Diving

Loving Cozumel in 2013 (February 2013)

This adventure started with an incredible family travel coincidence. Ann made reservations for me and her to spend a week snorkeling and scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico – a paradise for water sports (particularly scuba diving). We are to arrive on February 20th and depart on February 27th.

A day after Ann made the reservations, we learned from my mom that my two sisters and one of my nieces will be getting on a cruise ship departing from Miami in the near future.

One place they will spend a day off the ship?

Cozumel.

On February 21st.

When we booked our trips, none of us knew of the plans of others.

What are the chances of this happening??

Ann and I ended up spending a wonderful week in Cozumel.

My two sisters visited us on our second day in Cozumel, and we enjoyed snorkeling and diving with them off the hotel dock. We didn’t learn until after our trip to Cozumel was booked that their cruise ship trip would be stopping in Cozumel the day after we arrived. A pleasant, astonishing coincidence.

We lodged at the Villa Aldora hotel very close to the presidential retreat (you will see several photos of Villa Aldora in my link below). The hotel patio we ate breakfast at each morning was only a few feet from a very nice snorkeling area. Waters were warm (83 to 85 degrees), impossibly clear, dazzling blue in color, and sitting atop snow white sandy and coral bottoms. Our dive operator was Aldora Divers, widely recognized as the best dive operators on the island. Each morning their dive boats would arrive at our hotel dock to take us diving (the Cozumel14dock was only a few feet from our room). My big dives were at Palancar Caves, Columbia Deep, Santa Rosa Wall, and Punta Sur – each of which provide utterly gorgeous, vibrantly colorful reef walls, tropical fish, and spectacular swim-throughs (I LOVE swim-throughs!). The following video, while not shot during my dives, shows diving at the Columbia and Santa Rosa sites I dove over the past few days in Cozumel:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=516KZ2nOCoA

I had SEVERAL eye-popping encounters with VERY large marine life: lobsters, green moray eels, eagle rays, black-tip sharks (the shark in the video is a black-Cozumel16tip about the size of the three or four I encountered), turtles, spotted eels, queen angelfish, and barracuda.

This link shows photos I (mostly) shot during the trip. Since I didn’t have an underwater camera, the shots of marine life and reef formations were not shot by me, but were shot by another diver during my dives. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, don’t forget to click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Cozumel2013

On Sunday night, we went to the Cozumel town center and had a DELICIOUS, authentic dinner at a restaurant that is very popular (with good reason!) with locals (we hate touristy places!). During dinner, street performers entertained us with flaming torches, as you will see in the photos. We then walked to the town square where a large number of festive locals had gathered to enjoy a very good horn band. We danced the night away on the plaza there.

Throughout our stay in Cozumel, we had the good fortune to eat at a number of great, funky restaurants popular with the local population. Our favorites were Café Indio, Del Sur, Casa Denis, and Corazon Contento. We also had lunch at a taco stand that served out-of-this-world fish tacos.

It was a four-hour direct flight from Denver to Cancun, Mexico when we returned home. Because Cozumel is relatively close to the equator, we had severe weather shock when we returned to Denver and Boulder. The morning of our departure in Cancun found us at a Cancun bus station. It was sunny, humid and VERY hot. Sweating profusely in 90-degree temperatures. A few hours later, we were walking from the downtown Boulder bus station to our house. The temperature was windy and about 15 degrees. We were so painfully cold that we opted to take a taxi after a few blocks, even though we were about five blocks from home. We had gone from “middle of summer” weather to “middle of winter” weather in four hours.

Ann and I hope to make return trips to Cozumel again and again.

 

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Categories: 2011-Present, Caribbean, Diving, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Diving Roatan, Honduras (2008)

My last meaningful dive experience has been over a year ago. My spouse offers me the opportunity to spend a week diving what would essentially be redundant with what I had dove over 14 months back. Ordinarily, I’d balk. There are simply too many enchanting, fabulous places I have not ventured into throughout this adventurous world for me to make return engagements.

But this is different.

This is six days in world-class Roatan (I had been at nearby Utila last year).

We arrive at Anthony’s Key Resort. We are greeted by helpful staff and gentle sea breezes. Air that is soothingly balmy — not too hot or too cold day or night. Swaying palm trees. Groomed sand. A simple, rustic cabin on a car-free island surrounded by bath-warm, crystalline waters and reefs. Nearby dolphins playfully leaping out of the water as if in a ballet. Picturesque sunrises and sunsets. Quiet, serene solitude. Loudly chirping tropical birds. A near absence of insects. A short walk to our breakfast/lunch/dinner restaurant. An ice machine 100 feet from our cabin. A cabin that does not have windows – only screens – as the temperature is lovely throughout the year. A bedroom so close to the gentle waves of a coral reef sea that we fall asleep each night to a calming, placid series of waves lapping underneath us (the cabin is elevated). Oh, and a cabin porch with hammocks that we use each day to relax next to glistening water. In case all of the rest is not enough.

If the word “idyllic” was an actual place, Anthony’s Key Resort would be that place.

Near our cabin is a sandy beach with colorful kayaks awaiting us. I cannot resist on my arrival to our cabin, and I am nearly immediately paddling my way across the small bay to greet the 15-20 playful, friendly bottlenose dolphins that are housed by the Roatan Institute of Marine Science, where they are regularly fed, receive health care, are scientifically studied, and put on shows for guests of the Institute and Resort.

As if it were something we ordered, we awake on our first morning to a rainbow over the crashing waves on the horizon. We had spent a relaxing first evening at the resort restaurant the night before, where we were served a delicious red snapper dinner and a photogenic sunset over its projecting deck. (Later in the week we are offered various – and very fresh – shrimp, grouper and other fish, and calamari.)

Anthony’s Key, where the resort is located, is a small island off the larger Roatan Island. It is a stereotypical tropical fantasy island. Finely-groomed sand walkways and a forest of sea grapes and coconut palm. A 45-second water taxi runs 24/7 from the Key to Roatan and back.

Anthony’s Key turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Our first dive on this Sunday morning — our first day — is Gibson Bight reef. I am delighted to discover impressive crevasses, which I happily explore and soar through. Along the way, we spot a big Moray eel. Later in the day, at sites such as Pillar Coral, we enjoy swim-throughs with a chimney, barrel coral, and overall healthy coral reefs.

On our second day, we are treated to the Odyssey Wreck. At 110 feet down, I find myself swimming back and forth up a long, winding ship stairway, which was a bit disconcerting. While at the ship, we find Dogtooth Snapper and big Silverfish. Now that my previously misbehaving buoyancy compensator has been corrected by the dive shop, I am no longer wasting energy by fighting to stay at a level surface. No longer bobbing up and down (and beating up my poor ear drums due to changing water pressures), my comfort level has returned and I am blissfully, slowly floating in and out of the ship. Just in time.

On many of our dives, we find ourselves beginning or ending our coral reef explorations within a cluster of enormous goliath grouper engaged in a feeding frenzy (to the point of swimming into us and through our legs, and sometimes following us for our entire 40-minute dive). Looking for treats from divers often happy to feed them fishy snacks.

Other times, we often came upon large schools of iridescent blue fish.

The 8-12 Resort dive boats lined up along the dock throughout the week mimics a line of buses poised to pulse out on their routes. The Resort is geared up for serious diving.

On one afternoon, satiated by outstanding dives, we opt for the free horseback riding offered by the Resort. Unfortunately for Adrenalin-Junkie-Dom, my horse refuses to canter at all for the 30 minutes of riding out along the beach. I am at the rear of a line of several horseback riders, feeling like a little four-year old. Fortunately, though, my horse finds his enthusiasm on the ride back, as he canters happily and briskly on our return.

Late that afternoon, we walk the short distance to the Marine Institute and watch an impressive “presentation” by the dolphins and their trainers. The trainers were torpedo’d at high speeds through the water by the happy dolphins pushing them from behind, and tossed into the air and onto the wooden platform deck where the trainers orchestrate the dolphins.

Twice I engage in night dives, and am astonished to find large populations of lobsters (including a “slippery lobster”) with glowing eyes, and large king crab. In particular, I relish the night dive at Deep Eel Garden, which has deep, narrow crevasses. Crevasses which are delightfully creepy on a night dive. A diver is never quite sure, after all, what lurks around a dark, night-time corner in an underwater canyon. If a diver gets his hand bitten off by a Moray eel at night, does his scream make a sound?

Of particular interest to me was Canyon Reef, which features an amazing number of long tunnel and canyon wall swim-throughs, which I mostly sample on my own, as the dive master oddly by-passes most of them. The reef also features unusually colorful coral, particularly on its top.

On Thursday, the famed El Aguila Wreck is on our agenda. This is my second dive into El Aguila. The first was in 2007.

This time, it is quite special.

On the way down to my ultimate depth of 109 feet, I cleared my ears continuously to desperately ensure that they were equalized for the sharply increasing water pressure. All of the night before, I worried that my often troublesome ear-clearing problem while diving would prevent me from fully enjoying this famous wreck, and I do what I can to avoid the catastrophe of missing it. As I reach the ship, I am more than relieved that my strategy worked wonderfully.

While at the Wreck, a huge grouper greets us, with the Wreck looming behind this giant fish. We are treated to three spectacular swim-through penetrations into the ship – one a long tunnel, another a long passageway twisting into a collection of rooms, and another leading us up a long stairway. On this last one, as we emerge through a small opening, we are greeted face-to-face by a large, jaw-dropping, and menacing green Moray eel, who is a few feet away from the opening and chomping his mouth as he sticks his head out of his own little metal tube home – just daring us to come closer.

Immediately after I emerge from the ship, I shoe away a delicate and pretty shrimp fish at the exit, and we suddenly spot a lovely spotted eagle ray swimming gracefully with us.

At the dive end, I experience what must be the most fantastic “safety stop” in all the world (divers usually need to stop at 15 feet for a few minutes to avoid “decompression sickness” – the “bends”). A narrow, seemingly endless coral-studded swim-through tunnel at 15 feet of depth.

Amazing.

Here is a YouTube video of my El Aguila dive:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwU1X36vdgs

After a relaxing drift dive, our dive boat takes us on a rocking and rolling rollercoaster ride of rough seas to the south side of Roatan Island, where we are let off at a luxurious resort building with colorful landscaping. After enjoying a seafood lunch, we retire to a beach chair on a sparkling, gorgeous beach. Apparently, the only thing that keeps the beach from being rated one of the best in the world is that occasionally, a large jetliner flies over us at treetop level to a nearby airport.

On the beach, we are serenaded by what is evidently a traditional Honduran folk band, dressed in traditional, colorful costumes and playing trunk drums, a seashell for a horn, and the unusual, wailing voices of Honduran women.

Our afternoon dive is at Butcher’s Bank Reef. Here, I find myself swimming past what seems like a highly intriguing, mysterious cave tunnel. The dive master, happily, enters the tunnel. Mysteriously, he does not beckon the divers to join him. So I wait to see if he will emerge at the other end, rather than turning around and coming out. He doesn’t, but by now a large number of divers in my group have followed him in. So I enter – 2nd last in line.

A dreadful mistake. The diver in front of me is tentative, slow and unsure. She seems to panic and exit a chimney that appears to be short of where the other divers in front of her had gone. I see a cloud of sand in the tunnel past her exit channel, so even though I cannot see other divers further into the tunnel, I assume they have gone that way and are just too far ahead to see.

I risk going in deeper, therefore.

The final chimney before the dead end in this clouded tunnel appears to be way too narrow to squeeze through. I try backing up to where I came from in the tunnel, but my tank gets wedged stuck. I have a terrifying moment of panic. “Am I stuck??? Will anyone notice if I cannot get out of this fix where I cannot go forward or backward???”

I make one last-ditch effort to squeeze through the impossibly narrow chimney – my only chance to make it out of this alive. After a few metallic “clunks” of tank hitting coral, I somehow manage to bully my way through. “I will survive!”

On our last day, we dive “Spooky Channel.” It is indeed quite spooky. Huge, deep, white-sand-bottom chasms in a murky, milky, gloomy, seemingly bottomless depth.

We end the day with a few diver diversions. First, a “dolphin encounter”, where we have 30 minutes of petting, stroking, getting a “kiss” from, and cradling a bottlenose dolphin that is so very happy and friendly to enjoy our attentions. Next, it is on to a Roatan rainforest canopy “zipline”, where we are rigged up with a harness and gloves, and cabled down 24 high-speed runs above and through the trees. It is my first-ever chance to experience this odd form of recreation. I liken it to a Honduran version of an amusement ride. Clearly, there are very few ambulance-chasing lawyers in Honduras, as this is a low-tech and surely precarious activity prone to mishap. Indeed, it occurs to me that if I were a 12-year old, I would have LOVED to have thought up the concept and rigged it up in the woodlands where I grew up back in upstate New York (where the danger is more along the lines of an angry woodchuck or cow, rather than a poisonous snake or tarantula).

During our week of diving, we come across quite a few turtles and lobster (and even a golden sea horse or two). But I was disappointed by the notable absence of sharks (not just whale sharks, but even nurse sharks), barracuda, Moray eel, and rays. The reefs in Roatan remain healthy, but the larger marine life seems sparse.

I should admit, though, that on more than one occasion, I found myself playfully chased by a healthy Moray eel or two.

Overall, the diving was joyful. The wrecks are impressive, as are the entertaining swim-through crevasses and canyons. And the colorful reefs.

Each day before or after diving, I would find myself calmly, unhurriedly walking to or from our cabin through a tropical coconut forest without a care in the world. The sand beneath my feet would be combed level as a pool table. The water taxi would be awaiting me, as if it was my own personal service, to ferry me across the water.

So this is what it is like to be a millionaire retired and living on a deserted Caribbean island…

Anthony’s Key Resort is truly a tropical key diver’s paradise.

Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Diving Utila and Roatan, Honduras (April 2007)

From the air as my plane descends into San Pedro Sula — the industrial capital of Honduras — the economy of the country appears to remain largely in the hands of large corporate fruit companies. Indeed, I had read that Standard Fruit (Dole) continues to have an important presence in Honduras. Below me are endless acres of pineapple, banana, and papaya fields. As far as the eye can see.

San Pedro Sula, disappointingly, contains mile after mile of strip commercial development. Dominoes Pizza, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Sunoco, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Popeye’s makes it immediately apparent that Honduras has not escaped this form of cultural and economic imperialism that the United States has spread throughout the globe.

Our bus ride to the Aggressor SCUBA dive boat we will live on for the next six days provides us with over three hours of travel through the Honduran countryside. We spot a great many men wearing what I presume are traditional cowboy hats. A number of horse-drawn carts along the (surprisingly) paved highway we are on tell us that the old is still mixing with the new, at least with regard to transportation.

The ambience and character of the countryside we see is quite similar to Belize, which of course is not surprising since Belize is a neighbor of Honduras. A great many cattle and horses grazing along the roadside right-of-way, and quite a few chickens, which conveys a third-world, lower-income message. The bus also drives over quite a few river bridges, which is to be expected given the impressive mountain range on one side of our highway. Most homes, like in Belize, are of cinder-block construction.

Much of the Honduran countryside is planted with African Palm, which I am told the country now grows in great numbers as a way to create bio-diesel fuel.

Our bus ride gives us a taste of what appears to be a contrasting highway driving method in Honduras compared to what I’ve experienced in America. Here in this Central American nation, highway motorists appear to have a rather caviler attitude toward passing slower cars on two-lane roads. Little heed seems to be given to a car approaching from the opposing direction when a Honduran decides to pass. It appears to be accepted that the opposing car will simply be obligated to drive onto the shoulder to give way to the passing car. This is done rather calmly.

Indeed, on the bus trip back a week later, slow holiday traffic meant that large herds of cars were passing in such a way. Never in my life have I seen bumper-to-bumper traffic at a standstill sitting in the opposing lane while trying to pass.

Noteworthy as well is the relatively large amounts of litter and rubbish that lie along the roadside shoulders. My speculation is that there is little garbage collection and landfilling in Honduras, and that the roadsides have therefore become a common place to dispose of household trash.

I should point out that despite some of these unfortunate conditions, Honduras will almost surely be better able to survive a future world of, say, peak oil, than a nation such as the United States, as fuel and proximity to the fruits of the land seem to be more at hand to the population than in the US, where so many are so dependent on imports and assistance from those outside the community.

We spend our first night sleeping in our cabin “staterooms” on the docked Aggressor.

Very early the next morning, the Aggressor steams to our first day dive destination. We anchor and plunge into our first two dives at Toon Town, which features large, cartoonish, bulbous coral clusters. Visibility here is about 50 feet. The reefs found in Honduras, we are told, are the second largest reef system in the world. Only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is larger.

Our third dive is at a place called Pelican Point (Wall?). With a moderate current, this is a drift dive for us, where the current does the work of moving us along the colorful coral — coral that seems to be a fireworks display. Here, we find out-of-this-world vibrancy of colors — blues, purples, yellows, and oranges.

Finally, we anchor at Angel Harbor. This dive site turns out to be relatively confusing, with several coral heads creating a hard-to-follow maze. I would recommend that divers follow a dive master for this dive site.

One of the luxuries of diving from a liveaboard boat is the towel service. After each dive, we take a freshwater shower at the back of the boat, after which a crew member is waiting to drape a warmed towel over our backs. We also enjoy being served three hot meals each day from skilled cooks working in the Aggressor kitchen. A glass of red wine is part of each of my dinners. I can get used to this…

First thing Monday, “Captain Eddy” has the Aggressor heading out at 6 am. With the welcome sight of a calm sea lying down flat, he guides the boat to the Coco Seamount site — a location that is usually unavailable for diving because it requires flat seas. We are able to do two dives here. And the visibility is excellent — over 100 feet.

We spot barracuda, and a school of what appears to be silver spadefish. The school is unfazed by me, and they seem to be unbothered by my swimming into their school to snuggle up to them as we swim together. We also notice schools of yellowtails, triggerfish, and parrotfish amongst the healthy reefs found in this location on the mount.

In one of the dives here, I start my descent and look to the bottom, where I spot a brightly-colored divers weight belt. “Does that diver know he or she has dropped their weight belt,” I wonder? Then I notice I’m having trouble descending. To my horror and embarrassment, I reach down and realize that the belt is MINE!

I struggle to the bottom, and my dive buddy generously gets to it first to hand to me. Unfortunately, doing so is exhausting and I burn a fair amount of air to retrieve my buoyancy equalizing gear.

Water temperature for most of our dives this week is a comfortable 82 degrees.

Taviona’s Wall at Roatan features eye-popping visibility ranging up to 120 feet. Not only is the visibility astonishing here, but gliding through the site adds to the exhilaration because here, one is able to find a great many extremely pleasurably narrow swim-through canyons graced with healthy coral.

Later, I decide to try a night dive at this site to have one more taste of its joys. Divers know, as well, that night dives benefit from the “they only come out at night” principle, in which the coral reefs are a vastly different world with creatures that prefer being active only after dark.

Sure enough, I find an incredible number of large crab within the barrel sponges here. My LED dive light also discovers a great number of sea tiger tail cucumber on the ocean floor. I additionally spot a gorgeous, fire-engine red shrimp within a coral crevasse.

Other creatures I come across on this night and during the various day dives in the Bay Islands include Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Giant Hermit Crab, White-Speckled Hermit Crab, Sand Dollars, Bulb Tunicate coral, Green Tube Tunicate, Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber.

Curiously, given the health of the reefs we find, there are very few eel, barracuda, turtles, sharks or rays in the Honduran reefs compared to other Caribbean dives I’ve experienced.

Our first dive with the Tuesday morning sunrise is the famous El Aguila wreck (see photo above). We descend to the wreck and are IMMEDIATELY greeted by an anxious horde of very hungry giant grouper. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN??,” they cry. “WE’RE STARVING!!!” These are fish that are spoiled by the feedings they enjoy from various diver groups visiting the wreck.

I hold up my hands to one particularly large black grouper to show him I am empty-handed. He swims alongside me for quite a ways, in case I’m trying to trick him. He curls and brushes his body against my arm in a cat-like way.

The Aguila wreck sits at 110 feet and is 200 feet long. I notice that a large collection of garden eel are poking their heads out of the sandy ocean bottom near the wreck. I enjoy two leisurely, pleasant swim-throughs on the conning tower stern. Swimming to the bow, I’m greeted by an even LARGER grouper. He is so anxious to see me that he is happy to let me pet him.

At the bow, an enormously excited and animated green moray eel is happily eating his breakfast from the dive master fish bucket. The dive master hands me his video camera so I can get footage of this marine feeding.

For our second dive, my buddy and I return to the wreck because I want to check out the swim-through at the bow of the ship. Having done that, we head for the nearby (and imposing) coral reef wall. Visibility is about 80 feet. The reefs just off the wreck are spectacular. Healthy coral, fabulous swim-throughs, and colorful tropical fish in what amounts to an underwater slot canyon.

I have all kinds of kid-like fun swimming through tall, narrow walls of colorful reef. Throughout my playful, wide-eyed explorations, my grouper friend, of course, follows along just in case its lunchtime.

The third dive of the day is at Half Moon Bay. Big, narrow, numerous swim-through crevasses (just the way I like them) are found here, as well as a strong current and surge. So strong that I find I am often not making any forward progress at all despite strong split-fin kicking.

On Wednesday, we steam 3.5 hours to Utila. Our first two dives are at “Old House” on the north side of Utila. Here, one finds very steeply dropping walls, and fun swim-through canyons and tunnels. The reefs, as was the case in our previous days, are active, diverse, and home to colorful schools of tropical fish. Here we enjoy spotting marlin, hawksbill turtle (see photo above), banded coral shrimp, and scorpion fish well camouflaged in the coral.

Later, with the Aggressor heading to our afternoon dive site, I’m reading and dozing in my cabin. Suddenly, there is great commotion and shouting above.

“WHALE SHARK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The holy grail for divers. A whale shark encounter is an extremely rare and much-sought-after diver experience. The whale shark (Rhincodon typus), is largest living fish species in the world. The species is believed to have originated about 60 million years ago. The largest documented whale shark is 41 feet and over 47,000 pounds, but there are undocumented reports of this fish being over 50 feet in length. Despite its intimidating size, the whale shark is harmless animal, however, as they only eat plankton. In many ways, they remind me of the Florida manatee.

The whale shark mouth can be up to five feet wide and can contain up to 300 rows of tiny teeth. It has five large pairs of gills.

The crew has leapt into action and is now shouting rapid-fire instructions to the divers: “Mask, fins, snorkel!! Nothing more!! Get to the back of the boat!!”

The boat storms ahead, looking for the telltale sign of a roiling boil of seawater at the surface, indicating small schools of fish swarming around The Big Guy.

We assemble at the back of the boat, anxiously waiting for the signal.

Waiting.

“NOW!!!!!!!!!” screams a crew member on look-out. “JUMP IN!! HE’S RIGHT THERE!!”

I leap into the fairly rough seas, desperate to witness the awesome fish.

Then, in the distance ahead of me, I see it. The telltale tailfin and dark brown body with white spots.

But the glimpse is fleeting. The creature quickly disappears into the murky blue-gray water.

At least I can say that I saw it while in the water. But then I realize how disappointing that would be. My chance of a lifetime is a brief glimpse.

How little did I know at the time how wrong I was. There would be more. Much more.

The boat dinghy the Aggressor has dragged during our week-long excursions now is plucking us out of the water. The boat speeds ahead in search of Him.

The little craft battles its way over large waves. We finally spot the roiling surface ahead of us. The skipper yells for us to “BACK ROLL INTO THE WATER NOW!!!”

I hit the water.

Suddenly, a few feet below me, I spot him. He is gloriously swimming just below me at a speed that is slow enough for me to easily remain above him for a few triumphant minutes (see photo above). I am close enough to be awed by his 15 feet of length, dwarfing me above him. I feel like a lamprey fish. He swims very gracefully and unconcerned. He is docile an approachable. Intimidating in size, but gentle in behavior.

He vanishes again into the deep.

I’m back on the Aggressor. “WHALE SHARK DEAD AHEAD!!!” I wait for the signal and bound back in. My mask falls off from the impact with the water. The spotter shouts “HE IS RIGHT THERE!!!” Frantically, I lunge for my mask, somehow finding it. I throw it on just in time to see The Big Guy glide three feet below me.

Again, the dinghy is there to pick me up. I’m whisked ahead. “Jump in NOW!!”

I am only a few feet from the monster fish. He is directly in front of me heading right at me. We are face to face, only 18 inches apart. Suddenly, just before his enormous head collides into my face, he elegantly turns away. Close enough that his body nearly wraps around me.

I reach out and slide my hand along his huge tailfin. The whale shark, I find, has a canvass-like skin.

Truly an unforgettable experience. Here is the YouTube video clip of this whale shark encounter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udKh6VEmmik

The Aggressor steams on. We spot two more whale sharks cruising near our boat. We have come across a HERD of them.

That afternoon, after all the excitement, we dive Jack Neal Point on the south side of Utila. Legend has it that Jack was a pirate who hid buried treasure here. We didn’t find it, but we did spot a scorpion fish and a winged sand diver.

As I silently glide over the colorful hills, valleys and canyons of coral reef, I feel as if I am an eagle soaring over my territory in search of prey. But the exploding profusion of playful tropical fish below me is oblivious to my presence as I swim through this gigantic underwater jungle aquarium.

Overnight, the Aggressor anchors in a Utila harbor. An armed guard is brought on board to spend the night with us, as modern-day pirates are known to raid dive boats anchored off the harbor town at night.

We awake to a sea that looks like glass. The ocean is lying down flat like a pancake. Our first dive on this calm day is Black Hills Seamount on the west side of Utila. Nice coral, a healthy population of fish, and above-average visibility. We encounter a school of Atlantic Spadefish.

As the Aggressor moves to our second dive site of the day, I again notice a regular occurrence: Large schools of flying fish fly up to 50 or 100 yards just above the waters’ surface as the fish flee the on-coming boat.

This second dive is at Cannery Bank on the eastern side of Utila. Reefs are very healthy on this rarely visited reef. We see big schools of creole wrasse, amongst giant forests of barrel sponge and brain coral.

The Pinnacle and Fish Bowl is our third dive of the day, and here we enjoy diving with a graceful Giant Manta Ray, a chomping spotted eel, and a wriggling green moray.

As I dive these indescribably staggering and magnificent coral reef canyons, I occasionally think to myself: “Am I really doing this? Little old me? This is the sort of thing one sees in TV shows or science fiction thrillers, not real life!”

Blackfish Point on the north side of Utila is our fourth dive. It is a night dive. The dive starts, thrillingly, by my entering a sea cave. It is one way in and one way out. I penetrate deeply and come to the end wall – a sort of “T” intersection inside the cave. The walls are very geometrically sharp and straight-lined, suggesting the cave has somehow been built by humans — which it wasn’t.

Later, we spot a large moray and a menacing barracuda (barracuda are much scarier and intimidating at night, by the way). Larger fish, interestingly, seem to be nestled into little fish nests on the sandy bottom. Their way of sleeping?

Friday morning finds us at Ted’s Point. More stunning slot canyon swim-through’s with steep walls and sugar-white sand bottoms. In the early portion of our dive, we inspect the small Rojan’s Wreck. Our second dive is also here, and I am amused to notice a large fish swims alongside of me the entire way. Clearly, he is expecting me to be his meal ticket. But I’m now wise to this.

Here we find enormous fields of what looks to me like brown coral lettuce. I spot a number of healthy-looking lobster, a gorgeous and graceful spotted drum (see photo above). The reefs, again, appear pristine.

After this Friday morning diving, the Aggressor docks and I spend the afternoon strolling Main Street in Eastern Harbor, Utila. The town is very similar to the tropical ambience one finds in coastal Belize, Bonaire, and the Florida Keys. Very laid back. Everyone seems to be either a beach bum, a tourist, or somehow a part of the dive industry. The town, of course, is chock full of dive shops, Tiki bars, scooters, bicycles, motorcycles, and ATVs. One and all seem to speak a mix of Spanish and English in every sentence.

Off the main drag, one finds rural modest homes of Island residents, cattle pasture, forest, and beaches. Everything exists because of the turquoise waters.

Main Street sees a steady, diverse stream of pedestrians. Very few cars or trucks are on the island. Indeed, I count only two cars in 90 minutes of Main Street walking and sitting.

The Aggressor steams back to the Honduran mainland first thing in the morning under a steady rain — rain that we were fortunate to avoid for our entire week of diving, and which can be safely ignored on this day of travel.

We reach our dock and bid farewell. The group of divers boards the bus back to San Pedro airport and home.

But not me.

I taxi to the Jungle River Adventures office in downtown LaCieba. There, the sole English-speaking staff person I find instructs me to wait. After about 20 minutes, a tall, thin, stern-looking man points to me and in a Spanish accent says, “Jungle River?” “Si,” I respond, hoping this is the man I’m supposed to get a ride from to get to the fearsome Cangrejal River for my scheduled whitewater rafting trip.

After stopping and waiting for several minutes at a number of different hotels without seeming to accomplish anything (like, say, picking up additional Jungle River customers), I find I’m growing increasingly disconcerted. Two Spanish-speaking males who do not speak a word of English are the only ones in the 4-wheel drive with me. Am I supposed to be in this vehicle? Where am I being taken?

We drive through the stereotypically Third-World downtown of LaCeiba, which gradually becomes rural. We are now roughly bouncing up a gravel road puddle by the still-falling rain. To my right is what appears to be the Canjragel.

I observe this with both relief and trepidation. Relieved because it now seems I am not being driven to some remote location to be shot. Worried because the river — which I will apparently soon be screaming down – is loaded with the largest (“mucho grande”) boulders I’ve ever seen.

We arrive at the Jungle River lodge, perched above the roaring Cangrejal. After being given my helmet, paddle and preserver, we board the 4-wheel drive again and are taken upstream.

We walk down a treacherously slick boulder path to the river. Even though it has been several hours since I’ve disembarked the liveaboard Aggressor, I still feel as if I am rocking back and forth to the wave action my brain had gotten used to over the past six continuous days at sea.

At the river, we are given an astonishingly lengthy, thorough, 90-minute “safety training course” by our raft guide.

It turns out to be the most enjoyable, exciting portion of the days’ experience.

We are told we must swim across swift currents, jump into deep water and swim to and from river-side boulders, swim along a stone wall within an eddy, hike across river boulder fields, and demonstrate in-raft, man-overboard rescue skills.

As the four of us are led to our next death-defying “safety training,” our guide then turns to me with a wicked smile and asks, “Are you into EXTREME experiences?” I nod my head and say “absolutely.” But not sure of what I’ve agreed to get myself into. The guide has decided that I seem to be the strongest and most reckless of his “clients.”

He points down to the fiercely boiling whitewater pool 20 feet below us at the base of the enormous granite boulder we stand on. He and I are to leap (to our deaths?) and swim to the rock wall across the storming, roaring whitewater boil (while the other three watch in horror, no doubt, but thankful they have not had the “honor” of being selected).

The guide provides detailed, ghastly instructions about how I am to be obligated to rock climb the opposite sheer wall with my bare hands and feet. I am to alternate between stepping on his thighs and shoulders, and finding various and precarious footholds and handholds on the wall.

I am secretly terrorized, but show outward calmness and confidence, as if it were not the case that I have never engaged in a rock climb of more than 5 feet (no matter how much “fun” he thinks it is). I comfort myself by thinking how I will simply back out by informing him that he had mistakenly thought I had rock-climbing experience and as a climbing virgin, surely he would understand my need to back out.

But I realize it is too late.

Everyone is watching and fully expecting me to show I am eager to experience “extreme fun.” Without flinching, he soars into the angry whitewater pool below and beckons me to follow.

I’m committed. There is no turning back.

I fly toward what will surely be my doom. I emerge from deep below and swim to the guide, who waits for me at the wall. There, he starts me on the impossible task — reminding me at each step and handhold what I am to accomplish with my next precarious reach.

I start the climb — the wall is most steep, slippery and difficult as I emerge out of the whitewater. I pull myself up about eight feet by climbing over the guide and desperately cling to the surprisingly slick wall. I am then told to reach impossible lengths to my left with my hand and to my right with my foot, Spiderman-like. I grasp for the handhold above and exert all the energy in my body to hoist myself to the first ledge. But my sleep deprivation (suffering insomnia, I awoke at 1:30 am this morning) and drain of the dive week doesn’t let it happen. I am now standing (teetering?) on the guide’s shoulders, gasping for air without an ounce of energy.

With the whitewater churning below me.

The guide shouts, “YOU CAN DO IT!!!” Again, I have no choice. He gives me a slight nudge and I somehow manage to lift up to the first ledge. The remainder of the free-wall climb is less demanding, as he shows me the various handholds and footholds along the wall.

Somehow, we make it to the summit. I am now 35 feet above the growling whitewater below. The guide provides strict instructions about how to correctly enter the water from this kind of height — straight in and feet-first, like a missile. No sitting position or leaning back.

He jumps.

I hesitate to follow. I give a thumbs up to the three safely on the other side, and calmly jump. It seems like forever to reach the water. But after the wall climb, this is cake.

The four of us then float on our backs (feet first!) to our rafts to complete our “training.”

I am assigned to the smaller and therefore more exhilarating two-person raft. It will be just me and a guide. The guide informs me that nearly all riders fall out on this river, even though the extreme rapids occur a few months earlier from October through December.

I point out to him that the most fun I’ve had rafting in the past was when I fell out. We head down.

The forest is loud with shrieking tropical birds. The trees above are, at the highest level, a cloud forest. Lower, it is a rainforest.

Our relatively brief ride (anti-climatic after our alleged “training”) features some adrenalin-pumping Class III and IV rapids, and fairly deep, abrupt drops.

Overall, a fantastic day of whitewater thrills. And a worthy finish to an adventurous week in Honduras.

Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Diving the Spiegel Grove shipwreck, Key Largo, Florida (August 2006)

Signing up with the local dive shop for three days of diving off of Key Largo, our primary, 21st Century concern in the week before the trip is the All-American worry: “What time should we drive there and back to avoid the horrifying agony of Labor Day weekend gridlock?

Fortunately, one of the divers who has signed up agrees to drive us down, and his early Friday departure sounds like an effective traffic-congestion avoidance plan. It turns out that he is right, as we arrive at our Bayside Hotel a number of hours before we had anticipated.

We have time for a leisurely Friday lunch, and serendipitously stumble upon a virtually next-door home-cooked-meals restaurant with a packed parking lot (a reliable indicator of quality). Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen oozes with authentic ambience and local character. The quality of the food is magnificent, which readily explains why it is regularly populated by “the locals.”

Over the course of the weekend, we find ourselves as repeat customers at Mrs. Mac’s, and agree we will return in the future, should we again be passing through Key Largo.

We awake the next morning and caravan to the marina, where Christal Clear will be our dive operators. The Christal Clear dive boat is brand new, and we are all impressed by the design features – which show that the boat builders knew of the needs of divers.

Our boat captain, George, with 20 years of experience in the Keys, is a treasure trove of dive information, and each day is able to navigate us to the best dive sites. Captain George has a full reckoning of weather, water, and reef conditions.

Our two-tank dive on Saturday morning features North Star on Molasses Reef and Sand Bottom on French Reef. Our shallow-water excursions find us swimming amongst schools of parrot fish and angel fish. Large, green, menacing Moray eel chomp at us from their coral reef crevasses, and lobster peer at us from under reef ledges. We spot a good-sized nurse shark leisurely swimming with us, as well as a black sting ray. North Star contains impressive canyon reefs, while Sand Bottom provides delightful, tight-fitting coral swim-throughs.

Our next dive trip is not scheduled until the next afternoon, so we have plenty of time to sleep late and luxuriously enjoy a Sunday brunch.

Today, our first reef is Snapper. As it’s namesake indicates, Snapper Reef features colossally thick, seemingly endless schools of bright yellow snapper. I feel as if I am floating in a yellow cloud as hundreds of snapper surround me. This reef seems to explode with an enormous diversity of marine life. Our group gets dizzy as members repeatedly call others to see the latest “find” in all directions. Spotted eel, Moray eel, nurse shark, small rays, flounder, and the most gargantuan brain coral I have ever seen (about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle).

Our second dive is Pickles, a place we find rather unremarkable.

The final Sunday dive is a night dive on the Wreck of the Benwood. Here we find gigantic parrotfish, lobster, and large crab. The large World War II ship appears ghostly at night as we use our flashlights to illuminate its hulk on the ocean bottom.

The marquee dive is our first Monday morning dive. The world-famous Spiegel Grove wreck.

The Spiegel was commissioned in 1956 and served as a US Navy Landing Ship Dock. The ship was named after the Ohio estate of US President Rutherford B. Hayes. The ship saw action throughout the Caribbean Sea, the United States East Coast, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Panama and the Middle East, including an important role in the original Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. She carried a crew of 18 officers, 325 men and 318 troops. Spiegel was decommissioned in 1989.

The ship had spent 12 years tethered in the Navy’s “Mothball Fleet” in Virginia’s James River.

The sinking in 2002 was somewhat of a fiasco. First, the ship sinks before it is planned to. In June 2002, only a few hours from the scheduled scuttling, the hull began taking on water, the ship turned upside down, and started to sink prematurely hours before volunteers were going to scuttle it. The volunteers fled the ship for safety. Equipment worth thousands of dollars were dumped to the ocean floor.

Professional ship salvers were called in to finish sinking the ship, which by then was floating upside down with part of its hull exposed. Ultimately, the 6,880-ton Spiegel ended up resting on its side at the sandy ocean bottom.

Fortunately, Hurricane Dennis (“Dennis the Menace”) uprights the ship in the summer of 2005. Today, it rests at a sandy bottom130 feet below, and because of its 90 feet of height, rises to within 50 feet of the ocean surface. The ship is about six miles off of Key Largo.

At the time of its sinking, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create a new reef for divers. The Duane and the Bibb, two decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters, rest nearby off Molasses Reef in slightly deeper water. However, those wrecks are only accessible to experienced divers.

We anchor at the wreck and the captain regretfully informs us that there is a very strong current today. My wife opts to sit out the dive. I find a new dive buddy and we descend, hand over hand, along the rope tied to the wreck below. With the unnervingly stiff current, I am careful not to lose my grip on the safety rope. Who knows where I would end up (Cuba?) if the current ripped me from the guideline. Behind us, the trip leader is training an Advanced Certification class, but soon after he gets in the water, his mask is blown off by the raging current and he quickly calls off the dive.

Fortunately, I have already descended to the ship.

We reach the MASSIVE Speigel wreck at about 65 feet. Before us is a ship too large to see its full length, even from a distance. It is, after all, 510 feet in length, which is almost two football fields long (and 85 feet wide). The ship is so large that we are only able to inspect a tiny fraction of the ship during our dive, even though we are diving nitrox. A number of doorways and hatches enable reasonably safe ship pass-throughs, and we swim through a few of these.

I feel like a tiny mosquito dwarfed by a large elephant I have landed on.

Near the end of the dive, my buddy points to a name on a metal plaque (see photo below) placed on the side of the ship. It is his name, as he was involved in the sinking in 2002.

Our final dive is at the Christmas Tree site on French Reef. Here, one finds healthy reefs, colorful marine life, and excellent swim-throughs. One of these finds me passing through a 25-foot long slot filled with a school of silver fish. Overall, a very enjoyable dive site.

In general, our visibility is somewhat mediocre. But the quality of our dives, and what is in store for us in diverse marine life and impressive shipwrecks, more than compensates.

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Diving near Sarasota, Florida (2005)

A weekend trip to the Florida Gulf Coast creates a new prospect for me. I’ve never dove the Gulf of Mexico, so I seize the opportunity by reserving a spot on a Sarasota dive charter boat.

We head out first thing Saturday morning for a two-tank dive. The skies are clear, the breeze is light and the seas are lying down.

Our first site is the Gullys dive. Here, 55 feet down, lies a mesa-like geologic feature which is ringed by a ledge two- to four-feet high. The ledge is encrusted with a modest collection of coral, which is populated with a small population of coral reef marine life. Our visibility is awful — no more than 10 to 15 feet.

It is as if we are in a large bowl of Miso Soup.

Due to the shallow conditions, our dive time is over 50 minutes. Mostly, we see sheepshead fish and stone crab in the crevasses of the ledge. Later, we are to hear on our dive boat that the marine life has been scarce for months due to red tide problems in the gulf.

Our second dive doesn’t really have an official name, and our dive master refers to it as “Snap Jew”. Again, we dive down about 50 feet to a mesa-like formation which is surrounded by crevasses and ledges.

Just off our boat, as we prepare to plunge in, we spot a very large sea turtle floating along on the surface of the water, getting closer and closer to our boat as if he or she wanted to join us for our dive.

The visibility is only slightly improved at Snap Jew, and the marine life remains rather scarce.

For both dives, we see a white sandy bottom with ridge lines formed by wave action just off of the ledges.

Our water temperatures were about 85 degrees down to about 20 feet, and then cooled to about 78 degrees below that depth.

 

 

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Diving Jupiter, Florida (2005)

“TROPICAL STORM FRANKLIN SLOWING CHURING UP THE EAST COAST OF FLORIDA. PREDICTED TO BRING 50 MPH WINDS AND 2 TO 4 INCHES OF RAIN TO EAST COAST ON SATURDAY AND SUNDAY.”

NOT AGAIN!

Yes, Florida suffered from an unprecedented number of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2004, and 2005 is looking like it will be more even more terrible. Worse than that for me, however, is that I have signed up for a weekend dive trip off the coast of Jupiter Florida. Now, a day before the trip starts, it appears certain that the trip will be called off. Choppy seas, awful visibility below, torrential rains.

Damn.

Nevertheless, I drive down to Jupiter blindly optimistic. I have no idea why.

Somehow, dumb luck is on my side. The dive trip is stupendous. We enjoy perfect weather. The seas are lying down flat. The water is warm enough that I am able to wear my “shortie” wetsuit (although there is a noticeable “thermocline” of cool water I notice when I drop below about 30 feet). The visibility is acceptable. One would never know that a tropical storm has just passed by the area.

We do six dives in less than two days — a rather large number in such a short period of time. Fortunately, on the day before, I am talked into using “nitrox” gas in my dives. I’ve never used nitrox before, but am told that it is growing in popularity in the scuba world. Nitrox contains a higher percentage of oxygen than ambient air (about 35 percent instead of about 21 percent). For divers, the attraction of nitrox, I am told, is that more oxygen means the diver can stay at depth for longer periods — more time to enjoy the reefs and marine life. And best of all, for me at least, is that diver fatigue is reduced substantially. Without the nitrox, I’d be flat on my back for days, following 6 dives in 36 hours. With the gas, I’m ready for ANOTHER 6 dives.

In all of my enjoyment of using nitrox for the first time, I fail to consider an unfortunate equipment glitch. My dive computer — while a device I’ve always found pleasurably reliable — was designed for regular air, and not the recently emerging nitrox gas. So while I was happily enjoying more safety and longer dive times, my faithful (and suddenly obsolete) computer was presuming that I was, as always, using conventional air. As a result, for the first time in over 100 dives, I reach the surface after my 3rd dive and my computer is not at all happy. Indeed, it is madly, frantically beeping and flashing a terrifying “SOS” message. The poor little outdated computer is screaming at me that I’ve exceeded my “decompression stop” limits. My computer thinks, erroneously, that I need to stop at 15 feet of depth for 19 minutes before surfacing in order to outgas nitrogen in my blood. Ordinarily, this kind of “deco stop” miscue means the diver has a very good chance of ending up with a terrible case of the bends due to wildly expanding nitrogen bubbles.

Of course, I was perfectly fine, being on nitrox, but my computer was programmed to take the safety measure of being unusable for the next 24 hours while it blared SOS!! at me. Which meant that I needed to do my remaining 3 dives without my trusty computer, and had to rely on my dive buddy for depth, dive time, and when it was time to re-surface. The dive trip leader, well aware of how annoying such a safety device can be on a computer, points out to me that the warning should not read SOS. It should read SOL for shit out of luck…

But this little hitch hardly puts a dent in this otherwise wonderfully memorable dive trip.

Highlights of the 6 dives? Thick clouds of synchronized bait fish. Lots of nurse sharks (totally harmless, yet incredibly graceful and fun to see). An abundance of very large green moray eels (some the size of telephone poles, as the photo shows) poking their squirming heads out of coral formations, and menacingly snapping their sharp-toothed mouths open and shut to intimidate any potentially hostile attackers. We also have the pleasure of seeing an enormous number of large-antenneaed lobster (see above), some colorful queen angelfish, schools of barracuda, and some extremely large loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles.

On one of our dives, we come across a 400-pound turtle resting at 70 feet with two 4-foot long remora’s attached to her back.

Our average depth is about 75 feet. The strong current means that we expend very little energy as the current pulls us along the coral reefs. We just effortlessly glide by in total silence as the colorful reefs and vibrant marine life pass before our eyes.

This is just total euphoria. After each dive, my eagerness to do the next dive grows. I could do this every day…

On one of our last dives, on my request that we dive a shipwreck, we dive what is called the Jupiter Wreck Train. We descend to 80 feet. Before us is an eerie, ghostly sequence of wrecked ships. In a single 40-minute dive, we casually inspect 3 ships lying wrecked at the sea bottom about 90 feet down. They sit within view of each other, and we just let the current take us to each. It is particularly enjoyable to go to the third ship, as it has a lot of portals and open doors that allowed us to swim through the interior of the fairly large ship.

Coolest of all with this ship, though, is the fact that it is the home of what is known as GOLIATH Grouper (formerly known as jewfish).

The name of this spectacular fish is particularly apt. It is hard to describe how astonishingly HUGE these guys are (the photo shows a diver swimming along side one that is about one third SMALLER than the ones we swam with). Imagine what a grouper would look like in prehistoric times living in the age of the dinosaur. Or imagine the SUV of fish. These whale-like beasts weigh a staggering 400 to 500 pounds, and are as big as a railroad car. They could swallow me like an M&M. One could eat fish like a king for five years if you caught one of these slow-moving monsters (they’re protected by law, fortunately).

As I’ve said before, being certified opens up a whole new world that you have no idea exists down below. We live on an unbelievable planet!

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Diving Cozumel (July 2004)

Cozumel, Mexico.

A destination that has long been on my list for diving. I’ve always heard spectacular things about Cozumel, and have been anxious to see for myself.

My sister-in-law asks if Maureen and I are interested in joining her for a one-week package diving trip there. How could I possibly decline?

We fly to the island in the early afternoon of a July Monday. Our first impression is that Cozumel is a FURNACE this time of year. And we say this as people who have lived through a number of Florida summers.

The island of Cozumel is 189 square miles in size and just east of the Yucatan Peninsula. Very flat and dry, with scrubby vegetation, a small number of tiny, unnoteworthy Mayan ruins, a heavy concentration of tourism, and colossal cruise ships on its western side. And packed with folks who know that there is really only one reason to visit Cozumel: world-class scuba diving.

Despite our arrival after lunch on Monday, we realize we have plenty of time to squeeze in a few shore dives. We check in at our lodging for the week – Scuba Club Cozumel – and head for the Club Dive Shop to check out tanks.

We learn that the Club provides many conveniences for divers. Plenty of easily-accessed dive lockers located next to a good number of fresh water baths for rinsing gear after dives. Our room, the dive shop, the Club restaurant, and the lockers are an easy, short walk to both a shore dive entry and the pier where the Club dive boats pick up divers each morning.

Our first shore dive quickly confirms what we have heard. Cozumel has impressive visibility – even on shore dives. We also discover that the shore dive in front of the Club contains a number of hollow concrete igloos perforated with portholes. I was unable to confirm this, but I’m nearly certain that these structures were part of the “Eternal Reefs” program I’ve recently learned about, where one can have his or her cremated remains incorporated into a concrete monument that is placed in a marine environment to establish artificial reefs. We notice that the tropical fish seem to enjoy the structures.

The water is warmer than any dive waters I have done in the past. Bath water.

In our first shore dive, I spot a good number of moray eels, skates, a good number of schools of siren fish, starfish, and a large number of jet-black sea urchins (which I get an immediate introduction to as I start our first shore dive and mistakenly use my hand, without looking, to keep myself from being bashed against a rock wall – a painful introduction…). Later on, in our twilight shore dive, we also see a number of sea cucumbers, a snake eel, sand rays, and parrot fish. Shore diving in front of the Club, like most diving at Cozumel, is drift diving, as there is a noticeable current moving from south to north on the west coast.

Day Two, and I’m already blundering due to my forgetfulness. As the diveboat – the Coral Diver – heads out to our first boat dive destination at 8:45 am, I realize that I have forgotten my wetsuit. A fortunate blunder, however, as my mistake has me realize that the waters are comfortably warm without a suit. Indeed, it is my first dive without wearing a suit or even a shirt, and I discover that I feel more free and less burdened, as my wetsuit tends to be an ordeal to squeeze into and out of for dives.

I make a mental note to do more suit-free diving in the future.

Our first boat dive is the most famous reef in Cozumel: Palancar Reef. It takes only a few seconds to understand the fame of Palancar. Stupendous visibility and a stunning maze of giant, coral-studded canyons and swim-throughs. I’m stunned, as this combination of features creates an eye-popping display of the most vibrant colors I have ever seen. It is as if I have been color blind for my entire life and suddenly had my eyes corrected to see color for the first time…

Our second dive is Tormentos Reef. Rather average with regard to reefs. But we quickly come upon the most enormous moray eel I have ever seen. The eel is lying under a coral rock ledge, is about 8 feet long and as thick as a telephone pole. We also spot octopus along the way. Suddenly, I discover that Cozumel does not only grow large eel. I come upon what is certainly the most gigantic grouper fish I’ve ever seen. Almost the size of a small car.

That afternoon, our dive boat takes us to the extremely popular Cozumel wreck dive. The C-53 Felipe Xicotencatl is a mine-sweeper that was sunk in 2000. It is 184 feet long, 33 feet wide, and was built in Tampa FL under the name “Scuffle”. Donated to the government of Mexico in 1962, the ship was then used as a gun boat, a patrol for illegal arms and drugs, a search and rescue ship, a troop transport and eventually as a training vessel for cadets of a naval academy. After 55 years of service, the ship was retired in 1999.

The boat sits upright on a sandy bottom 80 feet from the surface. It is a large, ghostly ship. For about 30 minutes, after we pop into it from a deck portal, we swim through a narrow labyrinth of passages inside the ship. Somewhat disconcerting for me, as I’ve never dove inside a ship for more than a few minutes, nor have I ever been in such a confined set of ship passages. “Stay calm, Dom. You’re safe.” I repeat this to myself throughout the ship. Will I panic? Will I be overwhelmed by claustrophobia? What if I panic and cannot find a portal out of the ship? Will I have time to get to the surface if there is an “out-of-air” situation?

Fortunately, I successfully suppress these fears of events that are extremely unlikely.

I settle down and enjoy the wonderful views of the ship innards, aided by the great visibility and the many portals allowing sunlight to stream in. Appropriately, this mine-sweeper contains schools of small glassy SWEEPER fish.

I recommend the Xiotencatl wreck as a relatively easy, enjoyable wreck dive. Even for scaredy cats like me.

On Wednesday morning, the Coral Diver ships us to Santa Rosa reef, another famed Cozumel dive. It’s hard for me to believe, but Santa Rosa has wall diving and swim-throughs that are, in many ways, even more impressive than Palancar. Santa Rosa features a tight, human-scaled sequence of swim-through tunnels. Again, the visibility is mind-blowing. And again, the grouper are huge (one awaits us at the end of an incredibly beautiful swim-through).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Santa Rosa swim-throughs is this. We would swim through an astonishingly colorful and lengthy tunnel and abruptly come upon the Santa Rosa Wall, which meant swimming out of the tunnel, looking down, and suddenly seeing a seemingly bottomless abyss dropping thousands of feet below me.

This is what it must feel like to be a cliff-dwelling bird…

The wall diving here was, by far, the most comfortable, relaxing wall dive I have ever done. We are able to simply let the ocean current carry us along, as we serenely face the wall in an upright posture for several minutes. The feeling of effortless weightlessness is outstanding.

Our second dive is Villa Blanca reef. Strong current. Colorful sponges and coral. Along the way, I’m treated to encounters with tiger grouper, black grouper, trigger fish, puffer fish, moray eels, trumpet fish, and snapper.

On Thursday, the Coral Diver brings us to Colombia Reef. Again, I’m shocked by the superb, memorably long, winding, and confined swim-through tunnels. Here we are treated to large sea turtles and bright, bright colors.

On the way to Colombia, I discovered that there is one thing that I’ve left in Cozumel that I’ll never be getting back. As far as I can speculate, my gold wedding ring is now inside the stomach of a Cozumel grouper. I noticed the ring missing while I was checking out my dive gear during the morning dive boat ride, and am guessing that it fell off during a dive the day before. I feel awful about it, but am comforted to know that at least I’ve left it in a memorable dive location, instead of, say, a strip commercial parking lot in New Jersey. Lesson learned for a guy who is not used to wearing jewelry. Don’t wear rings while diving.

Yucab reef – which we dive after Colombia – features quite a large number of ocean trigger fish. We are also treated to a large number of so-called “splendid” toadfish, which apparently enjoy hanging out under large rocks with their whiskers poking out menacingly. Again, we spot large grouper and a good many lobster. Overall, we come upon an amazing population of sea life at Yucab. But the very strong current along the reef on this day means that we must look QUICKLY at the creatures, as we fly past at a rapid speed.

It is our final shore night dive in Cozumel (see shore entrance at lower right). Me, Maureen, and my sister-in-law Carol. We are a bit rushed, as Maureen is hoping to be back in time for the “last call” for the delicious ice cream that the Club restaurant serves.

The 3 of us set out. The 2 women stop for several minutes to investigate a rock pile teeming with all kinds of interesting Cozumel creatures – their flashlights blazing into the many crevasses within the pile. I lose my patience, and set out on my own, but Maureen’s frantically waving dive light (a signal to other divers during a night dive that there is something to see) calls me back.

I look under the large, coral-encrusted rock to see 2 large, bulging eyes looking out at me. It looks like a yellow-orange blob. What is it?

Maureen quickly gives me the diver hand signal for “octopus.” Of course!

Back on course, we are confronted with an ocean current that is noticeably stronger than it has been on our previous shore dives here. I battle mightily, expending a great deal of energy just to swim a few feet. Maureen again signals me frantically.

Another octopus.

Later, I spot a large moray eel. Then, while inspecting a large coral reef wall, I find myself trapped by a well-known diver dread: fishing line. It is my first time, in over 100 dives, being caught in fishing line. It also happens to be the first time in all those dive outings that I’m not carrying my dive knife – which is primarily carried by divers in the event of getting caught in a line.

Why I am without my knife? Because on my first boat dive in Cozumel, my otherwise quality dive master instructs me to not use my dive knife in Cozumel, as the diving is within a national park where fishing is not allowed (and therefore, no fishing lines are expected in the reefs). Not carrying the knife is a way for Cozumel to minimize the likelihood of divers using a knife to harm sea life or coral. I protest to the dive master, jokingly saying I need the knife to fight off man-eating sharks that are sure to track me down.

But in this case, I am now kicking myself for my awful misfortune. As dive books instruct, it is rather easy to become totally enmeshed in line. The more a diver struggles to be free of the line, the more tenaciously the line gets tangled around the diver. Fortunately, even though I now have hundreds of feet of 100-lb test line caught in my hoses, my BC and my fins, we are only about 20 feet down, so the line becomes more of an amusing annoyance than the terrifying specter it would have been had I been, say, 90 feet down within a ship wreck (as I was the a few days before).

Finally, after Maureen frees me with her knife (she was not “caught” by the dive master), her sister Carol gets caught in it! WE FIND OURSELVES WITHIN A GRADE B HORROR FILM! IT IS THE FISHING LINE FROM THE GREEN LAGOON!!

As it turns out, after much cutting and gathering, we surface from the dive with what seems like about 7 miles of heavy-duty fishing line and promptly inform the dive shop that their pier should be checked for more dangers lurking below for unsuspecting shore divers.

On our last day of diving, the dive master suggests Palancar Gardens as our Cozumel Grande Finale. The Gardens are aptly named and an appropriate finale, as this reef contains a fantastic assortment of colorful, garden-like soft coral sponges and tropical fish. Along the way, we find large lobster. The reef contains a delightful number of fabulous swim-through tunnels and canyons.

It was magical, these swim-throughs in the Gardens.

The final Cozumel dive for us is Paso del Cedral. This reef also holds a surprise that I am not expecting. Despite its shallow depth, we float through a surprising number of swim-through tunnels. Again, we are stunned to come across what appears to be an 800-pound grouper, several toad fish, and a barracuda that appears to be the size of a freight train.

Dom did NOT chase that ‘cuda…

Overall, we saw very few barracuda and NO sharks at all. The visibility during our week of diving was an out-of-this-world average of 120 to 150 feet (very much like the crystal clear spring water we are used to diving in Florida).

Scuba Club Cozumel is a club I recommend for Cozumel divers. In addition to the convenient services and facilities, we found the rooms to be comfortable and adapted to wet dive gear. The dining is very casual, and one can therefore feel quite comfortable going to dinner at the Club restaurant dressed in a grubby t-shirt and torn up shorts. Be forewarned, however, that tipping will be an eye-opener. At least it was for me. I was unprepared for the fact that the maid, restaurant staff, bellhops, boat crew and dive master ALL expect to be paid relatively hefty tips. Apparently, such a state of affairs is based upon what I presume are low wages paid to such staff.

Divers must wait at least 24 hours after a last dive before flying, so we have all of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning to explore Cozumel topside. Rather than bore myself to tears in the Club room, I decide to ignore the strong advice from Carol that I NOT rent a motor scooter to see the island. “They’re too dangerous,” she says with an air of confidence and alarm. “People drive crazily in Cozumel and you’ll be rammed even if YOU drive safely.” I’ve heard this all before, and promptly ignore the warning. But I am disappointed that Maureen HEEDS this nervously-nelly, fun-killing advice.

After haggling a bit on the rental price (I am proud to say that I saved many, many pesos by talking my way out of paying the sales tax…), I gingerly board the scooter with my ill-fitting safety helmet. I humiliate myself in front of the smirking rental scooter staff, as I’ve never ridden any sort of motorcycle, not even a motor scooter (even in my reckless youth). Like a dork, I get assurance that the scooter has no gears for me to try to learn how to use. I’m shown how to accelerate, brake, and push the scooter off its kickstand. Warily…awkwardly…I rotate my right handgrip, not sure of what would happen. The scooter scoots forward. No turning back now.

In front of me is a frantic, chaotic scene of crazed Cozumelians negotiating streets and vendor stalls in every direction. I cautiously brake every 3 feet just to assure myself that I know how to stop the vehicle.

Satisfied the machine can be halted, I am next confronted with the fact that I don’t know what Mexican stop signs look like, nor whether I’ll be harangued mercilessly by experienced drivers behind me. Fortunately, the north-south route I take south has no traffic signals or stop signs, so that terrifying thought subsides.

My confidence grows. I pass a number of seemingly exclusive, “guests only” resorts on the southwest coast. I stop at a beach entrance and decline to enter due to the fee required. I get back to the scooter and realize, to my horror, that I don’t know how to re-start the scooter. After 15 sweaty minutes, I begin to wonder if another scooter operator in the parking lot will help show me what to do, or how much it will cost to have my scooter hauled back to the rental place.

Miraculously, I manage to start it, and I’m back on the highway heading south, with the cooling breeze blowing through my hair. So THIS is what it means when I see Harley riders with black leather biker jackets reading “Live to Ride. Ride to Live.”

I pass by long stretches of gorgeous waters and nearly deserted sugar white beaches on the south side of the island. The scooter and the speed limit signs inform one that the maximum speed is 60 KPH. Ordinarily, I drive over the posted limit, but in this case my inexperience and the bumpy Cozumel highway surface keep me feeling less than comfortable over 65 KPH.

The south portion of the island, despite the fabulous beaches, is nearly uninhabited. Almost no vehicles or buildings. Just open road and incredible vistas. Again, I feel deep regret that Maureen is not with me.

 The history of Cozumel island is fascinating. During the period of the Mayan civilization, starting in 300 AD, the island was considered sacred and each Mayan woman on the mainland was obligated to visit the island at least once in her lifetime by canoe. Early in the 16th Century, Spaniards Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzales Guerrera were shipwrecked on the island, were captured by Juan de Grijalva and made slaves until they were accepted by the Mayans. Hernan Cortes, the well-known Spanish explorer, sailed to the island, where Aguilar happily boarded the ship. However, Guerrera, who had since married a Mayan woman and had children with her, refused to leave. Aguilar joined forces with Cortes and used his knowledge of the Mayan civilization to help defeat them. Guerrera sided with the Mayans, and died defending them against the Spanish invaders. As a result, he became a hero of the Mayans. By 1600, the Mayans had been wiped out by massacre and disease, and the island became uninhabited.

In the late 17th Century, the island was besieged by pirates.

Shockingly, as recently as World War II, the US Army had a base on the island and dismantled some of the larger Mayan ruins on the island.

Jacques Cousteau made the island famous for diving with his 1961 TV documentary about the reefs he had found there. There are now more than 100 world-class dive sites ringing the island.

For more and better photos I shot or gathered at Cozumel, go to this link. Select “slideshow” for the best view when the link takes you to Picasa: https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Cozumel2004#

Categories: 2001-2010, Beyond North America, Diving | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Diving in St John, US Virgin Islands (June 2003)

Maureen and I visit St John, US Virgin Islands. Neither of us have visited these islands before, and we are eager to do so.

With blissful expectations, we board the American Airlines plane in Orlando. Our flight is to stop in Puerto Rico. It is uneventful with two notable exceptions. First, since it is apparently the case that it is “all about” honeymooners, the airline bumps us to First Class seating. We “reluctantly” comply.

While “suffering” in our roomy, leather seats, we are forced to consume turkey sandwiches and a glass of cabernet. Silently, I vow to crush the airline later with a lawsuit alleging pain and suffering.

But soon after getting off the cell phone with my attorney, the plane comes upon a pocket of turbulence. “The captain has put on the seatbelt sign. Please be sure your seatbelt is buckled.”

No problem.

I’ve been through a million of these things.

Suddenly, however, the plane is abruptly plummeting. Wine and water in each of the sets of glasses in the rows in front of us, as well as our own, is shooting, cannon-like, straight into the air—splattering the cabernet all over the cabin ceiling, our seats, and our shirts.

Surreal.

It was as if we were in a science fiction movie.

Frighteningly, Maureen notices that the plane is continuing on a steep descent. My stomach is now in my throat. Our captain comes on over the intercom to apologize about the “bumpiness,” and assures us that the plane is okay. Somehow, though, the sight of our flight attendants cowering in fear in their lounge area does not reassure me. I wipe the wine off my forearms, and try to comfort Maureen as she holds on to me. As we quiver in fear and clutch each other tight, I am reminded about the “…through thick and through thin…” portion of our wedding vows a few days ago back in Gainesville.

Arrival in St Thomas, USVI, is, fortunately for our nerves, less eventful. At the St Thomas ferry dock, while waiting for the boat to St John, we notice that in the USVI, cars drive on the left side.

Not only that.

Despite the quite narrow streets, the car traffic is hostile due to high-speed driving behavior.

Our first night in St John, after settling in at our Garden by the Sea Bed and Breakfast room, is spent walking in Cruz Bay, the major town on the island. The streets in Cruz Bay on this particular night turn out to be vibrant with nightlife pulsing all around us.

Our “honeymooner good fortune” continues, as we choose the Lime Inn Restaurant, and discover that this establishment serves luscious island food. So good, in fact, that I initially propose that we dine here each night of our week here. I select a “linguine and seafood” special, and it is simply OUTSTANDING. Unquestionably the best pasta seafood dish I’ve ever sampled, and reasonably priced—despite the overall high cost of living we are to discover on St John. Our meals were complimented by a very pleasantly casual, “island rustic” atmosphere. I sampled a local beer—Carib Lager. Quite light and refreshing. Appropriate for the warm Caribbean climate we find ourselves in.

We are awoken by a very brief, hard rain, and crowing roosters (as it turns out, we learn that each day, there are a number of short-duration cloudbursts of rain that keep the air fresh and frequently grace the sky with a gorgeous rainbow).

Throughout our stay, we also enjoy refreshing tropical breezes, and relatively cool nights—in noticeable contrast to our Florida climate, where summer nights provide little, if any, relief from the heat of the day.

We drive the twisting, turning, often steeply hilly roads on the middle portion of this 27-square mile island (Rt 10 and Rt 20 are the major east-west roads on the island), and are reminded of the hairpin turns we drove on the Hana Highway in the Hawaiian Islands a few summers ago. The drive is rather harrowing and disconcerting—in part due to the narrow roads, and the need to counter-intuitively drive on the left side (the first time in my life that I have had to do so). In addition, the roads here are often menaced by VERY large tractor trailers, cement trucks, and construction vehicles driving at high speeds. I am astonished that such vehicles are able and allowed to drive the island roads.

Our destination today is the famous Reef Bay Trail, which runs north-south through the St John National Park.

But first, I give in to the temptation from an island guide that we take in Bordeaux Mountain—the highest point on the island—purportedly with outstanding, panoramic views.

We soon learn, however, that the road to the mountain (Bordeaux Mountain Road) is little more than a deeply rutted, rocky, treacherous, narrow, unpaved jeep trail. Our rented Jeep Wrangler has four-wheel drive, but we don’t know how to engage it. Despite this, Maureen (at my reckless urging…) tentatively negotiates the steep, slick uphills and downhills. We DO know, fortunately, how to use low gear for our harrowing descents and ascents. I begin to wonder if the agency that rented us the Jeep earlier in the day has a clause in the contract stating that driving this road with one of their rental cars is not allowed…

Somehow, we survive. We live to tell about it. Of course, we never found the mountain peak, so the mountain view was not part of what we lived to tell about.

The Reef Bay Trail turns out to be worthy of our time. It is a superlative sample of the forests of the island, as the trail winds through a tunnel of very interesting tropical vegetation through the park. The air is extremely humid, but is somehow quite pleasant (perhaps due to the relative lack of insects we experienced while on the island). The trail is very rocky in certain sections.

Along the way, we stopped to see petroglyphs while having lunch. Soon, we were joined by what I first thought were a USVI version of squirrels. They turned out to be mongoose. They are more thin and elongated than squirrels, and have a light brown fur. They were originally brought to the islands long ago in an effort to control the rat population. Unfortunately, the rats are nocturnal. And the mongoose are not. More unfortunate is that the mongoose have wiped out the (poisonous) snake population, harmed the bird population, and have had similarly unpleasant impacts on other valuable wildlife. They have become a widespread pest, but I was told by a National Park ranger that success is being realized with a mongoose trapping program.

I suggested placing a bounty on their cute little heads…

We discover a noticeably large population of soldier crabs—some as big as baseballs—hiding in their shells and sitting along the trail. So many, in fact, that we must walk very carefully to avoid crushing the little guys. Guys who have, undoubtedly, “never hurt anyone.”

Waiting for us as we reach the end of the Reef Bay Trail is the Reef Bay Beach. Before us is a lovely, sandy, deserted refuge. Turquoise, crystal clear water that we find to be bathwater warm. We frolic, leisurely and alone. While here, we decide to read our vows to each other again, and agree to do so for each anniversary.

Later, after our somewhat strenuous hike, I sample an imported Dragon Stout beer made in Jamaica. A quite good beer.

I am comforted by the fact that despite the law against being shirtless in public, the laws of the island allow one to drink alcohol while driving.

Next stop is the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins (the islands feature a large number of sugar mill ruins, as a major portion of the economy in past centuries was rum production using sugar cane grown on the island.

After touring these interesting ruins, we walked to Waterlemon Bay, where we snorkeled for a few hours. We spotted sting ray, sea turtle, and squid, as well as sea urchin and parrot fish (I was not impressed by the quality of the snorkeling here, although the water clarity was relatively good). During our week of snorkeling and diving the islands, I discover a larger concentration of the jet-black sea urchins amongst the coral reefs than any other place I have been to.

We also sample the Trunk Bay “Underwater Snorkel Trail,” an obligatory stop for tourists on the island. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. To spice up the rather mundane nature of the snorkeling here, I decided to make things interesting by snorkeling the entire trail in the nude. Given the fact that the Islands have the rather Victorian law that men must not be shirtless in public, my little snorkel escapade must have been some sort of capital offense in this jurisdiction.

Finally, we visit Cinnamon Bay and Beach on this particular day. Very pretty.

For dinner tonight, we dine at Zozo’s. An expensive Italian ristorante, and quite excellent food. The food is tasty and the views of the sea from our table are very nice.

We arise early the next morning, for our destination is the prized RMS Rhone wreck dive in the British Virgin Islands. (Recently, it was voted as the top wreck dive in the Caribbean by readers of Skin Diver magazine.) Our dive boat with the Low Key Scuba Shop departs at 7:00 am. Each of us 25 divers must submit a passport to clear the immigration office as our boat passes the BVI entry point.

The Rhone was a Royal Mail Steam ship. It was commissioned for the Royal Mail Packet Company in February1865 to carry mail and passengers from England to the Caribbean. The ship was launched from the Millwall Ironworks in England. More than 300 passenger cabins were included within her 310 foot length (253 First-Class, 30 Second-Class, 30 Third-Class). It had two main masts.With this size, a 500-hp engine and a weight of almost 3,000 tons, the ship was huge in its day. It was also a fast ship at the time, with a top speed of 14 knots.

The ship was on its tenth voyage (its fourth to the West Indies), when it made its first visit to the British Virgin Islands at Peter Island. She was captained by Capt. F. Wooley, who diverted her from St Thomas due to a yellow fever outbreak there

It was to be a fateful decision.

The weather on the morning of October 29, 1867 seemed pleasant enough. By 10:00 a.m., however, the sky darkened noticeably and winds started picking up. Wooley checked the barometer and discovered that it had fallen quite a bit since he first checked that morning. He ordered the steam boilers to be fired up in case quick maneuvering was needed. Both he and the captain of the Conway (a ship also in the harbor at the time) agreed that it was too late in the season for a hurricane to appear. Passengers from the Conway were transferred to the Rhone since it was felt that the larger ship would be safer in rough weather.

Both ships quickly found themselves battling a fierce hurricane. Large swells drove the Rhone against rocks and punched a hole into its hull. Seawater poured into the hull and caused the steam boiler to explode, which snapped the massive ship in two. In less than a minute, the ship’s stern section keeled over and sank. The bow swung to the north and plunged 90 feet to the bottom of the harbor.

The doomed ship took 123 passengers and crew to their deaths. Only 23 survived, 22 of which were ship crew. Capt. Wooley was among the dead.

The Conway survived by beaching itself on a shoal.

In contemporary times, Hollywood went looking for a cinematically impressive wreck, and selected the Rhone in 1976 to film The Deep. It was this wreck, therefore, that served as the backdrop for the famous scenes in that movie starring Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Shaw.

The dive we do at the wreck, while not quite as exciting as Hollywood and hurricanes, was supremely exhilarating.

We descend to 80 feet to start the dive, and the superb visibility illuminates before us the enormous wooden frame and hull of the ship lying on its side. The ship had sank in this location while anchored during a hurricane on the morning of October 27, 1867. We follow our dive master around the outside of the boat, inspecting the “crow’s nest” and other surfaces for coral and tropical fish who now colonize the wreck.

Apprehensively, I now follow the group into the hull of the ship. I am nervous because I have never penetrated a wreck before. Inside the hull, we find ourselves dwarfed in an enormous, cavernous space that formerly held living quarters of the ship.

It is a bit humbling.

And stunning.

The Rhone broke in two when it sank, meaning that our second dive would be to investigate the tail end of the ship. This dive is also quite impressive, as we are able to swim through the enormous propeller opening at the rear of the ship.

On this particular day, we learn something fundamental about the island of St John. Many of the people here are extremely friendly, helpful, and generous. Two examples should suffice.

First, we are advised that hitchhiking is the way to travel on the island (a welcome bit of news, given how expensive the taxis and rental cars are). It turned out to be true. Just stand by the side of the road and point in the direction you would like to travel. We do this on about 6 different occasions, and the longest we had to wait for a ride was about 60 seconds. Each time, we were picked up by a very polite, gregarious person eager to talk with us about the island. Hitchhiking cannot be easier, safer, or more convenient than it is on this island. We not only save on taxi/rental car fees, but we also meet a new friend who fills us in on the ins and outs of life on the island.

Second, I walk into a grocery store to buy lunch for our picnic on this day. At the register, I am horrified to discover that I have neglected to bring money to the store. I ask the cashier if the food can be put aside while I rush out to get money to buy it. He tells me not to worry about it. “Just take the groceries and come back later in the day to pay.” A few hours later, when I return to pay, another cashier has replaced the individual I originally dealt with. He is stunned when I give him the money to pay for my bill earlier in the day. He chuckles at my naiveté (apparently, he is a newcomer who has not yet grown comfortable with the generous nature of the island culture).

We begin our next morning by touring Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas—the major town on that island. Like Cruz Bay, we find narrow streets abuzz with aggressive driving. We ascend the famous “99 Steps” (actually 103).

We are subjected to a 2-hour sales pitch that unsuccessfully attempts to sell us on buying a St John timeshare (in exchange, we are awarded a free week of lodging at a destination of our choosing, a bottle of rum, and 50 percent off on an all-day sailboat cruise in the Virgin Islands).

Lunch is at Lillian’s Caribbean Café in St Thomas. I sample the unusual “coconut dumplings” here.

We take the ferry boat back to St John. We decide to ride outside in the front bow area of the ferry.

Wow.

The ride up front is highly recommended for those who enjoy a wild, gut-wrenching roller coaster thrill ride. Even between islands, where the sea lies relatively flat, the large swells that the ferry passes over lifts the bow high into the air, and we get an unexpectedly frightening, front-row view of the ship bow plummeting down on the other side of the swell. Like our little “turbulence” incident earlier in the week on the plane, we clutch each others hand desperately during our fearsome descent toward the sea. “How often do these ferry boats capsize,” we ask ourselves? “This is better than ‘The Rocket’ at the amusement park!” For an exciting thrill, be sure to ride the bow of the ferry.

That night, we do a night dive at the acclaimed Grass Cay Reef. Very relaxing. Superlative reef formations.

Seafood dinner this night is at Woody’s in Cruz Bay. Again, I sample a micro-beer, this time from the Virgin Islands. Blackbeard Ale. A good beer. And good seafood. The venue is noisy, with a character that suggests that the place is a long-standing institution in Cruz Bay for partying college kids.

The night is topped off by our enjoying a glass of Chianti on the outdoor balcony of our B&B room.

Our first dive the following morning is outstanding and extremely memorable. We dive Carval Rock Reef. For the entire 45-minute dive, we are enveloped by a thick cloud of silverside fish. Accompanying these small, synchronized fish are several groups of very large tarpon (groups of 4-7 of them—photo at right), who don’t seem shy at all about approaching us. Also featured during this dive was the opportunity to swim through 30-foot tall canyon walls forming narrow passageways. I did a few 360-degree rotations to observe the silversides and tarpon all around us here, which continued to follow us through the canyon. Visibility was about 70 feet.

Our second dive is at Congo Cay Reef. It was billed as one of the better dives in the islands.

Disappointing.

The geology is average, as are the coral formations we see. Very few fish. Viz was only about 50 feet.

After our morning dives, Maureen takes me on a pleasant, one-hour hobie cat sail in Cinnamon Bay. During our frolic in the bay, she brushes up on her sailing skills. She relearns how to “come about” with the sails to have the boat take us in a new direction.

Blissful.

Taxis are an enormous part of the economy on the islands here. They carry a startling amount of economic and political clout, which is unsurprising, given the fact that it is nearly impossible for residents and tourists to travel anywhere without them (again, we strongly recommend bypassing them by hitchhiking while in the USVI). We are told by one of our hitchhiking buddies that taxi drivers on the islands make 80K to 100K per year. Day and night, the taxis were a continuous stream of vehicles on the island roads—almost train-like in their omnipresence.

They appear to us to be the Caribbean equivalent to the mafia.

One wonders if the clout of the “taxi mob” here suppresses any thought by the local population to begin regular transit service here.

Similarly, every square inch of available roadside land on the islands is scarfed up by the space-hogging rental cars, resident cars, and taxis (most of the cars on the islands are Jeep Wranglers or Jeep Cherokees). The autos are packed in like sardines.

Why is it impossible to travel without a car on the islands? For starters, the hills are cruel and punishing in their steepness. Distances are long from place to place due to the lower densities found here. Sidewalks are almost never found along roads or streets, and there are not even shoulders found along the sides of the roads. Finally, cars tend to be driven at high speeds.

Life as a pedestrian appears to be suicidal and demanding. We saw only one or two bicyclists while on the islands. Again, no surprise, given conditions.

One aspect of this car-dependent condition is that life must be quite difficult for those who are not wealthy on these islands. We learn that real estate is more costly on St John than anywhere in the U.S. While that alone makes life unaffordable for those who are not rich, the transportation situation makes travel astonishingly expensive as well. All of the residents are compelled to spend an enormous portion of their income on taxis or owning one or more cars. And gas on the islands ain’t cheap either…

Our final day on the islands finds us taking advantage of our all-day sailboat cruise deal. We sail on the “New Horizons” sailboat. Our captain is “Mike,” and he turns out to be a real comedian and a very friendly, pleasant guy. “Abigail” is the first mate of the boat, and she keeps us satiated with muffin cakes for breakfast, a full buffet for lunch, and always filling our cups with fruit- and mixed-drinks. During the sail, I happily down about 5 rum drinks (to celebrate our venue), including a watermelon pina colada and a “Painkiller” drink.

The sail lets us snorkel Christmas Bay reef off St Thomas and Honeymoon Bay off St John. We see elkhorn coral, brain coral, lots of parrotfish, trumpetfish, grouper, squirrelfish, blenny, flounder, and boxfish.

It turns into a sun-baked cruise, and I unintentionally acquire a nasty sunburn on my back.

But the sail is a pampering, delightful experience nevertheless.

We return for yet another dinner at the Lime Inn. This time, I sample their seafood lasagna.

Simply superb.

As we are leaving, I tell the manager that because my two meals were so spectacular that I intend to return to the island for no other reason than to return to the Lime Inn.

We board the plane for our return to the real world. Again, we are OUTRAGED by the fact that we are bumped to First Class seating. While dining on poached salmon and wine, I redouble my promise to crush the airline in court. My napkin, after all, had a wrinkle in it…

[Note to American Airlines legal staff: The above references to American Airlines are JOKES. American is a fine airline that I would recommend to anyone due to their quality service.]

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving, Hiking | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Diving 40 Fanthoms, Florida (2003)

I join two friends, whose skills far exceed my own, on a dive expedition to dive I have never heard of before.

40 Fathoms Grotto.

I am tentative because the dive skills of my usual dive buddy, my wife Maureen, are similar to my own. Yet her back is ailing and she will be unable to join me on the dive. In addition, “40 fathoms” seems like a sinkhole that is deeper than my skill range.

So, like a real man, I suck up my gut and head off to dive with divers who are probably quite comfortable diving 200 feet (to my comfort limit of about 130 feet). Will they casually take me down to 190 feet? Do the dive lights that must accompany us mean that we will drop into the deep, dark depths of the bowels of the earth?

We drive south to Ocala on I-75 and head due west from that city. We find ourselves driving through the delightfully rolling, well-manicured hills of some of the best horse country in the nation.

In the middle of a region where the race horse is king, we arrive at the 8-acre 40 Fathom Grotto, a sinkhole with a maximum depth of 240 feet. The sinkhole is a deep, lush depression ringed with vegetation. The surface of the pool commonly contains a fair amount of duckweed that is ushered to the sides of the pool by an underwater bubbler.

The Grotto was discovered as a dive site by Hal Watts and Bob Brown in 1962.

We gear up at the picnic tables next to the wooded parking area, and gingerly descend down a somewhat lengthy (70-foot) flight of wooden stairs to wooden docks, where entrance to the Grotto is made by divers. The docks are well-equipped with facilities to easily complete gearing up and entering the water.

The pool is about 230 by 150 feet in size at the surface.

After a brief buoyancy check and an extremely thorough review of signals and dive plan, I deflate my BC for a descent with my two dive buddies. We descend to a metal platform 15 feet down, and the leader of our dive then does a rather rapid descent into the black void below us.

Immediately, I notice that my descent is a rather rapid plummet.

I’m over-weighted.

I’m breathing quite strongly—almost gasping—because I’m not used to such a quick descent. In addition, I recall my last deep water dive in a central Florida sink (Paradise Springs), where I started hyperventilating. Also adding to my anxiety, besides the mysteriousness of a dive I have never done before, is that a day before, I had read in a scuba magazine about two young divers who recklessly decided to exceed their training by diving to a 250-foot depth. One of them does not make it, as he is over-weighted, and was probably suffering from too much narcosis to be able to arrest his descent. His body is never found.

Would I be a casualty of the same fate??

My two buddies ask me if I am okay. I signal with my hand that I am “so-so”. Quickly, I point to my weight belt. The dive leader immediately signals me to head up to the platform we had just left, where I remove a few pounds of weight.

I’m back to normal. Relaxed. Breathing calmly.

We descend again. Visibility is not bad, but when we are a distance from the walls of the sinkhole, there are no features to get a bearing with, as the dark waters make the walls vanish. I cling unusually close, like a beginner, to the dive leader.

40 Fathoms is a fascinating dive…in a bizarre sort of way. Suspended by cables within the grotto is a veritable menagerie of antique vehicles. At about 40-50 feet, one finds a motorcycle and towsub. At about 100 feet, there is a ghostly 1965 Corvette, a 1955 Chevy, and a 1962 Pontiac. Deeper still are a 1960 Falcon and Chevy Nova, a 1937 Chevy, a Cabin Cruiser, a Chevy van, a 1928 Chrysler, a 1953 Dodge, a 1962 Corvair, a 1962 Oldsmobile, and a VW bug.

Interspersed along the walls of the grotto are 54 million year old Sea Biscuits and Sand Dollars.

At depth, the pool slowly opens up into a room of about 200 feet by 400 feet. Because the Grotto lacks a current, it is easy to hover and casually observe the limestone walls that form the chimney of the Grotto.

Dives at the Grotto are only allowed when led by a dive master/guide.

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Diving Bonaire (July 2002)

Bonaire. Billed as “the diver’s paradise.” It even says so on their license plates.

The advance reviews are irresistible. Of places in the Caribbean/Atlantic, Rodale’s ranks Bonaire…

…3rd for best dive destinations

…5th for best value

…1st for best fish life

…5th for best viz

…2nd for best macro life

…1st for best shore diving

…2nd for best underwater photography

Our flight from Tampa through Puerto Rico to Bonaire takes us about 5 hours. Our plane arrives late at night-frustrating because it is my first visit to this exotic land, and I am unable to see what it looks like. Almost unbearable. Overnight, the exotic enchantment of Bonaire remains cloaked in mystery.

It is a group of about 10 of us from various origins in the U.S. First stop is dinner. I suggest the “Old Inn,” as I notice the restaurant has an outdoor café-presumably perfect for soaking in the gentle, warm breezes of the Bonaire ambiance. Not only does the café provide the pleasant experience I had hoped for, but the tropical food we are served is sumptuous. We stay at the Plaza Resort, a relatively new and very high-quality Bonaire resort.

First morning. First glimpse of Bonaire. An arid, largely undeveloped land that is covered with a coral “soil” and scraggly shrubs. It is somehow obvious that the island enjoys nearly perfectly sunny, breezy weather the entire year. We head for the dive shop. In an effort to protect its healthy reefs (reefs that provide the economic lifeblood of this small island, as 75 percent of the visitors to Bonaire are there to enjoy the reefs), Bonaire requires all arriving divers to take part in a “check-out” dive to assure divers that their equipment and buoyancy are okay. Problems with either can increase the chances that a diver will damage the prized reefs. In our week of diving Bonaire, it becomes apparent that this policy is paying dividends. The Bonaire reefs are the most healthy I have ever seen. Bonaire is graced with 78 named boat dive sites.

The entire 121-square-mile island is ringed with a dense reef system. On the leeward side, these reefs are in calm, clear water. The reefs are home to almost 300 species of fish, and contains six of the ten most diverse dive sites in the Caribbean.

Our check-out dive is at Eighth Palm. We enjoy 60-foot visibility and are thrilled to come upon a school of squid during our little dive. For our next dive on our first day, we go to Captain Don’s Reef. Here, the reefs are superbly healthy. We spot octopus, seahorse, and lots of parrot fish. And it what was to become a trademark during our week of diving Bonaire, we are treated with thick clouds of small, vibrantly colorful tropical fish engaged in synchronized swimming (all 500 of them dart back and forth in a precisely unified manner).

We quickly learn the truism about Bonaire being a “diver’s paradise.” Here, the diving cannot conceivably be easier. The dive shop for our resort sits a few feet from the docked dive boats. Our dive equipment is stored in lockers next to the dive boat overnight. The locker room contains hangers for wet wetsuits and a freshwater tank to wash gear. A dry erase board sits next to the shop where you can sign up for any of the multiple dive boats going out the next day. If the freedom of shore diving on your own is more appealing than a dive boat, you are able to find scuba tanks waiting for you 24 hours a day. The tanks can simply be loaded into your vehicle for you to drive off to any of the seemingly countless number of fantastic, signed (with painted rocks) shore dives ringing the island-anytime, day or night. Bonaire invites you to customize your diving to your hearts’ content. Most dive packages provide you with unlimited tanks for shore dives. It is a form of complete dive freedom in Bonaire. And if the thought of driving to a shore dive is unappealing, there are tanks placed within walking distance from some of the dive sites.

Our final dive on our first dive is a shore dive on our own: a night dive at Eighth Palm. During our dive, we discover that briefly turning off our lights during the dive gave us the surreal experience of seeing phosphorescent particles of light sprayed from the ends of the fins of the diver in front of you (some form of marine life was creating this effect). Stunning. During this dive, we see large crabs, eel, and octopus.

Day two. Dive boat to the Jeff Davis Memorial Reef, followed by a dive at Cliff Reef. Here, we see two ENORMOUS puffer fish, a large moray eel swimming lazily in front of us, and then this: an extremely unusual, exotic looking yellow-spotted moray eel. Our dive concludes with our coming upon the Malanchara Wreck, where we see a great many jet-black sea urchins with their long, spiny needles-particularly stunning in the high-visibility waters of Bonaire.

On this night, we leap into one of the most incredible, indescribable dives I ever experience in my life: The Town Pier Night Dive. Our dive master, who we are to follow under the pier during our dive, has a blinking white light on his tank, which turns out to be extremely fortunate for me later in the dive.

Words cannot describe this dive, but I will do my best: It is the sensation of floating weightlessly as you glide and weave through a bright orange Dr. Seuss forest of trees while hallucinating on LSD. The concrete piers supporting the Town Pier are covered with a frothy bright orange soft sponge coral (orange cup coral), and seem like large tree trunks.

Adding to the effect is that there are a number of other divers under the pier at the same time. Everywhere you look, there are beams of white light in this orange forest. A “Star Wars” effect is created. When will Darth Vader appear?

Most all of the “orange tree trunks” contain long 4- to 6-foot tube coral jutting out in all directions like tentacles (yellow and purple tube sponges). We also observe lots of sea cucumber. Seahorses and huge spiders (Arrow Crab spiders) with enormous spindly legs are found on the orange trunks. A great many spotted drum fish. And trumpetfish.

I am enjoying the experience immensely. Then, terror strikes. Distracted by being within a wonderland, I take my eyes off of my dive group for a few seconds. To my horror, I realize, as I frantically look in all directions, that I am no longer able to see the blinking white light of the dive master. There seem to be hundreds of blinking white lights in all directions as numerous divers in other dive groups are under the pier shooting photos. For 10 minutes, I panic as I rotate and swim in circles, anxiously looking for that blinking white light and a recognizable dive fin of someone else in my group. “WHERE IS A FAMILIAR DIVER IN MY GROUP??? WHERE AM I??? HOW DID THE GROUP MOVE SO FAR FROM ME SO QUICKLY???” I am petrified as I quickly realize that I have no orientation whatsoever…no way of knowing which way to swim to get out from under the pier…no way of knowing if there is an air space between the pier underside and the water surface above. Even if I were to find my way out from under the pier, I realize that the others in the group may panic once they realize that I am no longer with them. The experience was, well, terrifying.

Miraculously, after 10 minutes of circling, I spot the familiar blinking light about 150 yards away. Immensely relieved, I swim to it and am overjoyed to find my group…a group which is oblivious to the sheer fear I just experienced.

Dinner that night is at the Mona Lisa restaurant in downtown Kralendijk-a harbor town. Outstanding. Wonderful ambience. Superb presentation of food arrangement on the dinner plates. Delicious seafood.

Dive boat trip the next morning takes us to the 1,000 Steps dive, so named because while there are only 68 steps to enter the dive site from shore, the steepness of the steps and your heavy dive gear makes it seem like 1,000 steps…

We discover that the reef we dive there also appears to be “step-like” in appearance, which apparently contributed to the name it was given. Again, we are regaled by colorful clouds of synchronized small fish.

Next dive is at Andrea One, where we find relatively poor visibility.

We finish the day with a shore dive at Margate Bay. A challenging, unusual entry since the “beach” consisted not of sand, but of razor-sharp coral shards.

That night, we went downtown to experience some of the Bonaire nightlife (photo above). I have a profoundly “small world” experience while standing on a narrow, festive downtown street. Half a world away from home in Florida, a good friend from home suddenly walks by. We are both startled to see each other, and we greet each other with a big laugh. Turns out that he owns land on Bonaire and often visits with his family. Wow.

Afterwards, we head for a nearby Kralendijk nightclub. Sample the Dutch beer. Are amused to observe “Dutch karaoke” being performed.

Crack of dawn on the next morning finds us boating to the Forest dive site. There, visibility is relatively good. I am mesmerized by what our dive group finds: a bright yellow Frog Fish. Perhaps the most unusual creature I have ever seen. It was so brightly yellow and so odd in appearance that I feel as if I am looking at a plastic toy. Later on this dive, we come across a monstrous moray eel. He (or she) is as thick as a telephone pole!

After Forest, we launch into Bonaventure, where we again see a large number of huge puffer fish.

That night is the Something Special night dive. We start out watching an impressive sunset from our dive boat. Here, at this dive, we run into several large spotted eel. And we are stunned by what comes next: There, in our flashlight beams, is a four-foot long tarpon!!! My eyes bulge out! I’ve NEVER swam alongside such a BIG fish! He swims with us for most of the dive, enjoying the fact that he/she is able to use our dive lights to gulp down a number of small fish lit up by our lights. We enjoy the symbiosis…

First thing Friday, it is time for me and my roommate to try out a non-dive activity on Bonaire: Renting bicycles for a ride around the island. Our first destination is Washington-Slagbaai National Park, which contains a shallow lake home to flocks of very flamboyant and very bright pink flamingos. The Park was formerly two large plantations handed over to the Government on the express condition that they may never be developed. We head for the northern shore, which is a place of desolation. Very rocky shores and very rough surf explains why. No diving on this side of the island. The “relaxing little bicycle ride” turns out to be a punishing, 20-mile, 5-hour ride. Mostly uphill. Quite painful for someone like me, who has grown accustomed to the Flatlands of Florida. All of the ride was under a hot, mid-day Bonaire sun.

We pass through the town of Ricon. Lots of ramshackle poverty. We find that the cactus, which grows throughout this arid, hot island, is used here as a form of “living picket fence.” The cactus used grows in orderly rows, making them well-suited to serve as screen fences. Only fences I’ve ever seen in the desert that need to be pruned occasionally.

We get back to our hotel-exhausted. Sweat is pouring off of my beet-red face and arms. And it is only 15 minutes until our afternoon boat dive.

I wolf down some peanut butter sandwiches and a pear.

Once in the water at Jerry’s Reef off Klein, however, I am rejuvenated in the relaxed weightlessness of the dive. Despite rain the night before, we enjoy 60-foot visibility. We see a large, lazy scorpion fish resting in a rock cavity. A turtle swims with us for a few minutes, as does a large barracuda.

“Disaster” strikes again. I discover that I’ve lost my credit card. I thoroughly search my room and my clothes. I go to all the places I’ve been on Bonaire asking for it: restaurants, dive shop, hotel lobby. Presuming it is lost or stolen, I call 3 credit agencies (at great expense due to long-distance rates) to place a “fraud alert.” On Friday afternoon, however, the crisis ends. A person in our dive group finds the card sitting in the parking lot next to our hotel room. It had been there overnight, undisturbed…

Saturday’s boat dive brings us to Rappel Reef. Very rough seas greet us, and bob our boat like a cork. Re-entry at the end of our dive was like riding a bucking bronco. At our next dive at Small Wall, one of the people in our dive group reaches a milestone: It is his 1,000th dive…

Near the end of that dive, I spot a large anchor at the bottom. Swimming to it, I find 4 squid swimming nearby. Two of the squid are paired (photo below). They float within inches of our masks, swimming forward and backwards. It becomes apparent to us, during the 15 minutes that we watched in fascination, that they were having sex. The smaller male would repeatedly insert a tentacle into the larger female. The female would then swim to the bottom and poke a crevasse with her tentacle-depositing eggs?

Here is a YouTube video of some of our Bonaire diving:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1EHAoVKwKU

A second YouTube video shows photos I and others shot on this dive trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O0k-mHX_C0

Saturday’s grand finale finds us sunset dining at Richard’s, a waterfront restaurant. Very good seafood. It does not get any better than this!

By the end of each day, after doing our 3 daily dives, I feel complete exhaustion. Bonaire is a form of “Diving Death March.” Each morning I awake, I say to myself: “Do I have the energy to do ANOTHER dive?” But after the first boat dive each morning, I’m revved up to “Dive! Dive! Dive!

Bonaire has a national motto: “Unhurried…unforgettable.” I would add more: Simply spectacular.

There is, however, one down side to their “unhurried” character: I will not soon forget how unhurried they are, as I find that Bonaire has the SLOWEST airport check-in in the known galaxy. We arrive at the airport for a 6 am flight. We spend one long hour and 45 minutes (this is not a typo or an exaggeration) in a sweltering hot outdoor lobby with our heavy dive gear. The airport assigns ONE person to processing. For each passenger in our long line, he spends 10 minutes processing the ticket and goes to the separate “bag line” with you to tag your bags. Almost an intolerable experience. Unhurried…unforgettable…

Bonaire is a mere 50 miles north of Venezuela-almost a dive weight throw away. It is the closest I have ever been to South America, increasing the long-standing temptation I’ve had to sample that great, mysterious continent.

Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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