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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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……..

Keys, Keys everywhere…gotta dive ’em all!

It’s high time we visited the Conch Republic once again, and this time we’ll be enjoying the entire 120 miles of the chain.  Our week-long journey started early Monday morning  – well early for the Swartley’s that is!  Geeez Louisse, the were up and running at 3:00 a.m., and had their sleepover guest Csaba Lorinczy moving too! As might be expected, I took a more leisurely approach, deciding my original 8:45 flight was cutting into my chance to get some more work done, so I opted for 10:20, then finally decided to fly out on the 11:30 flight….gosh I love Delta and how they let me be, well, me!

I arrived at the airport with well over 20 minutes to spare before baggage check in was cut off, which in itself is pretty amazing for me!  So I parked and got shuttle over to the airport and walked up to the curbside check-in with my five bags, 3 of them at or close to 70 pounds.  Ruh-roh…none of my “regulars” were at the skycap stand!  This might not be good.  Some of these guys go back years with me, with my favorite being my friend Jackson, who actually took my car and drove it off site to a valet lot twice for me when I was running really, really tight on making a flight.  Left the keys there, took the shuttle back to work, and I picked it up at the lot when I returned.  Talk about service plus!

So I saunter up to the counter, make eye contact, tip money clearly viewable folded in my hand, and get the check in process started.   Well our friendly skycap must have been suffering from an acute visual problem today, cause the conversation went something like this: “Mr. Valaika, there is a two bag limit, so these extra bags are going to cost you $25 each”.  Well home boy, I might have been born at night, but it wasn’t LAST night!  How about we just hump these bags inside and I’ll deal with it there.  So I walk into the terminal, and who is there to greet me?  My two favorite girls from the Delta Crown Room, which is currently undergoing renovations, so they are working the ticket counter…talk about fate smiling down on David here!  As you might expect what’s a few extra bags and a few extra pounds between friends? Problem solved, let’s head to the gate!

The flights to Atlanta and then on to Fort Lauderdale were uneventful, and I arrived on time.  Grab the bags, and head over to the Car Rental Center, a pretty nice arrangement where all of the major car rental outfits are located in one central complex right at the airport.  Well, almost all, I realize, as I walk inside and look at the marquee for the company  had chosen, based on a smokin’ price on an SUV for the week.  Hmmmm…seems my guys are located waaaay off the airport site.  What to do, what to do….well a little negotiation later, and I am driving off the lot with a bran spanking new Ford Escape with all the options, for less than what i was going to pay.  Amazing how this deal was not even close to available when I booked my reservation on line, but a little quality face time, and perhaps a dash of schmoozing, helped cement the deal.  Fate smiles again….let’s keep this up!

Well while I was traveling Csaba got in a couple of dives with Jim, Jess & DJ Swartley, while Lynn and Hannah did a little shopping.  This is Hannah’s checkout weekend, so we’ll be getting her in the water on Friday.  I arrived after they returned and picked up Csaba for our ride to Key West.  First stop, IVS-South, also known as Dave Hartman’s house, where we picked up our sets of doubles and stage bottles that we keep there for our more adventurous dives…can’t beat this for convenience!  100 miles later, and we are at the Key West Condo, where Matt & Jen Yaroch have already checked in a little earlier.  The team calls it an early night, and gets some rest  in preparation of tomorrow’s adventure.

Wednesday morning came and it looked like it had the makings of a glorious day.  THe sun was shining, the sky was clear, it was in the 80’s….all great except for how hard those flags were flapping on the shrimp boats in the harbor.  That pesky wind thing!  Makes the ocean so much less friendly!  Oh well, we are here to dive, so dive we must!

Todays diving was with Looe Key Dive Center, located at mile marker 27 on the Overseas Highway.  Check in was at 9:00 with a leisurely departure scheduled for 10 a.m.   We all got up and got prepared for the day.  This is where we learned a little more about Jen, specifically the amount of time she likes in the morning to get ready for the day.  Must be that NAUI thing, I don’t know.  We’ll avoid the details, but let’s just say we’ll be making a few adjustments in our timing for tomorrow a.m.!

In any case, we FINALLY loaded into the cars and motored back up Route 1 to Looe Key.  The folks at Looe Key Dive Center are great, and we got through our paperwork and boat loading in short order.  The boat was a bit crowded with a total of 46 divers and snorkelers on board. In addition to the mass of humanity, there was also the captain’s “kitchen”, basically his own personal concession stand where he’ll be cooking up Sloppy Joe’s and hot dogs, selling an array of snack foods, plus offering drinks, including margaritas and beer!  Now this is the way to run a dive boat – the heck with the crowding issue!

The wind was still a little brisk as we headed out on the 48 ft catamaran, and the seas a wee bit angry.  It was a little wet and a lot bouncy getting out and as we approached the dive site, the water was a hue of green that was strikingly similar to some of the folks on board at this point!  We tied up, geared up, and started the dance of working our way, in full gear, on a bouncing boat deck, from the stern, where the crew had all the divers sitting, through the crowd of snorkelers to the bow, where we were tied in.  Not sure about the planning process here, but we managed.  Splish, splash, we dropped in, and started down the line to the Adolphus Busch, a 210 ft long freighter sunk in 1998 as an artificial reef.  Covered with fish and laying nearly perfectly upright on the bottom at 120 ft, this wreck offers a lot of nice penetration opportunities through its length.  As our team approached the wreck, there was our first Goliath Grouper slipping down into a hole on the rear deck.  Camera on, I slipped right in behind him, and caught some video as he played cat and mouse with me through the myriad of piping, valves, fittings and machinery that was in the compartment.  Concern over entanglement issues?  Not when there is some nice video to shoot! I unwrap few hoses and finally extricate myself from the passageway – all good, still breathing.   Got a few nice shots, good way to start the dive!

While Jen & Matt opted for a topsides tour, while Csaba and I went straight through the belly of this wreck, squeezing through the various holes and cut outs, around the engines, in and out of the cargo holds, just exploring it all.  Unfortunately the viz sucked already, and the slightest errant move of your hand or fin inside just raised a cloud of fine silt up, bringing the already poor viz to near zero.  Sure sucks to be in the “second diver” position behind the guy with the camera – sorry Csaba!  Hmmmmm…..what a concept – might promote a camera sale here!  But we’re diving inside a wreck, so as long as we can see our way to the next turn or hole, we are cool with that.  We reached the bow, and then back tracked through the wreck.  Hitting 38 minutes of bottom time at 120 ft on our 28% EAN, my Cochran was still ready to explore, but my buddy’s Galileo said it was time to head up.  OK, what was the rule…follow the ‘least’ or ‘most’ conservative computer?  Hmmmm…….It was OK, so we began a nice 10 minute ascent, clearing the 3 minutes of deco obligation along the way up on my ‘puter, and then waiting until Csaba’s gave us the green light also. Thank goodness he wasn’t diving a Suunto!

However, no good dive trip is complete without some drama, so here’s today’s: unbeknownst to Csaba and I, the captain had already pulled the ladders, and was ready to release from the mooring, sure that no one was still in the water, let alone down diving the wreck.  As he began to call the roll, Matt shouted out “hey, some of us are still diving”!  Ooops – maybe they should wait for the two of us.  Ladders are dropped back down, and sure enough, 15 minutes later the last two pokey divers pop up onto the surface, and Csaba and I swim over to the boat, ignorant of the fact that we were so close to being abandoned at sea!  Ignorance is bliss, and we’re still smiling when Matt shares the story with us.  No harm, no foul…ready to keep on diving!

Back on board, the captain had the grill going full blast, and lunch was being served.  First class indeed, in spite of the near miss on the abandonment thing,  and if the boat had only been a little less crowded, this would have really been great!  But we managed, and the good news is that a lot of the fish feeders managed to refill their bellies in preparation of providing some more topside entertainment.  Cruel, I know, but so fun to watch!

As the number of fish feeders at the rails had increased, it was time to get some of these folks in the water!  We moved the slight distance over to Looe Key Reef, and the waves were literally breaking over this barely submerged island.  We jumped in for our second dive at the site called ‘The Nursery’ while the snorkelers splashed around us, braving the less than ideal conditions.  As one might suspect, the viz sucked, the surge was strong, and the max depth was about 25 ft, so there was no escaping it for us.  We managed to hang for 45 minutes in hopes of spotting something cool, but that was not meant to be today.

Enough of that, we moved the boat about a hundred yards to a site called ‘Shark Alley’.  Conditions here were, amazingly, the same as they were 300 feet away – what a surprise!  But we still dove, and though the snorkelers numbers were waning, some still managed to get in and play.  Another half hour and we had had enough, and called the dive for the day.

It was back on board now when Csaba pointed out a chilling fact to me – on most IVS trips, some of our hardier divers manage to earn the ADD award….that stands for All Dives with Dave.  Well it seems that on this trip, there is the potential for another level of award, and Csaba is in the lead….MDD, or ‘More Dives than Dave’.  Seems his strategy of heading down early with the Swartleys managed to let him get in two dives before I got in town!  Now I am thinking of strategies, maybe a covert night dive or two, to get my numbers back up on this trip!

Back at the dock there was a nice ending to the Looe Key experience – when you check back in after your trip, they give you a coupon for a free drink at their Tiki Bar next door, plus they offer you the use of their pool to relax and enjoy a few more hours of your day.  Well what marketing genius is this at work here?  Of course we’ll take the free drinks, and of course, once we are seated at the bar, we’ll order a few more.  Had they not baited us with the free drink, we would have simply gotten in our car and headed back to wherever we came from.  These guys get high marks from me for thinking outside the box, and cross promoting their businesses.  Now my wheels are turning….how do we get some free drink or appetizer coupons from some of our local establishments to further enhance the social aspect of our diving community?  Can you picture the folks from IVS actually heading out to a bar or pub after a class or day of diving?  How cool would that be?  What a concept!!  Stay tuned for updates on this one as we begin to conduct our research!

After some generous support of the local establishment, we head on back to casa IVS-Key West, and freshen up for dinner next door at the Hogfish Bar & Grille.  Talk about convenient, great music, good food, cold drinks – and all about thirty steps from our front door!  Dinner was good, the conversation was great, Jen’s color returned – all good stuff.  Great day overall, and looking forward to tomorrow’s diving on the Vandenberg.

Thursday morning came and we had agreed to talk to Captain Chris at 10 in the morning since the weather looked like it would be improving through the day, so an afternoon trip was in order. Csaba, Jen & Matt headed out for breakfast and some tank filling. And we are being treated to some special entertainment, as the Navy’s Blue Angels are here for an air show this weekend, and are practicing all day and coming in and out of the Naval Air Station Key West which is located practically next door to the condo.  These guys are screaming in low right over the harbor and the docks, flying solo, in formations, all sorts of cool stuff.  This is actually the second time that Team IVS has been treated to an impromptu air show, as we enjoyed the Blue Angels in Pensacola last spring while we were there to dive the Oriskany.  I am suspecting maybe these Navy pilots might be secret IVS groupies!  Very cool!

So we had a pre-dive meeting this morning, to go over the planning for the day, especially things like timing of the boat departure, since it was such a contentious subject yesterday.  We spoke, slowly & clearly, and tried to keep it as mono-syllabic as possible, in deference to our NAUI listener.  The boat is picking us up right at the condo so all we have to do is walk out the front door and climb aboard – sweet!  Our mission for today is a 3-tank journey, with the first two stops being on the Vandenberg, followed by a third location to be determined.  Csaba and the crew headed over to get our tanks filled at Sub Tropic Dive Center, our local support shop for things Key West, and while they were out they enjoyed a sumptious breakfast at IHOP.  Csaba enjoyed the strawberry pancakes, Matt had a big fat omellette PLUS pancakes, while Jenn laid down a base layer of pancakes, sausage and home fries, sure to delight our finned friends in a few hours out at sea! I know, so cruel…yet so true!

The face of IVS South has joined us this morning, as Dave Hartman drove down from the upper Keys to dive the V-berg with us. The weather is laying down, the seas are calming, and the afternoon is looking great! Capt. Chris shows up at 1:30, and we load the boat up right in front of the condo.  It’s a small boat, a 26 ft Glacier Bay catamaran, so rather than struggling with limited space on board, we opt to set up our gear on the dock and don our wetsuits too.  Once everything is set up, we motor through the harbor and in less than 5 minutes we are on the ocean.

Well the winds had subsided a bit, but were still going at about 15 knots out of the south, which meant they had plenty of chances to influence the waves on the sea.  Our six mile run to the Vandenberg was one rough ride to say the least.  We enjoyed some nice sightseeing on the way out, as the Blue Angels continued to wow us with precision maneuvers out over the ocean.  There were also many turtles out too, and a fwe major schools of Portugese men-o-war to pass through, glad we saw them on the ride out and not while we were diving!  As we approached the wreck, there was something floating in the water, almost invisible yet there, and we slowly motored up to investigate.  Well my oh my, it was a free diver in camoflouge, hangin out with his speargun.  No marker, no float, nothing to keep us from accidently running right over his butt – what an idiot!

So after a bit of a heated exchange between our captain and the offender, we tied up to the mooring ball and prepared our descent.  The current was, shall we say, ripping at the surface, so we tied off a granny line to the mooring to assist us as we entered the water.  Not the best conditions but we were here to dive, so dive we must!

Let me take a moment and sing some praise for Miss Jenn.  This was a trip of nothing but firsts for this woman, and she took every single one in perfect stride.  Yesterday was her first wreck dive ever, and her first bout of seasickness.  Today was not only her second wreck dive, but her first back roll off a small boat, first experience with strong currents, first dives over 100 feet, first wreck penetration, and unfortunately, her second session of seasickness.  As noted above, our finned friends loved her!

OK, I digress….so we splashed, and fought hand over hand up the granny to the seriously bouncing mooring ball, trying to avoid a face full of that as we swung our arms around it to grab the line down to the wreck.   The first 25 ft or so of descent was a real kick, with each of us hanging on like flags on a windy day, literally straight out from the mooring line.  What a ride, and you could see the thrill in Jenn’s eyes…ok, well maybe I interpreted it as the look of thrill!  Or disbelief…or terror…but it was a cool look!

Amazingly though, as we dropped closer to the wreck the current became less and less forceful, so we were able to really enjoy the dive at deck level. The viz was probably in excess of 100 ft on this dive, and one of the first things that greeted us was a large turtle swimming by, not more than 10 or 12 feet from us, checking us out and not minding us being there at all.  Great start!  From there we swam up to the bridge, enjoyed penetrating that area, dropped out onto the starboard side deck, worked our way under the dish antenna, and slowly returned to our starting point.  The bio-mass on the wreck was tremendous today, with multiple schools of silverside baitballs all around, hungry schools of amberjack on the prowl, oodles of barracuda, humongous parrot fish, crustaceans, shrimp, the list goes on.

Csaba and Dave H had done their own tour of the wreck while I dove with Jenn and Matt, and after I escorted those two back to the mooring line, I did a bit of touring on my own.  After a nice 45 minute run time with a max depth of 120 feet I surfaced, and the rest of the gang was back on the boat.  So much back that Dave and Csaba had already accumulated 25 minutes of surface interval.  I had to ask them if they intended to actually log that as a dive!  I couldn’t be too harsh on them, as Csaba, ever the supportive one, was somewhat green ala Jenn.  What a team player he is!

So by now, 10 minutes of surface interval had passed, and my Cochran was indicating that it was time to dive again!  And Jenn was not doing well so it was time to get dive #2 under way and minimize the agony for her.  So come on boys, let’s get our gear switched over, get dressed, get in the water……geeesh!  We finally splashed for our second dive, and I had taken on the responsibility to bring Matt back as directed by his bride – oh the pressure!  I asked Matt if he wanted to do something  a little scary on this dive, and before he could answer, you can imagine the response I got from Jenn.  OK, Plan B….

So we headed down and this time toured the stern, coming upon a grouper about 6 ft long there, plus more of everything.  We dropped down into a cargo hatch, and entered one of the decks at 125 ft, taking in the galley, kitchen prep areas, and some storage rooms before heading back topsides.  We hit  few more areas along the deck, and then it was time to head back to the mooring.  There was Csaba and Dave already on the line so our timing was good.  Nice slow descent, some 50% EAN to clean up the tissues a bit, and we finally surfaced after a 40 minute run.   Another good dive in the books.

Now here I took the time for another sensitive moment, thinking of poor Jenn sitting this great dive out up top.  As we headed back across the deck to the mooring, I noticed a nice size conch shell sitting there, intact, sans conch.   What a great souvenier this will make, I thought, let me just sneak up on it and make sure no one is living inside.  Looks good, no hermit crab legs hanging out, no damsel fish hovering, looks like a green light for me.  So, I pick up the shell, give it one good look, smile at my good fortune finding it sitting there, and even take the time to rub off the algae on it.  This will look nice in her house, and should be a nice reminder of her second wreck dive!  Now, where to put it, as I am sure I will need both hands to manage the ascent line and my stage bottle in this current. So I pull the top of my wetsuit out at the neck, and drop the shell in on my chest for safe keeping.   Now as I do that, I am thinking, I DID check that no one was living there inside, right?  Yes, yes, of course I did.

So what is that scratching I am feeling as I move up the ascent line?  I am sure it is just he edge of the shell against my skin, so I wiggle the shell a little through my wetsuit, make some adjustments, twist a little, there, I am sure the scratching has stopped.  Nice slow ascent, man is that scratching again?  Nah, just ust be some sand in my wetsuit, cause now it is my stomach that is itchy.  I give it a rub through the suit, there, better now.  Move up to the next stop in my ascent, man is that itching on my side now? Nah, it is psychological I am sure..let me give it a good firm rub through the suit…there, all better.

I surface now, swim up to the boat, quick check for stinging jellyfish, all clear, so let’s get the fins off and work our way to the ladder.  Man the current is strong, so the focus is on that.  Fins off, hand them up to the captain, get the stage bottle off, pass that up, ok, one, two , I am up the ladder and on the boat.  There is poor Jenn looking green, but I have just the thing to make her smile!  I reach into my wetsuit and pull out my shell for her, and hand her the souvenier.  She smiles, then says “oh my god, what is that in there?”.  Well gosh it is a bristle worm, hmmmmmmm.  We shake it out onto the dec, being careful to avoid touching it’s stinging bristles located all along each side of his body.  Now I am thinking, has that itching, burning sensation returned?  Well yes, in fact it has…I gotta get out of this wetsuit!!!    Slip out of the backplate, help me unzip, let’s pull this thing down…..what’s that red welt trail heading down my chest and belly?  Why it’s the track of the second bristle worm that lived in the conch shell, and he was less than impressed with my decision to relocate his home.  Help me get the rest of this suit off, dang that is burning, and man those welts are big!  I am grimacing, hoping Jenn will eventually like her new shell! Making notes to myself to review this decision in greater detail, once the burning has stopped!

Well the seas had not laid down at all, and we opted to blow off the third dive and get back to port with our team.  Once we tied up we enjoyed a few brewskies dockside with our captain, and then loaded the gear into our cars.  Jenn & Matt are spending the weekend (and their anniversary) in Key West, Dave H is heading home, and Csaba and I are driving back up to Key Largo to join the rest of the gang for a weekend of diving, Amoray style.  But before we could get there, we had one last stop, on Big Pine Key – the No Name Pub, highly recommended by Joyce Kichman from her days residing in Key West.  Not easy to find, but great when you do, it was hopping!  The food was great, the drinks cold, and the staff was a lot of fun to be with. Another great place in the Keys on our list!

Friday morning at Amoray, and we are reunited with the Swartley gang, plus Cindy Eisenhauer, Brian Montague, Larry Gilligan and Barb Hill (White) have joined us for the weekend.  Unfortunately there will be a slight delay this morning, as the Amoray Diver had developed some sort of fuel problem yesterday, but the mechanic is here, and soon enough the engines are purring like kittens.  Barb, Hannah and I are heading over to Jules Lagoon for Hannah’s first couple of dives, and the rest of the gang are going to brave the ocean.  There is still a bit of a breeze going but nothing to sweat about – the day should be good!  We’ll be reporting back on that in a few!

Barb, Hannah and I headed over to Jules to get Ms H’s certification process going, while the rest of the gang headed out to the reefs.  We had a great morning, and even though Hannah was a bit anxious over the whole thing, it worked out well.  The conditions at Jules were near perfect.  We were the only folks there, the visibility was the best it has even been – well over 20 feet, and the water was clear!  We had a couple of nice dives, completed a bunch of skills, and I even got quite a few photos since the viz was so good.  Meanwhile the remainder of Team IVS enjoyed visits to South South Ledges and Mike’s Wreck for a great morning.

Hannah, Barb & I enjoyed lunch at Hobo’s to celebrate a good morning, then we headed back to meet up with the group for the afternoon dive.  Our first stop was the Spiegel Grove, followed by the Benwood.  Let’s talk about this Spiegel dive….

We had a couple of groups set up, with Dave Hartman taking Barb W on a wild and wooly interior tour.  Csaba hooked up with DJ & Jim Swartley for a “mild” tour. And finally, since Sue could not make this trip, I was nominated to lead the “Lame-O” tour (yes, spelled by holding your fingers in the shape of an ‘L’ on your forehead).   My group consisted of Jess, Lynn, Cindy, Larry and a Wes (not one of ours!).

First, to add to the excitement, the moorings we desired on the wreck were all taken, so we opted to tie into one of the upcurrent stern balls and I jumped in with a granny line, and swam it back and across to the port crane ball, where the Florida Keys Dive Center boat was hooked in.  My group splashed, and one by one they worked their way across the line, battling the current, and finally all SIX of us were gathered and ready to descend.  We started down, keeping a fairly tight formation on the line, and we reached the crane.  It only took a couple of minutes for the last two guys to finally arrive, while of course we were burning pressure gas.  OK, let’s get this party started!

So we drop to the deck, and begin our way forward, exactly as we briefed.  Jess was my buddy, Lynn & Cindy were coupled, and finally Larry and new guy Wes were bringing up the rear.  We got to the superstructure and I took role, only to find we were now FOUR.  Geez friggi’ Louise, how can you lose two people in a straight swim no more than 50 yards long?  OK, I turn back, and find Larry, who has lost his partner.  I give him the official WTF sign, and he shakes his head, not sure where Wes has gone.  So, I gather the group and we being our way back. Larry re-appears, still alone, but Csaba materializes, so I write on my slate that i have lost two already, and he understands, and knows where they might be found.  I pass responsibility for them to him, and turn to continue the tour with the ladies.  So, now that we are down to approx 2,000 psi, I opt to not penetrate forward, but to cross the wreck to the starboard side.  Well there is a hole there i the deck, about 8 feet square, that you could drive your car through, so I figure, what can go wrong here?  I signal the girls we are going in, it is only a one room penetration, in the roof, out the back – sounds simple, eh?  Jess follows me, then Cindy, finally Lynn.  Remember – this hole is at least 8 feet square!

So, out pops Jess, then Cindy, and Lynn, so we are good to go, and head towards the starboard rail to the crane, where I intend to cross over the port side and to our mooring line.  I turn, there is Jess & Cindy, right where they should be, but now the count is THREE, and where on earth is Lynn?  So, I scan the area, and she is a little above us, and I signal in in uncertain terms to get down here – now!  My signals fall upon deaf ears (eyes?) cause Lynn is just drifting off into the blue……..my goodness gracious, what else can go wrong here?

So, like the 7th Cavalry, who appears but Csaba, who has taken my last two lost souls to the line, and I pass Cindy and Jess off to him, so I can head out in search of the Lynn-ster.  I swim all the way forward, and she is nowhere to be found.  I am thinking, how could she have had such good buoyancy control just moments ago and then decided to do an Un-CESA, sailing to the surface without regard to anything we have worked so hard to instill in her!  So, I do a little forensic diving, and sure enough, there is one of her weight pouches laying in the one little room we had gone through. I am thinking, as I look at the hole as big as the opening in roof of the old Dallas Cowboys stadium that we entered, how could you get caught up and lose your weights here?  Oh well, let’s go find Lynn.  So, heading back to our mooring line, it’s a quick ascent up, thank goodness I am packing a 50% Nitrox mix in my stage bottle to help compensate for the lack of appropriate safety stops.  I pass by Csaba and the girls on the line, on my mission.  I am thinking the worst – who is going to cover the store when Bev is diving with us?  And who will head up the Dive In Fest committee?   This woman is irreplaceable – we need to find Lynn!

So I surface and scan about, and who’s bright pink BCD do I see way over there on the Island Ventures boat?  Hmmmmm….can’t be too many of those out here.   I swim over to recover our little lost soul, and thank Ann and the Island Ventures crew for allowing Lynn the chance to to rest and catch her breath on their vessel.  Oh the shame….how will I extract repayment from Lynn for this faux paux?

Finally I have my entire group of SIX back on board and we can move to our next location, the Benwood.  Jess is my bud, along with Barb.  I pass Lynn off to her husband, and inform her that it would be healthy for her to breath down my bottle of EAN50 on her ascent, so I tell her halfway through the dive I will be passing it to her.  The girls and I splash, and it is a great dive.  So much to see, huge trumpet fish, lobsters, lizard fish, scorpion fish, Peterson’ shrimp, black grouper, file fish, fire clams, nassau grouper, sea pearls, Christmas tree worms, crabs, spotted morays…this place is hopping with fish and marine life!

We have a great dive, 50 minutes at 42 feet, and could have enjoyed it longer, but the boat needed to get home.    Once back on shore it was time for blog updates, and then we headed over to casa Hartman for an evening of mixed drinks, good video, and great commeradie.  From there most of us headed to the Paradise Pub for burgers, and Dave H brought the house down with his rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way during the karaoke contest.  Job well done!

Saturday now, and what a most beautiful day.  Sky is clear and blue, winds are gone,temperature is perfet – exactly like IVS ordered!  Hannah picked our first location today, Key Largo Dry Rocks, also known as Christ of the Abyss.  Viz was great, no waves, current or surge, just a beautiful dive.   Second location was North North Dry Rocks where the great conditions continued.  Lots of critters, crabs, nudibranchs, lobster, the usual cast of characters.  Clear sky overhead and a very sunny day mad for super natural lighting for underwater photography.

Back for lunch and a quick turnaround, and we headed out for the Spiegel Grove.  Only one boat was on the wreck, so we had our pick of the mooring balls.  My group today was the 60% of the Swartley family that can be classified as adventurous – DJ, Jess & Jim.  Our plan was to keep it shallow and work the upper decks with some penetration and that is exactly what we did, keeping it around 70 ft.  A very large Goliath Grouper was laying on the deck, allowing us to approach quite closely to check him out.  Jess spotted a few large sea cucumbers, some big bristle worms, and a crab.  Great dive, and we hit the mooring line just as Jess dropped below 1,000 psi, so the three of them headed up.  Csaba had just finished his deep adventure dive with Brian, so he hooked up with me and took the lead on a little extended tour for the two of  us.  As we finished our tour and approached the mooring line he was 4 minutes into deco on his Galileo, while I still had 8 minutes of no deco bottom time available on my Cochran.  At that moment who swims by but Hartman, so gosh, let’s go on part three of this dive adventure! Csaba opts out since his computer is already not happy, and Dave and I head back inside, deeper, to play and explore.  I still have 1,500 psi in my 120, so I am good for gas.  We end up with 47 minutes of bottom time at 110 feet, and start up the line to satisfy our mild deco obligations.  I clear at 15 feet and Dave clears three minutes later, so we are good to go – 60 minute run times on the wreck!

From there it’s a short hike to the Benwood, and most splash right away when we get there.  Cindy has to complete her Rescue Diver open water scenarios, so we enlist DJ and Jim to help out while Barb offers to provide in-water observation.  Cindy was wiped from the surface tow and took more than a few minutes to recover, but we managed to get her back in the water for a half hour therapy dive.  Let’s just say that I didn’t have the heart at that moment to share with her that I felt we needed to repeat this exercise again tomorrow!  The dive ws very nice, with a huge green moray for us in the anchor locker, and the usual cast of characters across the wreck.

The wind had been picking up and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees on our ride back in, but we are hopeful that the boat will be running back out for our night dive!  Well as it turns out, NOAA is late in posting the evening weather conditions & forecast, so we decide to throw caution to the winds and sail.  Our choice is a good one, because while the wind is brisk, blowing at maybe 15 knots, it is coming from the northeast, so the seas are more than manageable.  We arrive on site well after dark, as a night dive should be!  My immediate team consists of Jim & DJK Swartley, and we splash on in for our dive.  As soon as we hit the wreck, into the forward anchor locker we go, to see how if our moray is still there.  Well gosh, it’s a little crowded in there as we slip in through the steel, not only with our moray but also with a large turtle who had checked into the room for the night.  Let’s jst say it was a little tight as the turtle was swimming was swimming around us, the moray pondering whether to bite or not, and DJ and I right in the middle of the tight quarters – cool!  Got a few nice pics’s there, and time to explore the rest of the wreck.  All sorts of nice activity about, all the large parrot fish in for the night, crabs eating, lobsters exploring, basket stars out in all their splendor, big puffers hanging under the structure….just a great dive!  Our group manages 64 minutes of sight-filled bottom time and finally it is time to head back up.  We motor back to the resort, and the fatigue must be setting in, as only Csaba, Larry and I manage to make it to the Paradise Pub for the customary post-night dive cheeseburger.

Sunday morning brings up more of the same great stuff, clear skies, balmy temperatures, and no wind – just like we ordered!  Time to head out and Csaba suggested we visit some of the less often visited reefs off Tavernier, namely Pickles Reef and Snapper Ledge – so we did!  We arrived at Pickles first, and had a great dive, very healthy reef structure, lots of life, some nurse sharks, large morays, I even got some nudibranch mating photos – woo hoo!  Second drop was Snapper, and wow were the fish in abundance here.  Utterly amazing how many fish can congregate in such an area, the clouds of snappers, grunts, and goatfish were thick!  This is a really nice reef, and we are thankful to Csaba for the suggestion this morning!  The weather stayed perfect, the sun kept shining, you could not ask for a nicer day on the ocean.

After lunch it was time for our signature double deep trip, visiting the Duane and then the Spiegel Grove again.  Our first drop was the Duane, and the mooring balls were limp in the water as we approached….who knows, might indicate no current below, or might just be a tease to get us into the water!  Hartman led a tour with Barb & Larry, while I took DJ, Jess & Jim with me.  Csaba reached out to another diver who he had befriended, and offered to be his guide & mentor on this site….what was Csaba thinking?  Clearly a  case of “not one of ours”, after various issues gearing up, he jumped in, promptly lost his weight belt and light, got fouled in the granny line, argued with the crew about their desire to have him re-board and get set back up, telling them all he needed to do was shove more weights in his BCD pockets, which, thankfully, they would not allow.  By the time he go back on he was spent, and then accosted the captain regarding the cost for the nitrox which he was now not using.  Whew!!  Good choice Csaba…….NOT.

Meanwhile, the rest of us enjoyed a great tour on this wreck, circumnavigating the entire ship, managing the 3 knot current well, great teamwork and communication skills, just a great dive.  After I sent my crew back up, I drifted off the stern to the sand to see if I could find the lost weight belt, but all I found was two HUGE Goliath Groupers checking me out way behind the ship.  I figured the belt was a lost cause so I took some pictures, shot some video, and worked my way back across the sand at 124 ft to the wreck and up to the mooring line.  Nice 40 minutes of bottom time, minimal deco obligation, thank you Cochran!

Our second location was the Spiegel Grove, for our final dive of the weekend.  Teams remained the same, except Csaba’s new friend sat this one out, so he hung with the Hartman ‘Belly of the Beast” tour.  Our team did great, with DJ leading the descent, and the Swartley family just shining in all departments with communication, navigation and situational awareness throughout this dive.  Made me feel like a proud papa!  I basically followed them along, and once they were ready to go back up I made sure they found the ascent line.  After that I still had a few tissue groups that needed nitrogen, so I dropped down into the well deck, swam it all the way to the stern, dropped down the ramp, swam under past the props, crossed back over and swam the starboard deck back to the superstructure.  Another nice 40 minutes at 134 ft, and again, my Cochran kept me out of trouble, with an 8 minute deco obligation.  I joined Csaba on the line, and he had a little more time to hang as his Galileo is a tad more conservative than my computer.  All good, great hang, great dive, great way to wrap it up.

Once back at the dock we headed over to Rib Daddy’s for dinner.  There were about 14 of us there, including C. Lee from the Amoray front office, and Bob our mate all weekend.  Dinner was great, the conversation greater, lots of laughter and fun all around.  No one left hungry, that is for sure!  Awards were handed out, with Jim Swartley, Larry Gilligan, and Barb White earning the coveted ADD (All Dives with Dave) award.  There was also one other award handed out, one that we hope does not repeat in the near future – the MDD (More Dives than Dave) recognition given to Csaba, who managed to get in 20 this weekend, versus Dave’s piddly 18 dives.  Trust me, this won’t happen again!!!!

Monday and the crew headed home, with a few staying another day to relax after a super weekend of diving and playing in the Keys.  We’ll be back soon!

Tec diving, Key West style!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now it is Sunday, and the wind is still kicking, so most of the boats are headed west to the reefs.  The water is still too rough for Florida Strait’s boat, so Chris calls around to find us someone bold enough to take us south to the Vandenberg.  As the day progresses, most afternoon boats cancel due to the conditions.  OK, one boat available, $300 is the ransom for the ride in the washing machine…..no thanks!  Looks like we’ll be wrapping up this training in May!  Time to check the airline for earlier flight options home.   

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IVS Invades the Keys – again!

If it’s December it must be time for Indian Valley Scuba to invade the Florida Keys one more time.

Twenty four of us headed down Thursday to one of our favorite dive destinations, Key Largo, for a long weekend of diving, fun and laughter.  Some of the gang headed down a day early, and by tonights night dive we had 5 divers and 3 riders on the boat.  We headed out at 6 o’clock for a very nice dark night dive and tied up to the Benwood wreck.  Meredith Bernardo and I enjoyed a nice hour-long dive on this wreck, running right into a turtle to kick it off, then a big southern stingray, lots of lobsters, crabs, basket stars, spiny urchins, shrimp, sleeping parrot fish, spotted drums, feeding tube anemones, puffer fish and more.  At the same time, Pam Schools, Chris Muller, and Andy McConaghie, representing Dive NY, enjoyed a nice dive on the reef adjacent to the wreck…tell me again, what was that part in the briefing about going down the mooring line to make sure you find the wreck?  Hmmmm….looks like we’ll be helping them out  with a few navigation pointers over the weekend.  None the less, everyone had a great time, and the trip is off to a good start!  We followed that up with a nice snack at the Paradise Pub, joined by Katie Chin, Steph Skelton, and Jesica & Sheril Tyre.  Dave Hartman joined us along with his friend Seth, an independent film maker in town to work with our friend Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation – amazing small world!  Even cooler, our group represented the far and wide reaches of the IVS family, with Ohio, California, Florida, New Jersey & New York divers in attendance on this trip. 

Ruh-Roh!  Friday morning came and so did the rain!  It was absolutely pouring this morning – so unlike the weather we had ordered!  Oh well, we’re here to dive, so dive we must!  The rest of the gang had showed up during the night, including Brian, Mary & Dan Young, Kim Luisi, Dave McLaughlin, Alex Cajkovich, Nikolina Cejvan, Luke Miller, Rick Jurewicz, David & Katie Manninen, and Felix Gryn.  Most of us had managed to arrive uneventfully, but Luke & Rick had the pleasure of meeting one of the locals on the way down from the airport, as she nailed the back of their rental car, ripping the whole rear bumer off!  That’ll make for some ‘splaining to do at the Rental Return counter!  After introductions and hugs, the boat headed out with most of the gang, while Sue and her students, accompanied by Meredith and I, headed over to Jules Undersea Lodge.  Our dives there were great, all skills completed with panache, and we were greeted with lobster everywhere, and even a sleeping nurse shark, right there in the lagoon.  This team is ready to take on the ocean!  Meanwhile, the guys on the boat were hammered by the rain, but still managed to get two decent dives in.  

Friday afternoon we headed back out, with the Speigel and Benwood our wrecks of choice and in spite of the snotty seas, the dives were quite nice.  Decent viz and no current on the Spiegel, so the trip was definately worth it – and most of us were graced with a visit from one of the huge Goliath Groupers that call the Speigel Grove home.  Our second drop was the Benwood, and although the vis was down a little, still a really nice dive to wrap up our first full day of diving in Key Largo. 

Time for a short dinner and we head out for a Friday night dive, moved up a night because the boat parade is Saturday night.  As we load the boat the trees are sorta whistling overhead, so it is not a good sign.   Not ones to give up easily, we head out to sea, hoping for the best.  The whitecaps in the bay might be a bad sign, but we soldier on, eternal optomists that we be!  We pass thru Adam’s Cut, and head out into the open sea.  The whitecaps grow a little but it’s still OK, we keep a positive attitude!  The waves are sorta breaking over the front of the boat…OK….maybe this is getting worse…..OK…we have to slow down even further…..OK…..finally prudence overcomes the desire to dive, and we decide to turn around and call it a (diveless) night. Funny thing was that somehow Katie lost her underwear on this non-dive, and there were reports that Andy had some ‘splaining to do with his laundry the next morning……

Saturday morning came upon us and so did the rain.  The winds have been blowing all night at 25 knots plus, so the conditions on the reefs and the sea reflect all that energy that nature has been throwing at us all night long.  Early reports indicate that it sucks out there, so we decide to hold off on the morning trip.  Finally the winds are down to about 18 knots, so we decide to head out at noon for a three tank trip.  We are diving in standard IVS reverse profile mode, doing two reef dives followed by a deep one to the Speigel Grove.  We head out to French Reef, the deepest of the local reefs,  and hope for the best.  As it turns out the vis is under 20 ft, so keeping the group intact is quite the challenge.  We manage none the less, and our open water candidates truly shine in the less-than-optimal conditions.  Two nice reef dives, and then a Nitrox-enhanced dip onto the Speigel Grove, with conditions approaching perfect – what a pleasant surprise indeed!  It is truly amazing what a difference of a mile or two can make with regards to the conditions on and under the water.

Finally it is time for the big holiday celebration, and our token house mother Stephanie has been busy all day shopping and prepping for tonights bayside feast.  Seth steps up to the role of grillmaster, and he does a splendid job preparing the meats to everyone’s liking.  Burgers, dogs, fixin’s, sides, salads – Steph has outdone herself making this a special holiday treat!  And no holiday celebration would be complete with a visit from the big man himself, and we were not disappointed at all, as Santa (aka yours truly), assisted by his lovely elf Meredith, joined the party and helped spread the holiday cheer.  And we were joined by DiveNY’s own Chris Muller, who was fully dressed in his holiday pixie (or was that elf?) smock.  Amy Slate joined our party with a group of her friends, so it was a great evening for all.  We were even joined by former astronaut Scott Carpenter, who is a fellow member of the Explorers Club and shared some of his amazing stories with us.  And in keeping with the international flavor that IVS embraces, we had cerveza’s from many nations oveflowing from our coolers to celebrate the holiday event.  Some of those libations might be behind the rumored theft (or as they call it in New York, a ‘relocation’) of one of the Amoray golf carts – we’re not naming names here, but how it ended parked in front of Katie’s door that night might be a good place for CSI-Key Largo to start the investigation. 

Finally Sunday morning dawned, and so did that fantastic weather we had ordered.  Clear skies, beautiful sun, and flat seas were the order of the day!  We headed out to two nice dives on the Elbow, starting with the City of Washington, where we got to crash another Creature Feature feed being conducted by our friends at Slates Atlantis Dive Center.  Huge grouper interaction, but alas, no sharks today.  We also ran a little Fish ID class on this great wreck, but it’t tough to focus when the 300 lb grouper keeps bumping into you.  We then motored over to the Train Wheel Wreck, where conditions were a little snottier and the surge a little stronger.  Still a good dive, viz was great, and we all enjoyed another 60 minute dive in Key Largo.

After a brief lunch and a quick turnaround at the dock, we sailed out for our final afternoon of diving, which was a double deep adventure to the Duane and the Speigel Grove.  Conditions on the Duane were fantastic, with the exception of the current, which was absolutely ripping!   Talk about a baptism of fire for our newest divers – what a ride it was indeed!  A good briefing prepared everyone for the worse, and without exception the group had a fantastic dive, even enjoying some precautionary air sharing to ensure that ample gas supplies were available for the ascent and return to the Amoray Diver.  The viz was forever, and the fish life abundant, so all in all a great dive – but the descent and ascent were a rush!   The best part was the ‘spider man crawl’ down the front of the Duane’s wheelhouse.  Of course, after Dave jumped over the rail and headed down, Katie Chin was trying to figure out how to follow, with her significantly shorter arms not quite reaching like Dave’s did – but the rest of the group enjoyed watching her crawl over the rail, one leg at a time, and finally make it down to the main deck where Dave was patiently waiting.  All good, everyone ascended without incident, while experiencing diving in some real serious current conditions, and another great dive under our belts.

Our second location was the Speigel Grove, and again, what an amazing difference a couple of miles can make.  Nearly no current, great viz, a huge turtle putting on a show at the surface for us, and another fantastic dive.  Again, our newest divers performed fantastically, with lots of nice comfortable planned penetrations into the wreck – welcome to the world of IVS!  And, never to overlook a break-thru moment, Sheril Tyre was finally comfortable enough in her diving on this second visit to the Speigel to relax and pee in her wetsuit – amazing how the little things come together!  Thank goodness it was an Amoray rental!     

We wrapped up the trip with dinner at the Conch House, and our guest of honor was Sue who was celebrating her birthday today in perfect style – underwater and surrounded by friends!  And talk about making it an even more perfect birthday party, we had the Eagles on the big screen and watched as they kicked NY butt (sorry Dive NY’ers!) and cemented undisputed first place in the NFC East conference!  On top of that San Diego put the Cowboys in their place, and the Browns even embarrassed the Steelers with a win – great day for the IVS football fans in attendance (again, sorry Dive NY!).  And of course it was time for the graduation ceremony, as we congratulated our newest PADI National Geographic Open Water Divers Jesica & Sheril Tyre, and Luke Miller, our newest PADI Deep Divers Dave & Katie Manninen, and our newest PADI Enriched Air Diver Alex Cajkovich.  Finally, we announced the winners of the coveted ADD (All Dives with Dave) Award – Meredith Bernardo &  Andy McConaghie – way to go guys! 

Monday saw most of the group head home, while Felix, Pam, Chris, Andy, Dave Hartman and Dave V took a scenic ride to Key West, with the destination being the wreck of the Vandenberg.  We met up with Chris Norwood, owner of Florida Straits Diving, and one of the significant players in the actual sinking of the Vandenberg.  Our first stop was our newest Keys lodging choice, a waterfront condo on Stock Island, from where we’ll be basing our Key West op’s for 2010.  The condo is first class, and located right next to the Hogfish Bar & Grille, a great local hangout.  We settle in and then head downtown to get this diving started!

As it turns out the wind has been kicking pretty strong all morning, so rather than beat ourselves up on Chris’s boat, we all jump onto the Lost Reef Adventures boat for the double dip on the Vandie.  I had arranged for our good friend and Vandenberg project manager Joe Weatherby to be our tour guide for some deep and dark journeys through the wreck and he was ready to show off his baby.  We dropped in as two groups, with Andy, Felix, Chris M and Pam enjoying a self-guided tour, and Joe, Chris N, Dave H and myself set for some serious ‘learning the lay of the land’ touring.  Down we went, with 80 ft or better visibility, 80 degree water, and zero current for our first dive.  We dropped in the forward cargo hatch shaftway, dropping down to the 4th deck at 134 ft, then beginning our tour towards the stern.  We passed through room after room, zigging left and right, around equipment, shelving, and furniture, finally exiting at the beginning of the engine rooms.  We move up to the main deck, and Joe and Chris head for the ascent.  Dave H and I are fine with our gas and deco obligations, so we head aft, circling the stern, and then work our way forward, circling the bow also – that 540 ft of wreck – you can tell there is no current when you can do that on a dive!  We work our way back towards the moring line, and finally surface after a 50 minute, 134 ft deep dive – first class!  And my personal thanks to Mike Cochran and his team for developing the algorithm that makes dives like this possible!

We enjoy a brief surface interval, which was not brief enough, if you ask Chris Muller  – cause the entire time we got to enjoy local divemaster-candidate (and Speedo wearing) Tom ogling Chris’s manly physique.  Hey, we’re in Key West, and if this thing with Pam doesn’t work out, at least Chris knows he has options!  Finally, enough of that, we descend again, this time dropping right down onto the wreck, and touring the weather balloon storage garage, complete with basketball backboard, then down into the hydraulic steering room, out and under the rudder, hitting the sand at 144 ft, popping into the engine room and winding our way through the myriad of catwalks, piping and ductwork there, through the tank room, and finally out the side, then up into the berthing area.  Another great dive, 40 minutes of bottom time, and back on the boat with nearly 1500 psi left in my 120 – almost sacriligous, if not for that deco obligation part!   As we head back to port we enjoy a beautiful sunset, two cruise ships leaving port, lobster boats heading out to check their traps, sail boats all over the harbor – almost a Norman Rockwell scene, with an IVS twist of course! 

Back to the condo, we gussie up a bit, and head over to the Hogfish for a bite to eat, then some of the crew head back into town for dessert while Felix and I decide to crash at the condo for the evening and enjoy some Monday night football, another great surprise as the Niner’s kick butt in Arizona.

Tuesday morning Pam, Andy, and “Tom-bait” Chris head back up to Miami to catch their flights home, and Felix and I have one more day of diving.  Our mission today is to visit the USS Curb, a WWII naval salvage tug that sits in 220 feet of water off Key West.  This is another exploratory dive for our IVS tech trip schedule for next year, and we’re excited about getting our first chance to dive this intact and upright wreck.  Our second destination will be back at the Vandenberg to wrap up a great weekend of diving.  The winds have dropped down to 10 knots, and the seas are relatively flat, helping to ensure a great afternoon of diving.

It’s going to be a late start as our dive buddy and local celebrity Joe Weatherby is being honored by the local chamber of commerce this morning for his work in the Vandenberg project.  Finally we head over to fil tanks, choosing mixes of 24% and 32% nitrox for our two dives.  Load the boat, prepare the rigging with 300 ft of down line, a heavy grapple hook, and a big poly ball float, and we’re ready to head out.  It’s about a  40 minute run to the Curb, and we run right over the wreck, watching it pop up from the bottom on the sonar.  We make three passes over it before our hook finally grabs the wreck, and we gear up and head down.  Conditions are great, but the sun is quickly setting, so it’s a bit dark as we approach the wreck.  The deck sits at 170 ft, so by the time we have dropped in, explored the engine rooms and lower chambers we are pushing 180 ft on this dive.  There are scores of big black groupers on this wreck, huge horse eye jacks, and a school of really large bar jacks working a silverside bait ball at the bow.  The wreck is covered with monofilament and fishing nets, so it’s an entanglement nightmare, but we’re careful and avoid snagging ourselves.  With the depth, our planned run time is 20 minutes, and it passes all too quickly.  Felix has already started to head up, and Joe is accumulating major deco obligations, so it’s up to me to run down and untangle the grapple hook from the lines it is caught in.  Joe motions to just cut the line, but I can’t do that, heck, I love a challenge at depth!  So I drop down to the grapple, and carefully untangle the lines, netting, and ropes it is fouled in, finally achieving success and tieing the hook back on itself to avoid snagging something else.  I start up the line, with a 13 minute deco obligation, and my first stop at 50 ft.  Felix is well ahead of me, but Joe is using his “pink” computer today, and so I get to spend an additional 27 minutes of run time hanging with Joe and waiting for his computer to clear. By the time I surface it has been a total of 60 minutes since my descent – thank goodness for efficient breathing!

Back on board, we motor over to the Vandenberg, and the sun has long set now.  Fifty minutes of surface interval is more than enough, and we drop down on the great wreck again.  Our mission this time is to visit one of the more dangerous areas of the wreck, the laundry room.  Access is limited to a shaftway from above and one set of winding stairs within the room.  We enter the weather balloon hanger, and drop straight down the shaftway, into 125 feet of darkness, in a space that is barely one diver wide – talk about a cool rush!  Finally I am in the room, and Joe & Felix follow me, being super careful not to silt ourselves out.  We tour the space, and then locate the stairs and work our way up to the 3rd deck, where we make a long 350 ft run through the crew berthing areas, ending up right under the bridge.  One last narrow passage and it is total siltout, as Felix loses sight of me.  Through the cloud I can see him turn, looking up one passageway, then another, not seeing me straight ahead due to the silt.  He turns around, and I follow, signaling to Joe that our plan has just been modified.  I chase Felix back out through the silt until I finally catch him, and we head out to exit the ship and begin our ascent.  It’s so easy to get fouled up in a wreck, and the Vandenberg has more than it’s share of tight passageways and lots of Key West silt throughout the interior.  We end up with a 43 minute total run time on the wreck, and I manage to score a brass light fixture complete with an intact frosted lens!  Finally we reboard, and enjoy a pitch black ride back to port to wrap up a fantastic weekend of diving and adventure.

Now a quick rinse of the gear, and Felix and I make the 4 hour drive to Miami where we’ll spend the night and catch our flights home in the a.m.  We can’t wait to get back here and explore these wrecks again – February seems so far away!

 

 

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!