down by wire dragging it to allow safe passage over the wreck.  

All was good until WWII, and with the U-boat activity up and down the eastern seaboard, the Coast Guard was taking no chances.  German submarines were known to take advantage of structure on the bottom to hide alongside, masking their presence, so every time an anti-sub vessel would pass the Mohawk, they’d throw out a depth charge or two for good measure.  Although no U-boats were ever discovered, you can imagine the damage this caused to the remaining wreckage.  Today the site looks a bit more like Fred Sanford’s backyard than a ship, but you can figure out enough of the pieces to know you’re diving on a wreck. 

So we located the site and our able first mate Jen dropped down to tie into the wreck.  We followed as soon as the hook was set, and got right to work on our mission.  Watching most of the guys bear left, I opted for  a right turn at the anchor, dropped down low, fired up the canister light, and got down to business.  One, two, three bugs in the bag….good start….keep looking…four…..more….all keepers, being careful to gauge them right there and ensure they are legal before putting them in the bag.  Kicked up a nice flounder, lots of sea bass and blackfish there, sea robins walking about on their fins, and all the other typical Jersey sea life.  The water temp was 58 degrees, allowing me to dive without a hood and with light gloves, better to shove my arm in the holes to snag my objectives!  I was wearing a Whites Fusion, and this suit is fantastic with it’s form-fitting design.  Even with a medium weight undergarment on, I was able to dive with no weights other than my double steel 100’s.  The viz varied, but at times was easily 60 to 75 feet – Nice!

We got back up to the boat, and I had six bugs for my cooler.  The others did not score so well…OK..they were skunked!  So we talk a little about technique during our surface interval, and get them pumped up to do better on dive #2.  Because this wreck site is quite large, we opted to stay for our second dive on the same spot.  Four more bugs in my bag, and two for Matt Yaroch and his dad – way to go guys! 

Checking my personal biological meter, I recognize I am a quart low on nitrogen, so Capt. Al offers to make a third dive on another location.  We motor over to the “120” wreck, and we’re down to only two of us plus Jen making this one.  This is an old unidentifed wooden sailing vessel, and it has some fantastic lobster habitat on it, as well as fish life.  The problem is that the habitat is all through the wooden timbers and deck planking, giving the lobsters a huge advantage with being able to slip around a corner of far enough down a hole to be beyond the reach of the hunters.  Missed a few, but still managed to get one more in the bag, bringing my daily total to 11.  The rest of the team accounted for another 2 – what’s wrong with this picture??      

Finally it’s time to call it a day and we sail on back to the Brielle Boat Basin.  Hugs & handshakes, and I head home to boil up my bounty – we’ll be serving it up at Dutch Springs this weekend!

  

NJ Wrecking it – Again!

Dave West, Robin Valicenti and I responded to the 4:30 a.m. alarm and traveled down to Belmar, NJ for another great day of diving aboard the Venture III.  We could not have asked for a more perfect day to sail out to sea – the sun was bright, the sea was calm, and the company was great!

Our first site was the Algor shipwreck.  This was an Andromeda class attack transport built by the U.S. Navy.  This class was also known as a “Victory Ship”, although often incorrectly referred to as a Liberty Ship.  It was one of a series of Navy transports named for stars; Algol is a star in the constellation Perseus, also known as the Demon star.   Originally constructed in 1943 in Oakland, Calif as James Barnes , it saw service in a number of conflicts, the most recently being the Vietnam War.  It is a large wreck measuring 459 ft x 63 ft, with 13,910 displacement tons, and a registered crew of 429 crew, including embarked Marines.  It was sunk as part of the NJ Artificial Reef Program on November 22, 1991, and sponsored by the Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration group. This intact wreck sits in 145 ft of water, with the upper decks accessible as shallow as 70 ft.   This was a great intro-to-reel work dive for Robin, who quickly learned how difficult it is to multi-task with reel, depth, wreck and dive to deal with.   Good start, a nice dive with viz in the 40 plus foot range.  We ended up with a 130 ft dive for a 50 minute run time.

The Algol was a Navy transport ship that had a long and successful service career from World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis. After lying in the mothball fleet at Norfolk for some twenty years, she was transferred to the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program and sunk with little fanfare, unlike the much-hyped ( and not much bigger ) Spiegel Grove in Florida.

This is the largest vessel yet used in the New Jersey Artificial Reef Program, and ranks as one of the largest vessels ever used as an artificial reef anywhere. She is also the largest vessel of any kind sunk in this region, excluding the Andrea Doria, and narrowly edging out the San Diego in tonnage.

The Algol is completely intact, upright, and huge. It would take several trips to fully explore it, without doing any penetrations. A good dive can be had on this wreck at almost any depth you want, from the top of the superstructure at 70 ft to the main deck at 110 ft to the sand at 140 ft. Since its sinking, currents have scoured out a hole around the hull that is significantly deeper than the 125 ft of the surrounding area.  The cargo holds are also quite deep, but are filling up with silt.

Since it was sunk as an artificial reef, considerable effort was put into cleaning and opening up the Algol before it was sunk. All windows and doors are removed, as well as the cargo hold hatches. As a consequence, there are many areas that can be penetrated easily, including much of the superstructure and the cargo holds. Because of its multi-level nature, the Algol is often used for advanced training dives.

No part of either the hull or the superstructure has even begun to collapse yet – even catwalks and railings are solidly in place. The superstructure is like a large three story building. The smokestack has been removed, leaving an ugly teardrop shaped scar which can be used to orient yourself. The fat end of the teardrop points toward the bow, and the narrow end points toward the stern. At the bow and stern, paired tubs for anti-aircraft guns are still evident. There is a large hole into the hold in the port-side hull near the sand below the superstructure, where a hull plate has fallen away.

Our second location was the Klondike Rocks site.  All along the coast there are natural rock formations in the otherwise sandy or muddy bottom of our underwater environment. The Shrewsbury Rocks are the largest and most well-known of these; the Klondike Rocks further south are similar but lower. Many others are not clearly defined, but are listed as “lumps” or ‘ridges” on fishing charts.

The Artificial Reef Program has greatly augmented the natural hard bottom of the region with millions of tons of dumped rock from construction and dredging projects.  These low outcroppings appear in small to large patches over a two mile area called the Klondike, and elsewhere, at depths ranging from 60 to 90 feet. The overhangs, crags, and holes afforded by the piles of rocks and boulders provide excellent homes for fish and lobsters. Visibility can be great here at times, but today it was in the range of 10-20 ft, mostly due to the silty bottom in most places. It’s easy to get lost here, so it was another dive for the reels to be employed to make sure we had our “breadcrumb trail” to get home. 

This site proved productive as we ended up with four nice bugs in the bag, and I missed a monster that had to be at least 10 pounds!   Our profile for this dive was 81 ft for a total run time of 60 minutes.  Bottom temp was in the 54 degree range, but we were toasty and warm in our Whites and DUI drysuits!