Dry Tortugas Liveaboard Trip Report

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

Day 4

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

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

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