Diving

Hawaiian Islands (August 2001)

A first-ever trip to Hawaii. My expectations are high, but the islands exceeded my wildest dreams. The islands are stunning, spectacular, magical, incredible. Maureen and I will return soon.

In the week leading up to the trip, I have to pinch myself to confirm that I am not dreaming. That in fact, I would soon be in the exotic, famous Hawaiian Islands.

The trip starts out frantically, which turns out to be a harbinger of things to come. On the morning of our flight to Hawaii from Florida, we are already running late—we needed to be on the road by 4 a.m. to get to the airport in Jacksonville for a 7 a.m. flight. I have spent the night at Maureen’s house. Fumbling to unlock the door of my house to load up my luggage into my truck, the key to my deadbolt BREAKS IN HALF. No problem, I think to myself. I’ll just get my spare key, but when I look, I discovered that I have loaned the key and have not gotten it back. Fortunately, Maureen had a spare and I quickly retrieve it from her.

Our flight is first to Dallas-Ft Worth. From there, it is a 7-hour flight over the southwest and the Pacific Ocean to reach the islands. It is uneventful, which is exaggerated by the fact that the two books I have brought to read during the long flight both turned out to be deadly dull. I am stuck reading airline safety manuals and watching the in-flight movie without sound.

Our American Airlines flight touches down in Honolulu. We are immediately struck by one of the pleasant aspects of the islands: They feature nearly perfect weather year-round. Light sea breeze, warm air, moderate humidity. Stepping off the plane lets us know, up front, that we are in paradise.

Each of the islands, we learn, is nearly surrounded by gorgeous beaches, with interior, inland areas boasting countless, dramatic, picturesque waterfalls often hundreds of feet tall.

The ocean waters in the Hawaiian Islands are crystal clear, since very little nutrients wash into the waters from the volcanic soils, which means no seaweed or other, similar forms of aquatic vegetation. In fact, we find the waters to be so very clear that they glisten like sparkling diamonds. A very vivid appearance, and therefore nearly perfect conditions for snorkeling and scuba diving amongst the rainbows of coral reef and tropical fish.

For each island, we find that summer days are usually partly overcast with either high or low clouds (depending on which side of the island you are on), and usually show a morning or afternoon pattern that you can count on each day depending on which island you are in. Throughout our stay on the islands, it seems that throughout morning and evening, sunshine would be nearly continuously and intermittently interspersed with very light drizzle or mist events (requiring a great amount of use of your “intermittent” function with your car’s windshield wipers).

An unfortunate feature we notice on each of the four islands we visit: There is very meager bird or mammal population. The birds are small in number due to the exploding mongoose population, which we see several of, dashing across the street in the way that we see squirrels back home. The mongoose were originally imported to the islands to control rats, and happily feast on Hawaiian bird eggs.

As you will notice in my travel log descriptions, many of the names of locations on the islands are nearly impossible to pronounce—even for natives. Maureen and I decide, early on, that instead of engaging in humiliating, self-flagellating, brain-damaging efforts to try to pronounce the names, we will simply abbreviate the names. Therefore, for example, Liliuokalani Gardens became “L” Gardens. Maniniowali Beach became “M” Beach. Laupahoehoe Peninsula became “L” Peninsula. Honaunau Bay became “H” Bay.

Below are links describing our adventures on the four islands we visit…

Oahu

Our Bed & Breakfast in Oahu is J&B’s Haven near the southeast Oahu coast. We find it to be a very pleasant B&B with gracious, helpful, polite hosts. We discover that the location delivers very quiet nights. No sirens, motor vehicle engines, airplanes, helicopters, alarms, leaf blowers, or loud music. Just the tranquilizing sounds of rustling banana and palm tree leaves…

Like the other islands we visit, we discover that one side of the island is desert arid—much like the American southwest. The other side is a lush, tropical rainforest garden. We find this arid character on both the south and west sides of Oahu. And like the other islands we visit, we notice that the seas surrounding the Hawaiian islands are many shades of brilliant, glistening, crystal-clear, deep blue. This aspect of the waters is due to low nutrient content on the islands, which results in no growth of seaweed or similar forms of vegetative growth in the waters. In addition, this crystal-clear attribute is especially pronounced on the drier sides of the islands, due to lack of river sediment runoff into the ocean.

We first visit the horseshoe-shaped Hanauma Bay, which is outstanding from the lookout. We visit the Halona Blowhole nearby, which is worth a stop. Next, we see Nu’uana Pali Lookout, which Mark Twain found extremely impressive when he visited long ago. King Kamehameha I drove defending forces over 1,000-foot high cliffs in this area, which gave him control of Oahu centuries ago. Today, sadly, the view in my opinion is somewhat marred by sprouting subdivisions and highways.

Suprisingly, downtown Wakiki on a Wednesday night has sidewalks bustling with vibrant, festive pedestrian activity-street performers, tiki torches, musical entertainment, and thousands of pedestrians.

On our first night on the Hawaiian Islands, I take Maureen out to dinner for her birthday. Our restaurant—Hoku’s—provides us with a superb meal, and the ambience is greatly enhanced by the expansive windows next to our table, which provides us sunset views of the beach and Pacific Ocean just outside.

Overall, we drive our rental car about 50 miles on our first day.

On our second day, we arrive at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor at about 7 a.m. (doors open at 8:30). By about 7:15, there was a line hundreds of feet long snaking back into the parking lot. Fortunately, we are in the first group ushered in for a tour. First, we are taken into a theatre and shown a documentary movie of the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese Zero Fighter Squadron. It is a very moving, powerful film, and brings tears to nearly all eyes in the audience. I strongly recommend seeing the film.

After the film, we are shuttled, by boat, to the Memorial out in the bay. The arched white concrete viewing structure sits, solemnly, over the sunken hull of the USS Arizona (see photo above), which sank with 1,102 men aboard. Like in other parts of the island, the crystal clear water provides a clear view of the deck of the ship. Fifty years after the ship was sunk, we notice oil slicks on the surface, indicating that the ship still leaks oil.

We next visit the Banzai Pipeline—a beach world famous for its strong, prominent surf (photo at right and below left). It is a pleasant surprise to find that the beach not only boasts great waves. It is also a gorgeous beach. We spend time on the beach watching the surfers do their thing. After a while, we wade into the water. I discover that body surfing the beach requires caution, because the powerful waves, more than once, strongly drive my head into the sand when it crashes at the beach. Afterward, despite lengthy, meticulous rinsing, washing, and combing, I have what seems like a bucket-full of Pipeline sand stuck in my scalp and ears.

Following the Pipeline, we hike to the summit of Diamondhead (Le’ahi). The 45-minute hike, on a trail built in 1908, to the 760-foot summit is arid and hot. One portion requires ascending a LONG staircase (the nearly 1-mile hike includes a 560-foot elevation gain). At the top, you arrive at a hardened military bunker that still contains gun mounts. Your reward at the summit is spectacular. Birds-eye views of the 350-acre lava crater next to Diamondhead-formed in an eruption 300,000 years ago. A panoramic view of the stunning Pacific Ocean, and a stupendous view of the Honolulu skyline. Be sure to bring lots of water for the hike.

Overall, we drive about 120 miles on our second day.

More so than other Hawaiian islands, Oahu is filled with bougainvillea flowers growing along streets.

Overall, Oahu is more impressive than I was told to expect with regard to natural areas such as beaches and vistas (we found some of the most gorgeous beaches in all the islands are on Oahu). However, the island is being seriously compromised by what appears to be a history in which the island sought to “build its way out of congestion.” The result of this ruinous strategy is that much of the island is now afflicted with the downward spiral of six-, eight-, and ten-lane arterial roads, sprawling suburban areas, high-speed and hostile traffic, and serious congestion. Efforts to alleviate the “misbehaving cars” problem are obvious, as we noticed a large number of commercial areas and residential/resort streets are full of speed bumps (which, by the way, are much more annoying than speed humps, because speed bumps punish the driver even when the driver has slowed down to the properly modest speed). We also notice obvious efforts to install bicycle routes/lanes and provide a better-than-average bus system.

Total Days on Oahu: 2

Total Miles Driven on Oahu: 170 miles

Big Island

The Big Island (also called “Hawaii”) seems covered with igneous, volcanic rock, and compared to Oahu, modestly sized streets and highways-which, of course, results in better-behaved traffic on Big Island.

We first visit the Kona Coast State Park, the entrance road of which requires driving along a VERY rough, up and down unpaved “road” zig-zagging its way through an immense lava field. The park itself is quite nice, and offers diverse landscapes. At the parking lot, there are picnic and restroom facilities. Walking north along the beach, we find pleasant, attractive, uncrowded beaches and coves. To the south, by walking over beach and hardened lava, we arrive at our first black sand beach, which presents a striking appearance when the white foam of waves comes crashing down upon it.

Next is Hapuna Beach, half a mile long and 200 feet wide. The beach has recently been ranked as the top beach in the U.S. We are a bit puzzled, since the beach is average at best with regard to attractiveness compared to other Hawaiian beaches. Apparently, it excels in beach amenities, such as a wide beach with fine-grained sand, easy swimming conditions with lots of shallow, clear water near the sandy shoreline, good picnic and restroom facilities, and clear water.

Using Doughty’s “Big Island Revealed” guidebook-which proves to be an invaluable resource on Maui and Kauai as well-we are aware of a hidden gem unknown to most other beachgoers there. At the southern end, a rocky point juts out. Extending outward from that point and then southerly into a small cove, the waters are graced with substantial and impressive coral reefs, clear waters, and colorful tropical fish. This makes for some excellent, easy, uncrowded snorkeling for Maureen and I.

We then travel south to the town of Captain Cook to find our Big Island bed and breakfast. We are in for a very pleasant, astounding surprise. Our B&B, known as the “Edge of the World,” is very, very impressive. It is nestled on the steep western slopes of Big Island, overlooking-and I mean overlooking-Kealakekua Bay. “Edge”, as we called it, offers us a spectacular bedroom and full use of the living room, lanai, kitchen, dining room, and utility room. Our bathroom is attached to our bedroom and was enormous in size. Our king sized bed sits next to sliding glass doors that open out to the lanai (a second-floor deck along the entire back side of this large house). The lanai provides us with breathtaking, panoramic views of the western coastline and bay (see photo top right). In the backyard off the lanai is a coffee field (Maureen enjoys several cups of world-famous “Kona” coffee grown on the B&B property while we are there), a macadamia nut orchard, and papaya trees. Each night is extremely relaxing, as we doze in an extremely quiet setting with a very gentle, comfortable tropical breeze wafting in from the open sliding glass door.

The access road to the Edge helps explain why it was such a secluded getaway. A very sharp hairpin turn requiring a 3-point k-turn by a motorist (even in a small subcompact car) leads you down an exceptionally steep, winding, narrow paved road that is so steep that it was initially very frightening for us to drive down (we shifted into very low gear and braked the entire way-feverishly gripping the steering wheel for a white-knuckled ride down to the Edge of the World.

Given this and the setting of the Edge, it truly seems like the edge of the world to us

It is soon after our arrival at the Edge that I make the horrifying discovery that I am unable to find my new and very expensive digital camera-a camera that I have just a week ago beefed up the memory for to hold hundreds of Hawaii photos. After a frantic retracing of my steps in my head, I convince myself that the only possible place it could be is at our Oahu B&B. I place a call to them and leave a message on their machine. And anxiously awaite their call back. A day later, it comes, and they confirm finding the camera. Great relief, but unhappy that I would not have use of the camera for the entire Hawaii trip.

On our first night, we drive to the mile-long Ali’ie Drive on the west coast near Kona. Like downtown Wakiki, we find this street to be bustling with festive pedestrians, and reminded me a great deal of the Mardi Gras atmosphere and architecture found on Duval Street in downtown Key West.

Overall, we drive about 180 miles on our first day on Big Island.

To begin day 2, we visit Rainbow Falls-a dramatic, powerful twin falls worth a stop for a look (photo on left). Just down the road is “Boiling Pots,” which we find is not worth our time. It may have been that we observed it during low-flow conditions, but we did not see any sort of seething, boiling water. Looked like an exciting place to run a kayak through, though…

After this, we visit Kulala Falls, which is fair, then the 420-foot Akaka Falls, which was stupendous.

We then drive into the windward town of Hilo, which receives almost continuous rains, making for a very lush, flowery, luxurious community. The town features an impressive, seemingly continuous downtown farmers market, where we purchase some very odd Hawaiian fruit, such as the “chocolate icing” fruit, and a reddish-purple fruit that we end up calling the “hairy balls” fruit.

After Hilo, we stopped at Laupahoehoe Point, which had been crushed by a tsunami on April Fool’s Day in 1946, forcing the village to move up to a higher elevation. Today, it is a very attractive park with a very rocky, rough shoreline with a strong, violent surf. We are surprised to see scuba divers near the rocks, since it seemed as if the strong surge would quickly crush them against the rocks.

Tropical Paradise gives us a helicopter ride over much of the Big Island when we stop again in Hilo for lunch. During the ride, we fly over the enormous lava fields in Volcanoes National Park that has an immensity that can only be appreciated from the air. When we are there, active lava is pouring into the Pacific. Great clouds of white steam were rising up at this southeastern island location. It is astounding to observe brand new land being formed, and we are, from the chopper, able to observe the red-hot lava as it rolls into the sea (photo on right).

After this aerial treat, the guidebook leads us to a small, 8 x 14 spring- and ocean-fed volcanic pool of water that was like a bathtub, with clear water at 90 degrees. The Highway 137 that leads to this pool is canopied with colossally tall trees.

Overall, we drive about 350 miles on our second day on Big Island.

Our third day starts off with a dive with the Big Island Divers. The first dive is at Golden Arches, which was a wonderous dive location with several swim-through arches. We spot a large number of moray eel, hawksbill turtle, crab, and numerous jet-black sea urchins. Our visibility is an impressive 90 feet. Overall, we find the coral reefs here are very healthy.

Our second dive is at Pine Trees, which has a number of named features such as The Aquarium, Suck-‘Em Up Cave, and Skull Cave. Suck-‘Em Up turns out to be a delightful treat. You enter a small tunnel. (During our entry, we spotted a 7-foot white-tipped reef shark resting a few feet from us in a hollowed out rock formation above sand.) Once you enter a turn in the tunnel, the strong sea surge through the tunnel sucks you up and propels you out into open water.

This second dive includes our sighting a number of extremely large moray eels (as thick as baseball bats). Our visibility is an acceptable 75 feet. We also notice an unusually large number of black and grey sea cucumbers on the ocean floor. Some of the tropical fish we see on these dives are parrot fish, white mouth moray eel (BIG), achilles tang, moorish idols, and yellow tang. I am told that the bright yellow color of the yellow tang, and its recently large population at Big Island meant that when you flew over the coastline, you would see a yellow cloud of the tang. Today, because of the harvesting for aquariums, this yellow cloud is no longer seen. However, in our dives and snorkel trips, we nevertheless observe a large number of yellow tang.

Like nearly all Big Island dives, the drop off just beyond our dive sites plunges to 18,000 feet. It helps not to think about that kind of depth awaiting us…a black void where you cannot see where you’ve been or where you’re going…

On both dives, I find that the submerged lava rock formations, tubes, and chimneys offer extraordinary dive experiences and views.

After our dives, we head down to Ali’ie Drive and enjoy a Kona Golden Ale microbrewery draft beer, which tastes especially good after our dive and day of Hawaiian adventure.

Overall, we drive about 45 miles on our third day on Big Island.

Wide awake at 5 a.m. the next morning (easy to do when you are 6 hours ahead of Hawaii time), we get an early start for our anticipated trip to Volcanoes National Park on the southeast side of the Big Island. This park contains the Kilauea Volcano, the most active volcano in the world. Each day, 300,000 to 1,000,000 cubic yards of lava erupts from this volcano, for a total of 2,150,000,000 cubic yards since its inception. The average temperature of the lava is 2,000 degrees. Kilauea covers 38 square miles, and has destroyed 181 homes. In 1990, the town of Kalapana was erased by the lava.

We find the Sulfur Banks to be boring when we are there. The Steam Vents are impressive-not so much because of the steam but because of the fantastic views provided of the Kilauea caldera. We discover that the Halermor’uma Crater is fantastic. And as advertised by both back-home friends and our guidebook, the Kilauea Iki hike is stunningly diverse and spectacular (photo above left). The 3-mile, 4,000-foot elevation trail is one of the best hikes on the Hawaiian Islands. We first walk through a very lush and fragrant rainforest and ancient fern forest along the caldera rim, occasionally getting lookout views of the moonlike caldera floor way below us. At the distance we are above the floor, hikers crossing the floor look like tiny ants. After about 40 minutes through the forest, the trail descends to the caldera floor, which is an abrupt, stark contrast to the forest. The floor features what appears to be an endless, gigantic black asphalt parking lot that was buckled and crevassed due to major earthquakes. At several locations on the floor, we find hot steam issuing from fissures, indicating that the caldera has still not completely cooled. It was last active approximately 42 years ago.

After the Iki hike, we visit the Thurston Lava Tube. While impressive, we find this first few hundred feet to be too safe and touristy, due to its being lined with electric lighting. But at the end of that tube, we arrive at a second tube, which extends for 330 meters. Here, we were quickly immersed in absolute, jet-black darkness (flashlight required for hike). Because we are alone in the tube at the time, we also experience “deafening” silence. Next, we are treated to a sight that is unknown to most Park visitors. Devil’s Throat is located in our guidebook, but not signed by the Park, apparently due to the liability concerns at the Throat. This feature-only a short hike from the Park road-is unsettling when you arrive, gingerly, at the precipice. Getting to the abyss of the Throat took my breath away, and I suggest that Maureen take my hand before she arrives and takes a look down it. The Throat turns out to be a few hundred feet wide, and has sheer cliff walls dropping hundreds of feet down into the darkness (photo at left). Part of the uncomfortable feeling comes from the edges of the volcanic throat, which had large cracks and crevasses at the edge of the cliff, indicating the edges are sloughing off into the Throat. At times, that event perhaps takes sight-seers to an abrupt, painful, terrifying death, as they are hurled into the frightening, rocky hole.

Our next stop at the park was the Holei Sea Arch, which we find to be extremely impressive. The big Pacific Ocean waves in this location are exceptionally powerful, and sound like explosions when they crash against the igneous rock walls along the Park coastline.

We then come-literally-to the end of the road. In the recent past, the road continued around the southeast coast of the island. Today, it ends abruptly and 8 miles of it are now covered by thick black lava rock. At the end of the road sits a visitor center. In a mobile home. Ready for the next needed retreat…

Overall, we drive about 220 miles on our fourth day on Big Island.

Day Five, Big Island. We head out for an eagerly awaited horseback ride. First, we are treated to an astounding view of Waipio Valley from a lookout above it on its southeast side (photo below left). The Valley ends at a 1-mile long black sand beach at the coastline. A few hours later, a group of us are shuttled down into the valley in a four-wheel drive van. The ride turns out to be part of the exciting adventure, since the one mile drive down to the valley floor follows a one-lane road with the steepest grade on the Big Island—35 percent. So steep is it that vehicles without four-wheel drive are fined hundreds of dollars for trying to drive down it, and then must pay an additional $700 to be towed back up the road.

Our horseback ride is 2 hours in the Valley. The Valley is magical. Sheer walls hundreds of feet high rise up from 3 sides. The fourth side is the sea. Countless waterfalls stream down these walls. The Valley floor is very lush due to the 100 inches of rain the Valley receives each year. The floor now grows mostly taro, and has supported, over the years, 50 generations of Hawaiians.

The village in the Valley was destroyed by the huge tsunami in 1946. For 2 decades, the Valley contained no human residents. Starting in the 1960s, resettlement began again. Population today is about 50.

After the horseback, we visit nearby Polou Valley, which offers remarkable views. After observing the valley from the cliffs above, we make the strenuous hike down to the black sand beach at one end of the valley. We finish the day by going back to Hapuna Beach for relaxing, “doing nothing,” and watching the sun set over the Pacific. However, since we have done a “grueling” horseback ride earlier in the day, Maureen and I decide that we need to soothe our aching, sore muscles, so we climb into the waiting hot tub just outside of our B&B bedroom on the lanai. Viewing the Pacific while relaxing in a hot tub with a glass of wine is very therapeutic after a long and tiring day of adventuring in paradise.

Overall, we drive about 220 miles on our fifth day on Big Island.

On day six of Big Island, it is off to Honaunau Bay (at the Place of Refuge) for more superb snorkeling in crystal clear water. The entry point consists of smooth lava rock rather than beach sand, and it is a very popular place for people to snorkel. For good reason. The coral, abundant and colorful (albeit small) tropical fish, dramatic lava canyons, and high-visibility water are outstanding. About 30 percent of the tropical fish found in Hawaiian reefs are found no where else on earth-the highest percentage of endemic species in the world.

The next destination is Ke’ei Beach, which is a beach paradise (photo below right). The beach itself is gorgeous and secluded-secluded apparently because it is not easy to find at the end of a long dirt road and a residential cul-de-sac. The setting is pure Hawaii beach with powdery golden sand, abundant coconut trees, and glistening surf. While there, I seek a way to harvest a fresh coconut. Since it seems impossible to climb the trees, I begin hurling large lava rocks at them. Finally, after about 40 throws, I knock one down and Maureen and I enjoy its sweet coconut milk.

That afternoon, we set out again with Big Island Divers for an afternoon dive at Garden Eel Cove just before sunset. Once at the bottom, we are told to sit motionlessly and watch out over the ocean floor. What emerged with our 70 feet of visibility were hundreds and hundreds of small, twig-like, black Garden Eel, something I had not seen before. We spot Trumpetfish, Moray Eel, Yellow Tang, Stripe Belly Puffers, Achilles Tang, Ornate Butterfish, Orangeband Surgeonfish, Orangespine Unicornfish, Saddle Wrasse, Moorish Idol, Yellowfin Surgeonfish, Bullethead Parrotfish, and Teardrop Butterfly fish. Then, after the dive, we wait on the boat for THE MAIN ATTRACTION. The world-famous Manta Ray Night Dive off of Big Island. We are told in advance that this is a “must” dive. We are not prepared for the wonders of the show that awaited us. We are speechless afterward.

The dive begins by having each of the 6-8 of us on our dive boat descend to the bottom of Garden Eel Cove (about 35 feet) after sunset. There, we kneel down in a circle, and raise our powerful halogen lights upward so that the light points straight up to the surface. Soon, the enchantment begins. First, very dense white clouds of plankton are attracted to the beams of light we cast above us. Suddenly, quite large, graceful manta rays-six in all-start their magnificent feeding ballet on the plankton we have concentrated above us. Holding the light just above our foreheads means that the thickest concentration of plankton is just above our heads, and this, therefore, became the feeding target of the rays. They would glide above us, open their enormous mouths, then slowly swoop down toward our heads to scoop up a big helping of the plankton meal. Often, the rays would swim figure-eight summersaults above us to engage in a continuous feeding strategy within the plankton clouds. On their downward swoop toward me and the others, they would head directly at our faces from about 15 feet away. Then, at the last possible instant, with their open mouth just inches from our faces, they would swoop back upward over our heads (when their open mouths are within inches of our faces, we are clearly able to look down inside their wide throats, gullets, and gills). On 10 to 15 occasions, the upward swoop is so close that the ray actually brushes against the top of my head. Once, the ray does not time her or his upward swoop properly, and crashes square into the front of my dive mask on my face. Bam!

The approach of the rays is so close, and their bodies so large (some have, during our dive, a wingspan of up to 14 feet), that I would feel a strong turbulence that nearly knocks me over as they pass.

We watch this fantastic underwater dance for 70 minutes. A number of times, as I kneel next to Maureen, I turn to her and am so overwhelmed by the experience that I want to scream to her: “This is UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!!” Frustrated by the inability to communicate under water, all I am able to do is to put a big thumbs up in front of her face to express my joy and exhilaration. Fortunately, she does not mistake this well-known dive signal for my desire to ascend to the surface.

Quite simply, it is a completely unforgettable experience. By far, my best dive experience ever. It is so astounding that if I had done just that dive during my 16 days in Hawaii, it would have been my best adventure vacation ever.

Here is a YouTube video of that once-in-a-lifetime dive we did:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRsAuCx_u60

Overall, we drive about 70 miles on our fifth day on Big Island.

Our sixth day at the Edge of the World B&B starts luxuriously, as always. I relaxed in the hot tub outside our bedroom. After another incredible breakfast served by our amazing hosts, we set out for Kealakekua Bay for some kayaking and snorkeling along the coast near our B&B. Our destination is the Captain Cook monument, erected in 1874 by British soldiers, one mile away at the far end of the bay, where, it is said, the water is more crystal clear than anywhere else on Big Island. My experience the day we were there would lead me to agree with that assessment. After an easy paddle, we come ashore at the rocky coast near the monument and find the snorkeling nearby to be excellent. It is said to be the best snorkeling in all the islands. A huge rainbow of tropical fish, astounding lava rock formations-including an underwater lava arch that I free dove through-and lots of attractive coral reef. About 100 feet from the shore, the rock formations show a very steep drop-off to the dark depths of the sea in this Bay area. The water is so clear there that it reminds me of the crystal clear spring water we enjoy at the many springs where we live in Gainesville, Florida.

We snorkel for 90 minutes.

Overall, we drive about 20 miles on our sixth day on Big Island.

Part of my harvesting experience on our B&B “farm” was to gather a basket of macadamia nuts and crack them with the special nutcracker device they had at the B&B. Fresh mac nuts are delicious. J

Breakfasts at the Edge, like every other aspect of the B&B, are outstanding. Our hosts are extremely charitable, helpful, and very accommodating of my unusual non-dairy vegetarian diet. Included are freshly made banana pancakes topped with mouth-watering fresh papaya sauce. Our breakfast table also includes fresh pineapple, fresh Kona coffee (grown on the grounds of the B&B), herbal teas, granola, mango, yogurt, and tropcial fruit juice. The breakfasts are, of course, substantially improved by our breathtaking views of the bay as we eat on the lanai.

We find that the Big Island has a rather sparse network of roads on an island of enormous size and significant topography, which means LOTS of driving. We therefore conclude that on our return to the Big Island for future adventure, it would make much more sense to set up multiple base camps in B&Bs at various strategic points around the coastline, instead of a single basecamp, which would inevitably have a number of long drives, no matter where on the island it is located.

Next up is the island of Maui.

Total Days on Big Island: 6.5

Total Miles Driven on Big Island: Over 1,085 miles

Maui

Our first destination on Maui, very early in the morning, is the Haleakala Crater, which sits atop a large mountain on Maui. On our ascent up the road leading to the summit (and our horseback ride trail head), we notice hundreds and hundreds of group-led families riding down on earth cruiser bicycles.

This ride is famous. It starts at the summit at the crack of dawn, and bicyclists are able to descend several miles—all downhill—without need for pedaling. We are told that the ride is better than the famous “Road to Hana,” but after seeing it, I must disagree. The ride group requires one to dress in geeky, dayglow uniforms, wear bulky motorcycle helmets, and ride a low-performance bicycle passively down the road. While the views and ability to ride a long way without pedaling must be pleasant, we find the Road to Hana adventure to be extremely enjoyable—undoubtedly more so than these swarms of ride groups.

But I digress. Our adventure today is the well-known, highly-touted Haleakala Crater all-day horseback ride with PonyExpress Tours. The ride takes us 2.5 hours to cross most of the crater floor, and another 2 hours to return. The crater is formed, surprisingly, by wind erosion, not volcanic action. The colors—reds, blacks, greens, greys, browns—and formations appeared very surrealistic within the crater (see photo above). The sands within the crater are very loose, giving one of the trails the name “Sliding Sands.” Inside, the crater is cold, utterly arid, and dusty. It is immense in size.

The experience makes us feel like we are “on top of the world,” since, at 10,000 feet of elevation at the summit trail head, we are above much of the cloud cover in this part of Maui. In fact, on our ride back, we gallup through clouds passing through, and it seemed like we are passing through a blizzard or forest fire.

The last eruption for this volcano was over 10,000 years ago, yet, due to lack of rain, we see very little vegetative growth. One exception is the silversword plant, which we have the great pleasure to see. This plant occurs no where else in the world. It lives 5 to 50 years, and blooms once in its life, then dies. To our fantastic good fortune, many are blooming for our ride.

After the ride, we visit the northwest Maui coast, where we find very rough waves and rocky beaches. We observe Nakalele Blowhole, which is the most impressive blowhole we see on the islands, given the vertical height it is pumping up to. We visit a few stunning Maui beaches. The most attractive is Kaanapali Beach, a beach so pretty and romantic that a couple is getting married there when we arrive.

We eat dinner in Lahina, a wonderful, funky, walkable, traditional town on the west Maui coast. The town contains Front Street, which represents Maui’s version of the bustling, festive Duval Street/Key West scene in Florida. We dine at Maui Brews, which serves Kona draft beer. I order the “volcanic-spiced” ahi fish dish, which is simply DELICIOUS.

Overall, we drive about 190 miles on our first day on Maui.

Our second day at Maui starts at 6 a.m. to meet our Mike Severns dive boat for a dive out at the most popular and dramatic dive in Maui—Molokini Crater, a marine and bird sanctuary. The “tuff” crater rim emerges offshore from Maui, and the volcanic mountain is mostly under water (photo at right). There are several dive sites both inside and outside the crater. Our dive is The Back Wall outside of the crater, which is said to be the preferred place to dive the crater. The very clear water—which normally ranges from 100 to 180 feet— was deceiving, since even at our maximum depth of 75 feet, looking up to the surface during the dive creates the impression that we are not very far from the surface. On the day we dive, the vis is a staggering 160 feet.

The dive is enjoyable and impressive. Our dive master finds a red and black speckled octopus sitting atop a ledge, and draws the creature out by dangling a fishing lure above its head. The octopus leaps up and grabs the lure with its tentacles, allowing the master to playfully drag the octopus for a few feet.

Our second dive is near the coastline at St. Anthony’s Wreck. While the wreck is somewhat interesting, with huge green sea turtles resting on its deck, it was a comparatively mediocre Hawaii dive for us. Next to the wreck lies enormous racks full of old car tires, sunk here to provide reef and fish habitat, and we swim amongst the tires during our dive.

Overall, we find the Mike Severns Dive operation to be exceptional. They provide very thorough, lengthy safety briefings, and lots of details about what sort of marine life (and marine life behavior) to expect during the dive.

Next, we check out Oneuli Beach, which is an extremely picturesque black sand beach that gets little use—a secluded, hidden gem (photo at left). From there, we discover the hidden, little-known Secret Cove, which has a very intimate, cute, lovely beach tucked into a tiny cove. Indeed, it is so nice that we understand that couples often marry there.

Again, we return to Lahina for dinner. This time, it is Lucarelli’s Hop Tomato & Brewery. Because it is a brewery, I am “forced” by lust to order one of their homemade liquid delicacies. I sample their Dark Porter Ale, and am extremely impressed. A very good beer. Their food is not bad, either.

Overall, we drive about 70 miles on our second day on Maui.

Our third day features one of the main events on Maui: The extremely popular “Road to Hana” (or “The Hana Highway”). We start out at 6:30 a.m. to beat the infamous tourist train of bumper-to-bumper rental cars, tour buses, and vans (on average, 1,500 to 2,000 vehicles drive the road each day).

First stop is an almost never-visited the 200-foot Lower Puokokamoa Falls, which most tourists just wiz by on the highway above it. Our Doughty guide recommends we stop to see this often-missed falls, take a short trail hike, and enjoy this impressive gateway falls for the Hana Highway.

At Waikani Falls (also known as “3 Bears”), we are instructed to take a path that leads down from the side of a bridge to the valley below the falls. The first step or two is ugly: very steep, large, and treacherous, but we manage without incident. Upon arriving at the pool for these falls, we are treated to a delightful triple falls, and I swim out to the falls in the chilly water (photo at right).

Makapipi Falls is a peculiar falls in the sense that you look at it by peering over the highway bridge railing. The falls is directly beneath you under the bridge.

The next outstanding find we make, courtesy of our guidebook, is the 2.5-mile Nahiku Road. This road is the most lush, fragrant, flower-filled road we see in all of Hawaii. (Which reminds me: we noticed a very sweet, tropical, flowery fragrance on many of our Hawaii hikes, due to the tropical flowers and fruits.) It comes as no surprise to us that the ex-Beatle, George Harrison, owns (or did own) a house on Nahiku road. The road terminates at picturesque Waiohue Bay. There, we watch a family of porpoises cruising for food, which causes, at one point, a spinner dolphin to leap into the air as they glide by. At this bay, Maureen frolicks in a small artesian waterfall-fed pool sitting next to the bay. It was a very idyllic setting.

Blue Pool is extremely impressive. The falls that feed the pool, and the pool itself, are only a few short feet from the surf of the ocean. Again, Maureen and I swim out to the falls across the falls pool.

Just down the road is Wai’anapanapa State Park (“W” State Park for those of us without a doctorate in linguistics). This park is one of the most gorgeous, picturesque parks I’ve ever seen. I shoot a roll of film very quickly here, since the views are so spectacular every time I turned around. The jet-black lava rock at the shores very dramatically bring out the vibrant, deep blue, glistening waters in the coves of the park (photo at left). The water is therefore glistens exceptionally. Off to the side of the main path into the park is a very nice, 100-foot wide black sand beach, which sits next to a neat little lava tube which opens at the back of the beach and at the other end at the surf.

Venus (Waioka) Pool is the scene of some daring cliff diving by Maureen and I. The pool is very attractive in its setting next to the sea. While there, we observe what appears to be local teens leaping off cliffs next to the pool. Since the reports from these daring leapers is that the pool is plenty deep, I spend about 20 minutes working up the courage to mount the “smaller” 30-foot jump point. It looks very scary from this comparatively modest height when I look down to the water. Summoning my courage, because I was still not convinced that the small, volcanic pool was deep enough, I throw caution to the wind and LEAP INTO OBLIVION (photo at right). Quite an adrenaline rush on the way down, and at that height, it takes a LONG 10 seconds before you reach the water. I goad Maureen into following suit, and she very impressively does so.

Getting back to safe, tourist activity, we return to Hana Highway and come to one of the best hikes on Maui—Pipiwai Trail. A fabulous, 2-mile trail with a 650-foot elevation gain. A dramatic falls is found along the way—Makahiku. Next up was the hike to Infinity Pool, which is the pool of water at the top of, behind and right at the precipice of these 200-foot falls. At the back of Infinity Pool, when you look toward the falls, the Pool seems to stretch out to “infinity,” since there is no lip at the falls and the horizon is the Pacific Ocean. Tentatively, I enter the pool (photo below left), having read in the guidebook that this is something that can be done carefully, without being swept over the falls. And after all, I have all the courage I need, now that I was “Dom, the Venus Pool Cliff Jumper.” It is extremely harrowing, having gazed at these very, very tall falls a few moments earlier. Would I be able to resist a strong current of water rushing over the falls? If not, it would be an abrupt, horrifying, ugly death…

Behind the Infinity Pool and falls is a very attractive canyon, whose stream is relatively narrow. We swim upstream into the canyon, seeking a glimpse of an upstream falls. Upstream, the walls are sheer and about 70 feet tall. Very dramatic and intimate.

We hike upslope on the trail, seeing several impressive waterfalls along the way. At one point, the trail leads through a very dense, spooky, quiet, dark tunnel of bamboo trees. Many of the bamboo have enormous trunks.

The reward at the end of the hike is the incredible, 400-foot Waimoku Falls (in the photo below right, you can barely make out Maureen standing at the base of the falls).

We finish the day by dining at a very good, funky seafood restaurant in a funky, colorful, walkable, alternative culture gateway to Hana town known as Paia.

The Road to Hana is a demanding road to drive. Every mile, the Hana Highway has a number of bridges crossing a creek or valley. Most of the bridges are one lane, which requires one side to yield to the other side (first to arrive at the bridge has the right-of-way). In a way, these can be called “give way” bridges. The Road to Hana is 50 miles of nearly continuous hairpin turns (many with narrow lanes and rock cliffs jutting out into). One estimate is that there are 600 turns. Many of these turns are so sharp and narrow that there are signs advising motorists to blow their horn before taking the turn. For the 50 miles, the road is such that 15 to 20 mph is your top maximum speed.

Often, this exacting road is too challenging for many drivers, who demonstrate their lack of skills, courage, or both by driving 5 to 10 miles per hour. I often jokingly refer to myself as “Mario Andretti” since I am Italian and have little patience for driving incompetence and timidity. On Hana Highway, these ultra slow drivers seemed to be around every turn. This elicits in me a number of muttered, flustered comments such as “Oh, great! We’re behind [a slowpoke] again!” Then, when I would finally manage to pass the incompetent loafer, I would bid the driver farewell by shouting to Maureen: “Good Riddance!”

We find that on Maui, difference between the hot, arid, dusty Haleakala Crater area and the Hana Highway could not be more stark. Hana is always wet, and lush. It turns out that our early-morning strategy was a good one. We see few sightseers early on, and by mid-day, we are off frolicking on trails and waterfalls, and do not return to the highway until the sun is setting and the tourists have vanished.

Overall, we drive about 150 miles on our third day on Maui.

We hop an inter-island Aloha Airlines flight from Maui to our final Hawaiian Island destination: Kauai, the Garden Island.

Total Days on Maui: 3

Total Miles Driven on Maui: 410 miles

Kauai

Our bed and breakfast here-South Shore Vista-is a very, very impressive surprise. It is obscenely spacious, and gives us sole use of a full kitchen (complete with pots, pans, dishes, glasses, silverware), bathroom, dining room, living room, bathroom, and backyard deck. The view from the deck and the dining room (which had huge glass windows facing this view) is smashing, since it overlooks banana and papaya trees, a lush valley, Kauai mountains and the Pacific Ocean. In addition to Edge of the World on the Big Island, I strongly recommend this bed and breakfast.

First up is the startling, unexpected Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain, when he first saw it, dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” We find his description was extremely accurate (photo at left). I never expected to see such a dramatic, colorful, expansive canyon in Hawaii. The canyon is 10 miles long, one mile wide, and 3,600 feet deep. Stopped at Waimea Canyon Lookout, which provides breathtaking views of the canyon. It is then on to the end of the road-Pu’uokila Lookout at the end of Route 550, which Doughty calls one of the greatest views in the Pacific. After seeing the view, which includes Kalalau Valley and the Pacific coastline, I have to agree. We hike into the canyon on the Canyon Trail in the Koke’e Trails area. This trails area is full of an overwhelming network of trails. The Canyon Trail is exceptional, giving us stupendous views of the canyon. I cannot stop taking photos with my camera along this trail. On the downside, the hike is very hot, dusty, and dry. We strongly recommend bringing along plenty of water.

Kauai is very aptly named the Garden Island, since it is very lush and attractive. We notice that the island seems to be covered with feral chickens, which are seen almost constantly on roadsides and fields. In the morning, the crowing of roosters is very noticeable.

For dinner on our first night at Kauai, we sample bottles of Kauai Gold microbeer. I find it to be fair to partly cloudy with regard to quality. The natural wonders of the islands are outstanding. The island beer is not…

Overall, we drive about 75 miles on our first day on Kauai.

Day two on Kauai starts with a visit to the Spouting Horn blowhole. We then head to the Fathom 5 Diveshop for our Kauai dive. Our first dive is the most popular and impressive dive on Kauai-Sheraton Caverns. Have about 70 feet of vis. During this dive, we see graceful (and big) green sea turtles, and we glide through a fabulous series of swim-thru lava arches. The second dive is at the 3 Fingers site. Poor visibility. More sea turtles. Spotted a green crown starfish.

After the dive, we check out Poipu Beach. Very attractive, but roped off surf because a native and rare Monk Seal just had a calf at the beach. We also visit Gillin’s Beach, which is very attractive. Next, we drive through the well-known “Tunnel of Trees,” which consist of formally aligned, very tall swamp mahogany (eucalyptus) trees which were donated to the county and planted on the road several years ago after Walter Duncan McBryde, a local landowner, discovered he had 500 of them left over after landscaping his home almost 100 years ago. While the trees have recently suffered from a hurricane, it remains an impressive drive. We visit the 80-foot Wailua Falls, which is the falls used for the opening credits in the Fantasy Island TV show, a twin falls that is worth seeing. As an aside, we visit Nawillwili Town and Lihue town and decided they are mediocre and not worth visiting.

Overall, we drive about 100 miles on our second day on Kauai.

We start the third day on Kauai with a 30-minute hike to Ho’opouli Falls. The trail is lush and adventurous. We first come upon a smaller falls. The trail passes along and across a small stream, and braids through a very soft, low-growing fern ground cover. Arriving at Ho’opouli Falls, we discovered the falls are impressive, but the floor of the falls appeared to be inaccessible due to the sheer walls surrounding it.

We stroll on Moloa’a Beach, which is an exceptionally attractive beach within a small cove (photo at left). Behind the beach is a very pretty freshwater stream that flows to the sea and appears very good for kayaking. We lounge and frolick on the beach for a while.

We go see the Kilauea lighthouse, which is extremely postcard picturesque.

It is then onward to the anticipated “Secret (Kauapea) Beach,” which I look forward to because the name given to it is partly the result of having some “nude beach” history. A pretty beach that is not much in use while we are there. The waves are rather large and powerful here, similar to the Banzai Pipeline.

A famous view we look at is the Hanalei Valley Overlook, which provides postcard beauty to even amateur photographers like me (photo below right).

We visit Queen’s Bath for a quick dip, which is a warm pool next to the sea embedded in an igneous rock depression. After leaving the Bath, and walking back to the access point, we pass a small cove and there watch a family of green sea turtles battling the surging waves inside the cove. Easy to watch them because again, the water was crystal clear.

We head to Ke’e Beach State Park, where we check out some large caverns embedded into the cliff walls next to the park. We then find the trailhead to what is considered the most stunning, famous trail hike in all of Hawaii-Kalahua Trail. Unable to resist, despite our exhaustion, we hike the first 1/2 mile of the 11-mile trail. The trail follows the incredible Na Pali coastline, scene of incredible cliffs, waterfalls, beaches rugged wilderness, and stupendous kayak trips. At the 1/2 mile marker, we have special views of the Na Pali cliffs, and Ke’e and Tunnel beaches (photo lower left) in the opposite direction.

After returning to the valley floor, I snorkel the Tunnel Beach lava formations. True to its name, the beach offers outstanding snorkeling in a dense maze of volcanic, underwater tunnels, crevasses, walls, caves, and drop-offs encrusted with attractive coral reef and home to a nice population of tropical fish. It is said that the lava tunnels are so prominent that they can be seen from space. Like other snorkel adventures we do in Hawaii, this great snorkeling is very close to shore and easy to get to from the beach.

For dinner, we were fortunate to find the excellent Coco Café in Wailua. Superb dinners, funky atmosphere, folksinger, gravel floor in our outdoor, tented seating area. They had excellent ahi fish dinners.

Overall, we drive 132 miles on our third day on Kauai.

On our final day on Kauai, we take a 60-minute copter ride over Kauai with Air Kauai. The helicopter is very luxurious and a newer model. The pilot is a very knowledgeable narrator and skilled pilot. Oh, and the views we have during the ride take our breath away—especially the Na Pali coastline (photo below) and the canyon areas where major films such as the Jurassic Park series was filmed. The spectacular, extremely tall and numerous canyon walls and canyon falls made it easy to see why the area had been chosen as a backdrop for major films. Our impression after our ride: this company offers the Cadillac of Hawaii helicopter rides.

More so than other Hawaiian islands, Kauai seems filled with churches, Subway submarine sandwich shops, rainbows, and shave ice stands, not to mention a huge number of places renting an endless supply of kayaks, indicating the kayaking is very good in Kauai.

We plan to return to Kauai (and probably Big Island) since, of the 4 islands we visit in Hawaii, we are most impressed by Kauai. And there is much we have not yet sampled here.

Total Days on Kauai: 3

Total Miles Driven on Kauai: 307 miles

Grand Total Days in Hawaiian Islands: 14.5

Grand Total Miles Driven on Hawaiian Islands: 1,972

Our adventures, unfortunately, do not end on Kauai, the last of the 4 islands we visit. After waiting two weeks to get back to Oahu to retrieve my expensive digital camera from our Oahu B&B, we fly back to the Honolulu airport from Kauai to prepare for our flight back to Florida. Fourteen days before, I had forgotten that camera at the B&B. It seems silly and a little risky to arrange to have the camera mailed to me in Florida, since I am so near it already in Oahu.

The task seems straightforward and simple. Or so it seemed. We arrive at the airport at about noon. Our flight would depart for Florida at 6:30 p.m. The B&B with my camera is 18 miles from the airport. Just arrange for travel to the B&B and return in plenty of time for the flight to the mainland. Right? If only it had been so easy…

My first mistake is to decide it makes a lot of sense to just take a city bus. We’d save a lot of cash for expensive Hawaii taxi service, or a car rental.

The blunder is that I forget about the difference between a “local” bus route and an “express” route. The fateful mistake: we board a “local” bus at about 1:30 p.m. The bus driver tells us we’d need to transfer buses. No problem. Plenty of time.

90 minutes later, our bus arrives at the transfer point (having stopped at all the hundreds of stops behind us, it has taken quite a bit of time to travel about 10 miles). It is then an anxious 30-minute wait for our transfer bus to arrive. Plenty of time left.

Our transfer bus seems to stop every half block as it approaches our B&B. It is also taking side routes off the main highway, as local buses need to do.

We finally arrived at what we think, foolishly, is the closest bus stop to the B&B 1.5 miles from the B&B (turns out that there is one a stone’s throw away from it). By now, I am getting extremely nervous and panicked. Would I have time to retrieve the camera a mile and a half away and get us back to the airport in time? In my haste to jump off the bus and make a mad dash for the B&B, I NEGLECTED TO PICK UP MY CARRY-ON BAG SITTING NEXT TO ME ON THE BUS! Which has our $300 dive regulators in it. And my expensive, conventional camera. And ALL our 15 rolls of film I have shot during the trip. Oh, and it also contains our plane tickets back to Florida…

Maureen notices I did not have my bag and screams to me our only hope: “You need to sprint after that bus and catch it!!! You forgot your bag on it!!!!” Of course, in suburbia, it is hopeless. Unlike the urbanization behind us, where the bus stops at every stop, in the suburbs the bus never stops because no one uses it. After 5 minutes of running, frantically and hopelessly, after the bus with my heavy hiking shoes on, I realize I have lost sight of the bus and have no hope of catching it.

I am convinced we are doomed. After all, how could I possibly retrieve the bag (assuming it is not stolen by a passenger) at the bus terminal station in time for us to catch our flight only an hour or so away? But giving up was not a possible option.

I dash into a nearby gas station. I call the bus station and am told that the bus loops back to the street we are on in about 30 minutes. The gas station staff confirms that the bus does, in fact, loop back, and they tell me where to wait. I begin to very frantically and anxiously pace back and forth on the sidewalk, looking for the bus, and glancing back to Maureen, who decides to wait back at the bus stop we had gotten off at a few blocks away.

It was now 10 minutes after the bus was supposed to have looped back. I ask a guy waiting on the sidewalk with a young boy in a wheelchair if he knows about the bus, since it appeared he was waiting for it. He tells me he was not waiting, and that the bus had gone by about 15 minutes ago.

I am crushed. I missed the bus!!! He tells me I can wait for the next one, or he can give me a ride in his car to catch up to the one I missed. I tell him that the next one was useless, and I am not sure if the one that had passed was the bus I was on. I am stunned by his generosity, however, since he soon drives back with his car—his wheelchaired companion loaded in the car for the trip.

I thank him for his generosity, and bid him a warm goodbye.

I am now completely convinced that the situation is totally hopeless. Even if I could somehow find the bus, we’d have missed our flight, and the bag would almost certainly be stolen in all the time it sat alone.

Ten minutes later—miraculously—a bus pulls up. I board it. My bag is there. What an enormous relief! I snatch it up. I assess the situation: No time and no way to let poor Maureen know what has happened as she waits for the bus 5 blocks away. I would have to just hope that she knew that I had gotten the bag back.

But it is now 5:00 p.m. The only thing I can think of is to make a desperate, wild-eyed sprint to the B&B 1.5 miles away. Uphill. In hot, dry weather. With heavy boots on. I stash the bag at the gas station and started my dash, cursing myself for not being in Olympic runner shape.

Finally, I arrive at the B&B front door. I rang the bell. The host opens the door to a guy who had sweat pouring off his body and was out of breath. “Thank you for finding my camera. Can you let me know of a cab I can use to rush to the airport immediately? Oh, and can I also use your bathroom at once?”

I cannot imagine what she is thinking as she observes this spectacle. Am I being rude or asking too much of her? Fortunately, she very graciously helps out. She calls a good taxi service she knows of. He arrives just after Maureen gets to the B&B. It is now 5:50 p.m. And we have Honolulu rush hour, 18 miles, and a plane soon to leave in front of us.

The taxi driver, thankfully, is skilled enough to get us to the airport with no time to spare. We pay him a fare and a nice tip. They start boarding the plane just as we get to the gate.

As it turns out, we would have saved time, money, and seriously stressful aggravation if we had simply paid the one day rate for a rental car.

But it is so much more politically correct to take the bus. Next time, the first question I’ll have when boarding: “Is this an express or local bus?” And the first question before I get off the bus is, “Do I have my bag?”…

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot while visiting the Hawaiian Islands: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEnUO8dNUSY

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

Drift Diving Silver River, Florida (2001)

We decide to do a dive at Silver River, since I had only recently learned that dives are allowed in the river.

After calling the Silver River State Park, we decide to put in our canoe at a park put-in point just downriver from the point as far upstream as you are allowed to dive. It is a short, easy paddle, despite the strong current. Carrying our scuba gear and canoe to the boat launch is physically demanding. It is a walk of over a half mile along a wooded trail in the Florida heat. The weight and bulk of our stuff is so substantial that we need to make two trips from our truck. We are happy to see that there are hardly any boats on the river, but that is surely due to the fact that we don’t not launch our canoe until about 6 pm.

After paddling to the sign saying “No diving or swimming beyond this point” (downstream from the spring head), we search for a place to don our gear. Finding none, we paddle to a fairly clear shoreline. Unfortunately, the river bottom is VERY soft, and we sink into it about up to our knees, and the smell of rotten eggs (due to the sulfur in the muck) is strong. It is therefore not easy or quick to put on our gear. Briefly, there is an impulse to abandon this madnesss.

After getting geared up, my friend realizes that we have forgotten to bring a rope to drag our canoe during the dive, so we cut off half of the nylon rope from the dive flag I have bought earlier in the day. After a short distance, my friend signals for us to surface. Alongside the boat, he is highly agitated and angry. First, he could not stay down and asks if I have any weight to give him. He then realizes that the problem is that he still had air in his rented BC. His second problem is that his rented regulator is free-flowing air. I turn off his air, and then swim to shore to fix my own goof: I have forgotten, in the muck, to tighten down my tank straps on my BC, which means that my tank has almost completely slid off my BC.

After securing the tank, I get back to my friend and turn his air back on. We finally set out for the dive. Turns out that despite the river looking crystal clear from our canoe, the vis was only about 15 feet-probably due, in part, to the fact that the sun is getting behind the trees at that hour, and because it has just rained briefly, which perhaps kicked up some turbidity. Not to mention our stirring up tons of muck at our dive put-in quagmire.

The dive is nevertheless a good one. Very relaxing, due to the strong current issuing from the HUGE Silver Spring at the spring head. We see lots of turtles, lots of big bass, and bowfin fish (large fish with a rippling fin on his back). For nearly the entire dive, we have a huge school of small sun fish (bluegill?) following us and staring at us only inches from our masks. We also see a large number of ENORMOUS, 4- to 5-foot long gar fish (photo above)-sometimes in schools, and usually in the deep portions of the river (maximum depth, by the way, was about 20 feet).

The river was down about 3 to 5 feet due to the long drought that we are only just recently emerging from. Which is part of the reason a Nervous Nelly park ranger at the gate tries, repeatedly, to talk us out of doing the dive. He keeps warning us that the low water means that the large, swarming packs of gators are now more aggressive and territorial (we never see a gator during our dive-unfortunately, since I’ve never seen one during a dive and would like to have that kind of experience someday). He also warns us about aggressive water moccasin snakes in the river (we never see a snake, either). Finally, he strongly warns about aggressive young kids in motorboats on the river, saying our dive flag would just be run over by crazy, homicidal maniacs who didn’t care about such things. We ignore the ranger advice to have only one of us dive while the other stayed in the boat as a look-out. In my opinion, that ranger is in the wrong line of work. He made it seem like we were sure to die during the dive, and that he was terrified of normal outdoors experiences. I am fully expecting him so say, “Lions and tigers, and bears!! Oh, my!!” His worries actually make me more encouraged, since I enjoy it more when an adventure I do is at least potentially deadly.

Because we are so shallow during the dive, our air holds out easily. I have some left after my dive computer said “81 minutes”-which is a personal best for length of dive.

Overall, I’d say the dive is “okay,” but maybe not my best river dive experience. The critters are impressive (both topside and in the water), but the vis is not good, and the lack of a place to don gear makes the dive entry extremely difficult. I’d highly recommend getting taken there by pontoon boat so that you can enter the water with your gear on. Otherwise, you’ll discover that getting the gear on will be a big part of the (mis) adventure.

So in all, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the dive. If you go, I’d strongly recommend going by pontoon boat. Note, also, that I’d recommend diving Rainbow River if you’d like to do a drift dive in a spring-fed Florida river. Rainbow has WAY better vis. Silver is better only in the sense that you’ll see much more impressive fish.

 

 

 

 

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

Diving Troy Springs, Florida (2001)

With a friend joining me, I dive Troy Springs in the middle of the Suwannee River springtime, and in the middle of the worst drought in Florida history.

The run from the spring to the Suwannee is only a couple of hundred feet long, and is 4 to 6 feet in depth.

The legend of Troy Springs is that there is an old Suwannee River paddle-wheeler steamboat wreck called Madison. She was scuttled in September 1863 by her captain, James M. Tucker, who abandoned his vessel in order to lead a band of men to fight for the Confederate forces in Virginia in the Civil War. Unfortunately, I had thought the wreck was at the bottom of the spring. We did not find it, because it is apparently near the Suwannee River at the end of the Spring run. Word has it that the wreck has had it’s wooden planks looted over time by souvenir seekers.

We gear up and dive, dive, dive. Lots of turtles. The bottom of the spring chimney is about 70 feet. At about 20 feet, we look down and see only an inky black. Can’t see what we are descending to, but we press on. Near the bottom, our eyes adjust to the light. At the bottom, the chimney is impressive. Tall, sheer limestone walls circle above us — Cathedral-like. I recline against a rock, fold my arms, and peacefully gaze up at this magnificent, clear-water view around me for several minutes. An impressive, large spring. Many have died in the Troy cave in the past. We don’t enter the large cavern entrance. Too dark and I do not have my light.

 

 

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

Orange Grove at Peacock Springs, Florida (2001)

After months of not diving, I am anxious to breath compressed air again, and finally talk my girlfriend, Maureen, into joining me for a dive at a North Florida spring. Our planned destination is Madison Blue Springs near Madison, Florida, since it is billed as a very good dive in my Underwater Florida book. After some tricky route choices with the directions, we arrive at the gate of Madison Blue. Horrible disappointment. Disappointed to discover that their season is May through October, and we were there in the last week of April. Damn.

We are later to discover that the Spring has been purchased from private ownership by the State of Florida, and there is an unknown date as to when it will re-open, and what the facility will consist of when that happens. So the dive remains on my list of “dives to do,” but I’m not hopeful that the dive will happen anytime soon.

Being in a region considered the springs capital of the world, we are hopeful and confident as we consult the dive book for a nearby dive. The next wothwhile-looking dive in the area appears to be Peacock Springs near Mayo, Florida. The Springs area-a state park-appears to be deserted. Not seeing a dive shop within the park, we head back to the shop we saw near the Park entrance. Turns out that the many springs at the Park were still recovering from a silt load picked up by recent flooding from the Suwannee River. The only diveable spring in the park with any sort of visibility is Orange Grove. We ask about Convict Spring down the road, and are told it is a small, not very memorable dive.

At Orange Grove, we find a recently constructed boardwalk stairway that allows easy diver access to the Orange Grove sink. The sink is ordinarily mostly covered with duckweed, depending on the season, and it disperses fairly well due to diver bubbles. Large limestone walls form one side of the sink pool. See photo above.

Despite the recent flooding on the Suwannee, and the siltation of much of the cave system, we find the Orange Grove dive to provide fairly good visibility (about 45 feet). Upon entering the sink, we find ourselves in a large, round cavern room. Around the edges, there are a few pass-throughs for our dive: a few large trees that have fallen into the pool, and a very short archway. At about 15 feet, there is a ledge that rings the pool. We see a number of small fish and a few turtles. We are told that a small gator lives in the sink, but we see neither the gator nor her/his mommy.

Our maximum depth as open water divers at Orange Grove turns out to be 61 feet. We experience an impressive, sunlit window view by looking up at the surface of the sink from 61 feet.

Silt cloudiness is a relatively minor problem during the dive, but we nevertheless regret kicking up some silt (despite being careful and maintaining good buoyancy) because there are cave divers below us.

More About Peacock Springs

Peacock Springs contains superb examples of surface and subsurface karst limestone geology, including two major, third magnitude springs (Peacock and Bonnet), a large spring run, six sinkholes, and several small sinks and depressions. Many of the springs and sinks are diveable, but the vast majority of the diving is cave diving.

The sinks and cave system provide critical habitat for at least three endangered or threatened species: the cave crayfish, the Florida cave amphipod and the Hobb cave amphipod.

All of these features are found within the 252-acre Peacock Springs State Recreation Site. It became a State Recreation site in 1990 after several years in the hands of several private owners.

Also found at the site are mature native forests including xeric hammock, upland hardwood forest, bottomland forest, and floodplain swamp.

The springs feed the famous Suwannee River.

Infiltration of rainwater and the flow of groundwater has dissolved limestone in the Peacock Springs area to form the largest underwater cave system in Florida. It is one of the longest underwater cave systems in the entire continental United States. There is nearly 5.5 miles of passages that have been surveyed by cave divers in the area.

There are many warnings at Peacock Springs about how deadly the caves can be to the unwary. At least 45 deaths have been recorded by divers in the cave system at Peacock, including cave diving instructors. Open water divers are not allowed to carry lights.

 

 

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

Diving Blue Grotto, Florida (2001)

On a cool, crisp, sunny day, a friend and I travel to Williston, Florida for my first exploration of the well-known Blue Grotto dive. Williston is somewhat of a diving mecca, as it is also home to Devil’s Den, one of the most spectacular geological features I have ever seen.

Blue Grotto has been open since 1988 as a commercial dive park. It is a large sinkhole with steep limestone walls surrounding it (see photo to right). Entry into the sinkhole is extremely easy due to the floating wood dock design, which features lots of surface area to get geared up, and a gently sloping ramp into the water. The opening of the sinkhole cavern is enormous-80 feet by 20 feet. Because the water temperature is 72 degrees year round, it feels like bathwater on this somewhat chilly January day. Since they are allowed for divers not cave-certified, I bring along a dive light, and find it useful for peering into the many caverns, crevasses, and holes within the sinkhole.

The sinkhole is famous for always having crystal clear water, delivered from a spring that discharges 22 million gallons of sparkling clean water each day. We are not disappointed, as we have visibility of about 100 feet during our one-hour dive. Looking back toward the cavern opening when we are down to the first cavern room is an impressive sight, since the cavern angles downward and creates a view of strong, striking streams of sunlight filtering down toward you. The sinkhole contains a school of smallish fish-many of which are catfish.

For those that are cave-certified, there is a nylon rope that leads you through a “U”-shaped cavern down to a depth of 95 to 100 feet. You enter from one side of the cavern and exit from another side, which means you do not need to backtrack. Peering down toward this cave route, we are sorely tempted to dive down to swim the route. We settle for doing a few fairly pleasant, somewhat tight “swim throughs” at about 50 to 60 feet.

One interesting feature of Blue Grotto is an “air bell” at about 30 feet. This allows divers to breath compressed air while still at depth, should there be an out-of-air emergency. We check it out, and it holds several divers at one time.

The park area surrounding the sink is a quiet, pleasant, wooded area with picnic tables mostly used to gear up. There is a dive shop, restrooms, and a place to rinse off gear.

 

 

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Diving Paradise Springs and Ginnie Springs, Florida (2000)

I take a day off from work to join a couple of friends for a day of diving. We start out doing a dive we have done before: The very colorful, crystal-clear, fish-filled Rainbow River drift dive. On this day, we enjoyed a 90-minute dive—letting the current of the river do much of the work as we float along for about 1.5 miles.

We then eat lunch at KP Hole, a county park, and are off to a dive we had not done before—Paradise Springs, which is due east about 30 minutes from Rainbow.

Divers are aided at the privately-owned spring by being allowed to park near the spring entrance, and gear up at a nearby gazebo, which is just a short walk to a wooden stairway that leads down to the spring mouth. The mouth is at the bottom of a 40-foot slope within a small, wooded area. The mouth is small—only 20 feet wide.

The spring is quite interesting and dramatic. Near the mouth at the surface is a petrified, enormous whale bone and a large tree angled toward the surface. The walls and ceilings are covered with prehistoric artifacts—a very thick layer of large sand dollars, sea biscuits, shells, fossils, and bone fragments. The water is crystal clear (up to 200 feet of visibility) and 74 degrees year round.

Descending to depth is aided by a thick, yellow plastic rope—which I spend most of my descent holding on to, as I am concerned about the threat of a sudden blackout (“zero visibility”) due to the possibility of one of us kicking up sediment from the bottom, and my having no real previous experience with cave diving or overhead environments (note that this dive can be done without cave-diving certification, as long as you do not proceed beyond the “grim reaper” sign at a depth of 100 feet). Because the sink descends at an angle from the entrance at the surface, it becomes somewhat dark at depth—which requires divers to carry flashlights.

While descending, we are treated to very good visibility of the large cavern rooms we pass through. The sink is mostly quite roomy with very adequate clearances, with three large rooms that one passes through at a 45-degree angle on the way to the 100-foot depth, which is the end of the road here for non-cave certified divers. At this location, we are greeted by a “grim reaper” sign that warns non-cave divers to go no further, instead of proceeding into the tunnel, which eventually leads to a 140-foot depth.

One of the real treats of this dive is to occasionally look back at the surface. An eerie, ghostly light blue glow can be seen all the way down at the “grim reaper” sign.

Unfortunately, I am forced to ascend soon after reaching the grim reaper room as I have started hyper-ventilating. This soon induces my first dive-related panic attack. I am terrified. Fortunately, despite this terror and discomfort, I am able to ascend slowly enough that my dive computer does not send me frantic “beep” warnings, telling me that I had an overly-rapid ascent. By avoiding the “beep,” I am able to avoid decompression sickness (“The Bends”). Since I have a fair amount of air remaining in my tank at the surface, I went back for a shallow dive in the first two rooms of the sink (which are quite large), after I have calmed down.

In all, my group greatly enjoyed the dive. I will probably return—and next time, I vow to dive without “incident.”

The next day, I am invited to a 50th birthday party for a friend. The party is held at Ginnie Springs, and since I have not dove there in the past, I brng along my gear—hoping to find a dive buddy at the park. As luck would have it, I quickly find a guy who is at the park checking out his new gear during a trip from Georgia.

We do two dives. First is the main Ginnie Springs (sometimes known as the “Ballroom”) cavern dive (photo of main boil at left). I am surprised at the size of the limestone cavern/room, the amount of overhead that you find after you swim into the cavern opening, and the maximum depth of the cavern (60 feet). A metal grate blocks access to a tunnel. The tunnel gushes a strong current of spring water. The cavern is large enough to afford a fair amount of interesting exploration of fossils and limestone formations (our dive is about 35 minutes). It is about 60 feet wide and 70 feet long, and slopes downward from 30 to 60 feet. The view of the mouth/entrance from the bottom of the cavern, is, like Paradise Springs, rather impressive. A bright blue is seen through the crevasse and crystal clear water. In fact, the water is so clear at Ginnie Springs that Jacques Cousteau once observed that Ginnie has the clearest water he has ever seen, stating that at Ginnie, there is “visibility forever.”

Our second dive is just a short distance from the Cavern. We do a series of 3 holes (or pools) strung together by a short spring run (photo at right). The first is called “Little Devil Spring,” which is a large crevasse. We swim down to the bottom of the crevasse to a depth of 40 feet. Next, we swim downstream to “Devil’s Eye,” which is a round chimney feature that contains a tunnel at the bottom which connects to a third pool downstream (divers must be cave certified to do the tunnel, and no lights are allowed for non-cave certified divers in any of the Devil’s dives). We sat and rested at the bottom (about 30 feet deep), which contains a thick layer of sea shells. Our final destination is “Devil’s Ear,” another large crevasse which is the other end of the tunnel from Devil’s Eye. The bottom of the crevasse takes you down to about 40 feet.

Much of the Devil’s dive is rather shallow, so with a single tank, we are easily able to do the full down-and-back dive along the spring run, including an unhurried look at each of the three Devil “body parts” with plenty of air left our tank. Dive time was about 50 minutes to an hour.

 

 

Categories: 1991-2000, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Diving at Little Cayman (June 2000)

In early June, I make my first trip to the Caymans. I discover that the Cayman Islands are a diver’s paradise. My friend Maureen and her sister arranged a 5-day stay on Little Cayman. It is 5 days of being pampered as a scuba diver.

The beginning of the trip is an eye-opening surprise. We needed to drive to the Tampa airport early in the morning to catch our flight to the Cayman’s. That night, we notice a power failure, and we soon hear a utility truck doing repairs down the road. You can imagine my surprise when I go out to get the morning paper and find that it is MY front-yard water oak tree that had dropped an enormous branch onto the street and taken out a power line (ironically, I have just paid a tree surgeon $200 to remove a nearby branch that was threatening to fall). Large piles of logs and branches are piled high in my front yard and in the yard of my neighbor, yet I have no time to clean things up, as I have to run to the airport. I am pleasantly surprised to find not a single twig lying on the ground when I get back. The branch debris has been completely removed while I am gone.

Our flight from Tampa takes us to the Miami airport. We then catch a plane to Grand Cayman (surprisingly flying over Cuban airspace), and are serenaded by a live reggae band playing at the entrance to the terminal. From Grand Cayman, we enjoy a very scenic 45-minute propeller plane ride from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman. The windows of the plane are enormous, affording us very impressive views of what lay below our flight (see photo above left). I happily snap photos of the very blue waters along the shorelines of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. The water colors range from deep blues to bright, glowing turquoise. We discover that the islands remain rather undeveloped (Little Cayman has only 100 permanent residents). Because of this, Little Cayman is very quiet and secluded-a true hideaway. It was not until a few years ago that the island was served by electricity from power lines. It is a great place to get away from it all.

Landing at the Little Cayman airport is interesting, as the “runway” consists of gravel and grass.

We stay at the very nice Little Cayman Beach Resort. Boardwalks lead to the nearby dive boat dock, dive shop, dining room, swimming pool, jacuzzi (see photo at left), white sand beach, palm trees, volleyball court, bar, hammocks, basketball court, tennis court and gift shop. (One indication of how pleasant the trip was is the fact that the sand and boardwalks allow one to go for several days without ever putting shoes on.). Our resort can be seen from the dive boat in the photo below left.

Our dive package for our 3.5 days includes plane flights, 8 dives, lodging at the resort, and buffet-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. These meals are quite pleasant-in part due to the many different pies and cakes that were offered for each lunch and dinner. Our meals included such entrees as red snapper, flounder filet, crab salad, and several red meats (I do not try the red meats while there, as I am an aspiring vegetarian). Each meal has an assortment of side dishes and fruits.

On the first day (evening), we stroll to the resort bar. I try the locally-made Stingray Beer. At $5 per bottle (the Caymans are expensive), I only have one. It is a mildly tasty beer.

One night, we go out to the dive boat dock, and notice that several large tarpon fish like to feed next to the dock. Several swim to the surface and turn their silvery sides to us as they feed.

There are 40-60 great dive sites along “Bloody Bay Wall” just off the coast of Little Cayman (less than one-quarter mile from the beach). The sites are only 25-35 minutes by dive boat. Bloody Bay Wall gets its name from the fact that a number of centuries ago, there was a great deal of pirate ship activity in the Cayman’s. Efforts by the British Calvary of ships resulted in bloody battles with the pirates. The coral-filled wall is breathtaking. A short distance off the sandy beaches of Little Cayman, the wall drops steeply and to a depth of 6,000 feet.

While there, we enjoy 9 excellent dives there. “Paul’s Anchors” gets its name from a British calvary battle with the pirates. The pirates, trying to make a quick escape, cut their anchor lines. Today, several of those large, iron pirate anchors can be seen at this dive site. One we see appears to be about 20 feet tall. Later that day, we also dive “Sarah’s Set” and “McCoy’s Reef.” I sign up for a night dive at “Soto Trader,” which turns out to be the best dive I sample in the Caymans. In the holds of the ship, we see sleeping, blue and yellow, 60-pound parrot fish. I am able to drift down into many of the holds quite easily, as the openings are large. The ship sank in 1975. It was off-loading cargo, including diesel fuel. Some of the fuel ended up below in the ship holds, and efforts were made to use a pump to pump the diesel out. When the pump failed, crew members checked for faulty spark plugs. Testing a plug resulted in a spark that blew up the ship. Two were killed, and a of a ship hold went flying several hundred feet to the beach a long way away. The next day, we dive “Lea Lea’s Lookout,” which includes several extremely large canyons in the coral reef at the edge of Bloody Bay Wall. The dive includes visibility up to 100 feet. We also dive “Blacktip Boulevard,” where we see lots of Garden Rays and Spotted Eagle Rays, and a snake eel (See photo top right) along the sandy white bottom of a portion of the dive. We finish the day by doing “Fisheye Funtasea,” which features several fingers of coral reefs, and a number of turtles and rays. On our final day, we sample “Mixing Bowl,” which turns out to be my favorite daytime dive. The dive features superb, coral reef-studded walls, several tunnels to swim through, and many fingered coral reef formations. During the dive, I get to pet a large, friendly grouper who likes to hang out at the mooring for the site so that he can be stroked by divers (photo below shows a friend reaching out to him). Our last dive was “Great Wall West.” There, we first swim out to the shear drop-off of the wall. A 90-degree drop straight down. The 6,000 feet to the bottom of the wall means that when you look over the edge, you see dark blue water and nothing else. Eerie. Swimming out about 40 feet and looking back, I enjoy taking in the immensity of the Great Wall. It is enormous. We swam along the edge of the wall, which is covered with colorful coral and tropical fish-many of which are confused and swim along the side of the wall as if it is the ocean bottom. Holes and crevasses along the wall contained large lobster, resting fish, and a big, long-legged crab. A photo of me doing a “decompression safety stop” on one of the Cayman dives is at the right of this page.

Overall, the coral reefs and tropical fish offer us an explosion of bright colors. We enjoy several tunnels, sponges, chimneys, coral arches and canyons just off Bloody Bay Wall, and a number of coral reef “fingers” to explore. Dive depths ranged from 20 to 105 feet and occasionally some excellent visibility. We see several stingrays, Spotted Eagle Rays, sea turtles, large grouper, parrot fish, tiny anemones, crab, eel, nurse shark (one guy on my dive boat enjoyed seeing a hammerhead shark)

Our dives are with Reef Divers, who provide a very nice dive operation. The boats are fast, the crew is very informative and very helpful in getting gear on and off. The dive master would provide a dry-erase board drawing of what the dive would look like, and dive profiles for both table divers and computer divers. The boats were well-designed for easy on and off for divers. A chrome chain and oxygen is draped 15 feet down from the side of the boat. (Little Cayman strongly emphasizes diver safety.)

 More about Little Cayman Island

Little Cayman-87 miles northeast of Grand Cayman , 480 miles from Miami, and 90 miles south of Havana-is 10 miles long and about one mile wide (8-10 square miles). The entire island is sand and coral. It was discovered in 1503 by Christopher Columbus. Today, it is a British Colony known as the British West Indies (cars drive on the left side of the road-it felt odd to bicycle on the left side). Jacques and Philippe Cousteau consider the Cayman Islands to be one of the top three dive destinations in the world. National Geographic photographer David Doubilet calls it “the best diving in the Caribbean.” A recent survey of the readership of Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine found that the wall diving in Little Cayman is the favorite for such diving in the Caribbean. Skin Diver Magazine ranked Little Cayman “one of the world’s premiere dive destinations with pristine quality…excellent visibility…incredible diving.” The 11/91 edition of Outside Magazine ranked the Bloody Bay Wall as one of the 4 best dives in the world

The coral reefs contain over 100 different coral species and more than 500 types of fish.

While there, we check out a bird sanctuary (Booby Pond Nature Preserve) which is home to 5.000 pairs of red-footed boobies (the largest colony in the western hemisphere) and 1,000 magnificent frigate birds. Unfortunately, the pond in the sanctuary is mostly dry due to a recent drought.

We see a number of large rock iguana-up to five feet long-roaming the island (photo above left). Roads caution that “Iguanas Have Right of Way. Drive Slowly.” Approximately 2,000 iguana inhabit Little Cayman.

This YouTube video contains photos I shot (and a few I acquired) for my dive trip to Little Cayman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaRMt-YMCtI

Categories: 1991-2000, Caribbean, Diving | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Belize (March 2000)

Belize.

During our 2-week, Indiana Jones-like adventure and odyssey in this tropical paradise, we hear three mottos expressed for the nation: “You better Belize it,” “Unbelizeable” and “Belize: Land of a Thousand Adventures.” The 3 of us soon discover, during our trip, that these are apt descriptors of a stay in Belize.

A friend and I start off driving to the Orlando airport on a Friday night, and walk the downtown before turning in.

It is our way of evaluating the city.

As I have heard, the city has taken important steps to become more walkable and vibrant at night. The city, for the first time in a long time, is alive with exciting street life at night-especially in the area of Lake Eola and Church Street Station. The next morning, we fly to Miami to meet the third in our party. American Airlines only has one flight to Belize from Miami each day, and our flight is overbooked by 12 passengers. At first, I refuse to have a day taken away from the Belize trip when the airline offers $500 travel voucher for those who agreed to wait a day to fly. But after not finding enough volunteers and upping the voucher to $1,000, my friends are able to convince me to be bought. After all, we can spend a day enjoying Miami, as well as have the airline either pay for most of our Belize trip, or have them pay for our making an exotic trip in the future. We are the last three to volunteer.

Miami

We visit the Biltmore hotel, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and that night, South Beach. South Beach is as impressive as I had heard it was for many years: A glorious amount of vibrant street life that reminds one of a fabulous day in a healthy European city.

The next morning, the airline seats 2 of us in First Class, which is my first taste of how the Leisure Class flies. Our seats are large and supple leather. We are seated with a wine glass of champagne. We are given a prosciutto with garbanzo and cucumber salad, juice, white wine, a bread basket with “assorted warm breads,” garlic sautéed shrimp with fresh garlic and butter on annatto rice sprinkled with diced peppers, and a brownie, warmed nuts, cheese and fruit for dessert.

It doesn’t get any better than this…

As the “commoners” pass by us on their way to the “coach” section, my friend leans over and tells me the “peasants” are filing by us with “accusing” eyes. They pull a curtain to shield our eyes from the “great unwashed” in coach, which makes them seem like cattle. It was a two-hour flight from Miami to Belize.

Belize

Upon arrival, we pick up our 4-wheel drive brand new Suzuki Sammuri. The tough 4-wheel drive vehicle turns out to be a necessity, since the few major “highways” in Belize are badly rutted dirt roads filled with large rocks-and because of the dry conditions, very dusty. Every time we travel to a site-be it by land or sea-we experience a long, bumpy, bone-jarring trip. Part of the challenge is that in addition to these “highways” being in the worst condition of any road I have ever been on, Belize does not seem to have more than 2 or 3 road signs in the entire nation, and when you DO spot one, it is tiny in size and does not appear to be an official sign (see photo at right of one of the “major highways” of Belize). As a result, we miss many turns, despite a map and one of my friends, who claims he has “never been lost a day in my life” serving as navigator. (The map turns out to have very poor scale and does not show many of the roads-or shows roads that do not exist.) In addition, nearly every road seems to be involved in major construction, yet there are hardly any construction warning signs, either. A very different experience than what we have in the U.S. In Belize, even the good roads are bad.

We drive on the Western Highway from Belize City on the east coast to our first destination near the western border of Belize. Along the way, we stop at the 50-acre Guanacaste National Park, which is only mildly interesting with its rather safe and only mildly tropical loop trail. During our hike, we see an enormous “Mot Mot Tree”.

Much of the development along this highway indicates a grinding poverty-many run-down shacks and a great deal of trash lying around.

 San Ignacio

Our first lodging on the west near San Ignacio-a town of 9,000 in the heart of Cayo country-is duPlooy’s, which features a very enjoyable tropical setting, with many palm and fruit trees and flowering plants were on the grounds. Electricity is delivered by a gas generator, since the lodge is not served by electric lines. From 10 pm to 6 am, lights go out since the generator shuts down. We do not find this to be a problem, since our days of Belizean adventure are always exhausting and it is easy to fall asleep before 10 (personally, I am out like a light the minute my head hits the pillow). Each morning at duPlooy’s, just before 6 am, we awake to the calls of tropical birds. Within minutes, the calls grow into a very loud cacophony of what seems like hundreds of birds. Each morning, we are treated to bird-watching on the lodge wood deck, which includes complimentary coffee and tea. The birds include frequent hummingbirds and tangers. We also usually see a large iguana sitting on a nearby tree branch. At night there, the lack of artificial lighting creates an explosion of stars in the night sky. Spectacular.

After our first night at duPlooy’s, we drive to Caracol Mayan Ruins, which, given the length of the trip along a VERY rough dirt road, is a long, arduous trek taking 2.5 hours, each way, to drive.

A goof I make while driving south to Caracol: unbeknownst to any of is in the vehicle, we come to an entrance gate for a large mountain pine ridge reserve. The two vehicles that had been choking us with dust during our seemingly endless drive into the jungle are stopped at the gate to speak with the gatekeeper. Thinking this is an opportunity to escape the dust, I drive past the gate, gatekeeper and vehicles without stopping, only to learn later that we were supposed to stop so that the gatekeeper could record our entrance. Fortunately, we are not apprehended and thrown into a Belizean jail.

The condition of the road is odd, due to the fact that it is the only main “road” to the Caracol Mayan Ruins, which is a very popular visitor destination. The ruins contain the highest human-built peak (the Caana structure) in Belize, which require a tiring hike up steep and large steps (139 feet tall). Incredibly, some of the original sapote wood door lintels still remain in some of the structures. In 562 A.D., Lord Water of Caracol was victorious over the warlords of Tikal, which allowed the city of Caracol to rein for the next century. At its prime, 187,000 people lived in Caracol, which contained at least 4,000 structures across 55 square miles. It was only discovered in 1937 by a logger after being hidden in the jungle for several centuries.

After the Ruins, we visit Rio Frio Cave, which is a HUGE, ENORMOUS cavern with stalactites and vines hanging down from the ceiling way up overhead, and an entrance at both ends of the cave (See photo at left). To get an idea of the size of the cave entrance, find the person sitting next to the water in the foreground.). Water comes in from one end and exits out the other-running a distance of about a half mile through the cave, thereby forming the largest known river cave in Belize. The cave contains monster-sized boulders.

After the cave, we head down the highway again, and soon have our path crossed by a very large black and yellow-speckled snake (see the “major highway” photo above). We slam on the brakes and leap out of the car. One of my friends gets in front of it and taunts it, while I run in behind and shout, “I need scale!!!!” to this friend so that he would get close enough to give me scale in the photo I take of the snake. “I need scale!!!” soon becomes a sort of motto for us as we continue to see big things that need a person nearby. We have no other way to give a sense of features we are seeing in this land of imposing, surprising sizes.

Our next stop along the Carocal road is Rio on Pools, which is a long series of waterfalls and pools of water that is a popular place for people to swim and do rock climbing (photo at right). Pools features cool, frothing waters on slippery granite, and several waterfalls.

On the following morning, we drive to the famous Tikal Mayan Ruins (photo below) just across the Guatemalan border for a full day excursion. It takes us a full hour to get through the Guatemalan checkpoint (it only took us 15 minutes to get back into Belize on the way back). First, to get into Guatemala, we park to go through the Belize customs. Immediately upon getting out of our car, we are swarmed by a large, eager horde of “money changers” (locals with large wads of cash in their fist anxious to “help” us exchange our money for Guatemalan money). Then, we need to contend with paying several “fees/taxes” for various things (fee for crossing the bridge, conservation fee, vehicle fee, fee for wearing a blue shirt, etc.), and fill out several forms. It seems as if several of the Customs staff people were new to the job and did not know what to do. At one point, we are told to pay a fee at the “bank” nearby and come back with a receipt. My friend pays the fee but is given back an equivalent amount of Guatemalan money, and the “clerk” does not know about giving a receipt. When my friend explains this to the earlier Customs staffer, they return to the bank and discover that the “clerk” is actually a money changer! (I speculate at the time that the REAL bank clerk was bound and gagged by the money changer and put into a back room.) While this debacle is taking place, we notice that the Guatemalan crossing guard is toting a submachine gun…

Upon entering Guatemala, we quickly notice that the poverty seems noticeably more severe than in Belize. There are several horses, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle on the road (a “main” road leading to Tikal). The Tikal Ruins are the most dramatic ruins we see during our 2 weeks (see photo above). Tikal was the greatest capital of the ancient Mayan world, and was founded about 600 B.C. Its peak population was about 50,000 people about 1,000 years after it was founded. During the Classic Period, it was one of the two largest cities in the Western Hemisphere (along with Teotihuacan in Mexico). Several very large stone structures and monuments. Tremendous views of the El Peten rainforest (millions of acres in size) from the tops of the structures. Again, we notice that a park ranger at Tikal is carrying a submachine gun. We spot a number of racoon-like coatimundi. They are dark brown and larger/thinner than racoons, but apparently similar in behavior and diet (omnivorous).

On the drive back to our lodge, we stop at Hidden Valley (also known as 1,000-foot) Falls, a spectacular 1,600-foot falls plunging into a large, forested, misty haze-shrouded valley (7th-highest falls in the world. See photo to left.).

Our next day is much-anticipated. We are told by someone at the lodge that due to our adventurous interests, a “must” adventure for us is to embark on an all-day exploration within the recently discovered and little-explored “Actun Tunichil Muknal” caves. The caves were used by the ancient Mayan civilization for an enormous number of ceremonies and offerings to their gods. The caves were recently re-discovered 10 centuries later.

We are transported in a vehicle on a bumpy 45-minute drive. From our parked vehicle in an agricultural area, we walk 45 minutes through a tropical jungle, slogging through and across three crystal clear rivers. We are told by our guide that the area contains 76 known species of snake – nine of which are poisonous. We stop at a large termite mound wrapped around a tree trunk and the guide suggests we try eating one, which, of course, I agree to do. Not a bad taste. At the cave entrance (photo at right), a very large, dead black snake is found.

Once inside the caves, we are treated to a fantastic, 4-hour experience along a route that stretches 5,300 meters and 147 meters deep. A river flows through the caves system, forming pools along the way. It is 75 degrees year round, and much of it is clean enough to drink. The water is impressively clear, as we note with the battery-powered lights we wear on our helmets.

Immediately upon entry, the visitor to this ancient, hidden-away Mayan cave system is treated to an Indiana Jones-like obstacle. An unforgettable, claustrobia-inducing, rather disconcerting swim (photo below) through the river guarding the cave entrance is required to reach the mysterious, dark, vast cave rooms within the system. But the seemingly deadly entry technique sends chills of excitement through my body. Surely, what awaits inside has been seen by only the most skilled, determined and adventurous.

And so spectacular that visitors are willing to risk their lives to have a look.

The lights are a necessity, since the cave system quickly creates an ink black blindness soon after entering. I wonder how difficult it was for the Mayans entering the caves several centuries ago for ceremonies. A long walk carrying large pieces of pottery and torches while slogging through a lot of water and tight rock corridors. What happened when the torches went out?.

We see an enormous amount of pottery and extremely large cavern “rooms”-many of which were used for Mayan ceremonies (photo at right). At the end of our journey in the caves, we climb a wooden ladder and are shown two ancient Mayan skeletons-one (Skeleton #13 out of 14 sacrificial victims found in Actun Tunichil Muknal) a prone young Mayan woman who was about 20 when she died. It is an eerie sight (photo below). She lies spread-eagled on her back, her left leg bent out at an unnatural angle and her right arm draped above her head. There are several speculations as to how she got that way: Was she dead and carried to the site? Was she raped? Was she sitting up when she died, only to have her skeleton slide down to a lying position after the forces of water and erosion influenced the bones? Today, centuries later, the skeleton is encrusted by a layer of brown calcite.

 The next day features a trip to the Blue Hole National Park. First, we hike along a tropical trail. We inspect St. Herman’s Cave-another dramatically large, very dark, cavernous cave with an entrance at both ends. The actual Blue Hole is a very deep blue, almost sapphire-colored sinkhole that gives us a very refreshing opportunity to swim after the hot hike.

We also sample the Belize Zoo-very well known as a well executed, naturalistic zoo. At first, we have no interest in going, but decide to have a look on this day due to some spare time. Frankly, despite our distaste of zoos generally (due to how depressing they are), we are pleasantly surprised by the quality in such an underdeveloped country. Most animals are kept in a relatively spacious, wire mesh-enclosed wooded patch, and are able to hide from visitors if they so choose. Most enclosures have signs that say something like “I’m a great black hawk, but guys who take shots at me are Great Big Turkeys!” Overall, the zoo is better than most (or all) of the American zoos I have seen. We then venture into Belize City for our water taxi trip to Caye Caulker. As advertised, Belize City is rather unpleasant. Very noisy, grimy, dirty, aggressive vehicle driving, honking horns, and narrow sidewalks. We pay a visit to the infamous “swing bridge,” which is said to be infested with drug dealers and crime at night. (The bridge is thought to be the only manually operated swing bridge in the world today.) We have no opportunities to gun down drug lords during the day, however.

 Caye Caulker

It is a 50-minute boat ride to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast near Belize City popular with divers and snorkelers, but less “touristy” than Ambergris Caye. The caye is five square miles in size. The village is 4 streets wide and 10 streets long – all of which are sand (Caye Caulker Main Street at right). Approximately 800 people reside on Caye Caulker.

For dinner our first night, based on a guidebook recommendation, we try “The Sandbox” restaurant, featuring tropical sand for a floor. It is on the beach and very crowded. I order the Fish with Spicy Banana Chutney and Cilantro, which turns out to be delightful.

While we were in Belize, I fell in love with the tropical taste of cilantro, which is used on nearly all the foods in Belize, in part because it grows like a weed in the country.

In Caye Caulker, we stay at Shirley’s Guest House, which is secluded, peaceful, right on the beach, and next door to the airport-this would later prove handy (the airport was protested when it was first proposed, as the residents feared it would draw too many tourists). Each of the rooms contain Mennonite mahogany furnishings. It is a lengthy walk, however, to dives and restaurants from the lodge, however, but it is nevertheless a pleasant lodge very well set up to handle divers. (Our primarily reason for visiting the Caye is for the diving.)

On our first day, we dive Esmelda Reef (near Hol Chan Marine Reserve), where we see spotted eagle rays, and a colorful collection of Caribbean coral reef fish. The 5-square mile Reserve was created in 1987 and is Mayan for “Little Channel”, which describes how the site was formed by a natural break in the reef. On the same dive trip, we dive The Wreck near the famous Shark and Ray Alley. As the name suggests, the dive is full of nurse sharks and manta rays. The photo below gives you an idea of what we experienced.

While standing on the deck of the shipwreck (which went down at the turn of the century), I have one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Twice, for over 2 minutes, I hold and cradle a 5-foot long nurse shark in my arms and stroke her/his back and belly. The sharks really seemed to enjoy being held. I am also able to stroke a very large, green moray eel-very slimy, smooth skin texture. We also enjoy the experience of HUGE groupers swimming around us (close enough for us to grab). It makes me feel truly alive.

The next day, we engage in a “3-tank dive” (3 dives) with Aqua Dives. At first, it seems like an exhausting idea to perform 3 dives in a day that requires lengthy boat rides, but it turns out to be an extremely relaxing, low-energy series of dives. Low-energy, yet very thrilling and colorful.

Before heading to Belize, I have decided that I would NOT try a dive at The Great Blue Hole (see photo at left) in the Lighthouse Reef area. The Blue Hole is a 480-foot deep sinkhole (1,045 feet across) and is the largest ocean sinkhole in the world. The hole is in the middle of 75 square miles of shallow, blue-green water. Except for 2 narrow passages, the hole is completely ringed by living coral. It was made famous by Jacques Cousteau in 1972 when he explored it with his Calypso crew. I decide beforehand not to dive it even though divers from around the world travel to this famous site. Mostly, it is considered a “thrill” dive, as it does not contain a lot of reef or marine life. The Blue Hole lies within an atoll-a ring of coral isles surrounding a lagoon. My thought is this: I have no experience diving something that was so deep. “Could I manage to avoid going too deep? Would it be dangerous? Would there be anything interesting to see?”

Fortunately, we were convinced that it is a good dive, and includes other good dives that we want to try anyway (my friend, at first, decided he would just snorkel it, since he was just a beginner diver who had never gone deeper than 60 feet, but on our way there, he becomes convinced that he will attempt the 140-foot dive after hearing the other divers on the boat rave about it). As is usually the case, we do not even notice how deep we are until we look at our gauges. It turns out to be surrealistic, eerie and spooky as we descend into the black void, but very relaxing and exciting as we swim through the stalactites (more than 3 feet in diameter and up to 20 feet long) along the wall of the hole. The wall of the hole crests at about 50 feet and continues as a vertical cliff to a depth of about 95 feet, where it starts receding at a 55-degree angle. We are only able to stay at the 140-foot maximum depth for 8 minutes (maximum no-decompression bottom time due to nitrogen/oxygen problems divers usually face at that depth), but while down there, we see Black-tip and Bull Sharks swimming in circles below us at about 160 feet deep. I am not surprised to later discover that November 1991 edition of Outside Magazine ranked the Blue Hole as one of the 4 best dives in the world. It is a dive of a lifetime.

Our next dive on this day is Half Moon Caye Wall, which is over 1,000 feet deep (we only descend to 65 feet). The reef features a spectacular spur and groove system-many of the grooves are quite narrow. We swim through a great many canyon walls and cross tunnels (“Gover’s Grottos”) that are so narrow that we sometimes scrape our tanks on the rocks/reefs. We see lots of bright purple fish on the dive.

Our final dive this day is The Aquarium near Long Caye, which, true to its name, is full of colorful fish and barracuda. This reef is off the northwestern corner of Long Caye. It features well-defined, long coral ridges and sandy canyons. We lunch at Blue Hole National Monument, a small island near Lighthouse Reef. Our lunch spot is breathtaking…idyllic…postcard gorgeous beyond belief. Sugar white sands, several shades of deep blue and turquoise crystal clear waters near the island, a few nearby and elegant sailboats, gently waving tropical palm trees (see photo below left). It seemed like a deserted Gilligan’s Island. The island is one of the most visually exhilarating sights I experience on Belize. While there, we enjoy climbing an observation tower that put us into the tree tops, were, only a few feet from us, a huge number of frigate and red-footed booby birds and their babies are perched in this bird sanctuary.

The next day, I eat banana pancakes and fry jacks at a restaurant on the beach (again with sand for floors) at La Sirenta restaurant. We then fly from Caye Caulker to Belize City. The view below of the ocean, reefs, and cayes is stunning.

Upon our return to the mainland, we visit the 3,000-acre Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. There, we see an enormous number of wading birds in the shallow Northern Lagoon (a bird sanctuary), and are treated to watching a large group of children enjoying a party at the lodge we find to eat lunch (earlier, we had drove around unsuccessfully to find a restaurant or grocery in this poverty-stricken town of 700). Later that day, despite having a 4×4 (which is now a fairly new and roomy Jeep Cherokee-the third person in our adventure group had since flown back to Miami), we get stuck in the soft mud that cleverly disguised itself under grass along a little-used jeep trail we drive to see more of the Sanctuary. Fortunately, we are able to fairly quickly free ourselves using some nearby wood fence planks.

 Mountain Pine Ridge

We set out for the Mountain Pine Ridge area without lodging reservations, and were very fortunate to discover Pine Ridge Lodge, which is a luxurious yet affordable lodge in the middle of Mountain Pine Ridge-isolated from civilization. The lodge features superb meals, is very quiet, in the middle of several caves and creeks with drinkable water (we are treated to hearing the creeks babbling from our rooms at night), and waterfalls. We are fortunate in that the 2 of us are able to stay in our own separate cabin for the price of one. Our extremely helpful, informative hosts attended to ALL of our needs. Each room-including the group dining room-has kerosene lamps, since there is no electricity and the lamps are the only way to see at night. This creates a very peaceful, romantic ambiance. The lodge grounds are filled with flowering orchids and several other flowering plants-many planted for hummingbirds, of which we see several while there.

On the first morning there, I walk two 15-minute hikes on nearby loop trails along the babbling brooks. I inspect the 85-foot tall Santos Falls on one of these trails that morning. An interesting aspect of this lodge is that it is surrounded by the lodge grounds of Francis Ford Coppola, the famous Apocalypse Now! film director (the Blancaneaux Lodge). We are unable to resist going to the Blancaneaux to enjoy a Belikin Beer and noticing a very well-manicured croquet court next to the lodge (very odd in a thick tropical forest). We also notice that the public airport just happens to be constructed recently at a spot next to the entrance of Coppola’s lodge. How convenient! And because we could not resist, we return to Rio on Pools for more swimming and exploring.

Each morning at Pine Ridge Lodge, we enjoy a complimentary breakfast of fresh juice, sliced fruit, a warm bun, jelly and tea. We make a trip to Big Rock Falls, which is found near the lodge. We have heard that one can get behind the falls and stand behind them without getting wet, but after about 45 minutes of hard work trying to fight a powerful current and spray (“CAN YOU REACH OUT AND GRAB THAT BOULDER IN FRONT OF US, MIKE???”), we determine it was not possible to get to the falls. It turns out that our hosts at the lodge had only HEARD this was possible, but have never accomplished it themselves.

The next day, we go to the 102,400-acre Cockscomb Basin Forest Sanctuary-the world’s only jaguar preserve. We start the hike in a steady downpour (the first rain we have seen in our several days in Belize). Most of the half-day hike is steamy and very humid in the Basin Rainforest. The very tropical hike featured a large number of Cohune Palm trees (which contains large fronds and large, edible nuts that create a Southeast Asia/Vietnam sort of atmosphere). The fronds are used to make thatched roofs. The Basin gets about 180 inches of precipitation each year (Gainesville, Florida, by contrast, gets about 52 inches each year). As for history, the Basin was logged by the English in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Century, which removed all the large mahogany and cedar. It is therefore now a young rainforest which I find surprisingly dark on the forest floor, but there must have been a fair amount of sunlight filtering through, since I notice a relatively large amount of understory vegetation.

Placencia

Placencia is a small town at the end of a long, narrow peninsula along the Belize coastline. Getting there involves another long drive on a bone-jarring, dusty, rutted road. Better to fly to Placencia than drive, we discover. Big sections of knotted rope are occasionally stretched across the road to serve as speed bumps. Placencia contains the “world’s most narrow Main Street”, which is a sidewalk running up the middle of the spine of lodges and restaurants and dive shops in the town (see photo to right).

Our first night there, I enjoy some delicious steamed conch at a Placencia restaurant. We are again fortunate to find affordable lodging on the beach-this time next to the dive boat docks at Tradewinds Lodge. Our mornings are delightful. Nice breeze and morning sun, and relaxing in a beach chair or hammock on our cabin deck.

Both of our dives were at South Laughing Bird Caye Reef, where we again see eagle rays, and also see a number of lobster. That night, I have a delicious red snapper dinner on the second floor balcony of the excellent Serenade Guest House restaurant. It is so good that we return the next night for a meal, where I enjoy a Steamed Grouper dish.

During our dusty, bone-jarring drives, we often notice that the citrus fruit trucks spill a number of fresh grapefruit on the side of the road. We snatch up some of these for breakfast. They are supremely fresh and seedless.

We decide to try another 3-tank dive. First, we dive the North Wall Reef at Silk Caye along the Barrier Reef (photo at bottom right is an example of a wall dive in Belize). Belize is a divers paradise in part because it has the largest reef in the western hemisphere-second in length only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef is a coral necklace 198 miles long that runs from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Guatemalan border. We also dive White Hole at Silk Caye. At these two dive sites, we see several lobster, large green moray eels, and queen and stoplight parrot fish (some of which had ramoras riding along on their sides). The highlight of the second dive is seeing a very large black grouper, a manta ray, and a large green moray eel together in the same location (it was a “Kodak Moment”). When we get back to the dock after the second dive, we are alarmed to find that our Jeep Cherokee is not where we left it near the dock. Turns out that it was towed away by the film crew that was doing some preliminary work for an “After the Storm” (Hemingway) movie to be filmed in Placencia in the near future. Lots of film crew busily running around, and movie lights for the set.

Again, the Cayes we dive near, and have lunch on, were simply gorgeous.

Lastly, we plunge into a night dive at Laughing Bird Caye Reef, which is, like my previous night dive at West Palm Beach in Florida, extremely enjoyable. The ride out for this dive, like so many dive trips and land vehicle trips in Belize, is unbelievably bouncy. Since it is at night and over water, this particular trip makes us feel like we are heading for the Invasion of Normandy during WWII. During the dive, we see a good number of lobster out in the open (they usually are hidden in reef holes during the day), sea cucumbers that look like large, black worms, and spiny puffer fish.

On our final full day in Belize, we kayak the Monkey River. It is a 5-hour paddle along very shallow, upstream water that mostly passes through agricultural areas (the photo at left shows me on the river just after suffering the humiliation of losing my paddle, which you can see floating in front of me). At times, we see evidence of the dreaded Environmental Atrocities Inc. company doing their work (ditch dredging, water pumping, etc.) this day. During the paddle, we see a large number of kingfisher birds, bats, and heard a number of tropical bird calls. At the end of our paddle, our lower legs are swarmed by “battleass” flies that have a bite that you do not feel, but you start seeing little beads of blood on your skin. The next day, and for a number of days afterwards, our legs and arms are covered with itchy red welts that appeared to be a bad case of measles. We use rubbing alcohol and aloe vera to relieve the itching.

Overall, we find the lodges are of a poorer quality in Placencia than in Caye Caulker. Placencia also has a poorer selection of restaurants, more poverty, and a lower quality selection of dives.

We drive to Belize City from Placencia after the paddle, to get lodging near the airport for our flight back to Florida. The night drive is horrifying because it is on the main highway along the eastern coast of Belize, and like other main “highways” in Belize, there are no street lights or signs. The lack of street lights and the heavy clouds of dust reduce visibility to only a few feet, yet the road at night is filled with people on bicycles and walking, and most are wearing dark clothes and have no lights.

As was the case on our trip from Miami to Belize City, American Airlines is overbooked on our return flight-by 15 passengers. However, the voucher price for volunteers only goes to $600. My friend is willing but I can only be bought for another $1,000, since I need a full day at home away from work to get things back in order after a 2-week trip. So we opt not to stay an extra day at the Belize City Hilton.

General Observations about Belize

Population of Belize was about 250,000 when we were there in 2000. We found that in general, the people of Belize are very friendly and pleasant, and operate under a laid back “Belize Time” (they are always late). “Belize Time” is described this way in a Guide published by Cornerstone Foundation in Belize:

…And it [Belize] is free, free of time and anxiety. Even the people here are “free” to be who they want to be. Most do not save money. They spend it. And many don’t own anything that they did not pay cash for. They own nothing for their house because they built it bit by bit as they had the money. The people here do not owe anything to anybody. They are free, so free that even their “time” is different. Hikers are familiar with the idea of “losing track of time.” Well here, this is compounded with what is known as “”Belizean Time.” It is a time that moves in and out of time. It is occupying space without anxiety. It is observing more than impacting. It is willingness to accept the time and speed (of lack of) of others. It is a way of consciousness.

Part of this consciousness comes, perhaps, through a special specific observation act uncommon to Northern culture. “Wu wei” is an oriental way to express this act of “not doing” (as opposed to the only Northern explanation – lazy). Here it is a skill, an activity to cultivate. It is something that aligns the observer up with the world around them and gives them an extraordinary sense of awareness.

So forget a schedule. Get rid of the watch. Plan as little as possible and be flexible because the plans change. And to understand Belizean time is to not worry about it…Eat when you are hungry. Rest when you are tired. Take time to silently observe the people and the environment. Buses run every half hour so you’ll get to where you are going.

There are more caves and waterfalls in Belize than I expect. I do not know until after I return home that Belize has the longest chain of caves in the Western Hemisphere.

Belize, despite being a tiny piece of land in Central America (the size of Massachusetts), is jam-packed with exotic adventure trips from a stretch of jungle-draped mountains along its western border with Guatemala to a dazzling barrier reef along much of its Caribbean coastline along its eastern border. In between, there are raging rivers (mostly gentle, dry-season streams when we are there, though), incredible Mayan ruins, miles of unexplored caves, and an excellent diversity of flora and fauna.

The coral reefs are filled with brilliant, multi-colored tropical fish swimming amongst gently swaying, vivid sea fans (and many other types) of colorful coral. The reefs are as complex as the Amazon jungle. Finger coral, brain coral, black coral, elkhorn, mountainous star, purple leaf and orange tube.

There are many horses roped to a tree to graze along the main roads-either it is a good place for grazing or a cheap way to keep the ROW grass clipped. At the end of nearly every day, we enjoy the national beer of Belize-Belikin Beer. It tastes very good, probably at least partly because we are so dry and exhausted after a tiring day of adventure in Belize earlier that day.

I was disturbed by the fact that often, at archeologically significant sites, there seems to be too much tourist access to fragile artifacts, unlike in America, where you would expect such things to be at least roped off. As a result, I expect that in the near future, these Ruins and Cave sites will be much-degraded. For example, even though I was trying to be conscientious, in the Macknal caves, I accidentally stepped on a pottery shard. It is clear that this happens a great deal-intentionally and unintentionally-no amount of vigilance by the guides will do much to protect the sites.

In many rivers and lakes, we observed large numbers of women and children washing clothes on rocks.

The poor condition of the roads was, in at least one way, helpful to the wonders of Belize, since it is fairly clear that there would be a substantial (and probably detrimental) increase in tourism and sprawl if it were easier to travel by car in Belize (despite the roads, however, there has been an 80 percent increase in visitors to Belize since the early 90s. Perhaps in large part due to the poor condition of the roads, there was an astounding lack of cars in Belize. Despite our being there during peak tourist season, we mostly saw large trucks and buses on the roads.

Overall, I found my adventure in Belize to be fabulous and unforgettable. Will I return to this land? You better Belize it…

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during my travels in Belize:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZubnMBoyIU

Categories: 1991-2000, Caribbean, Diving, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Snorkeling with the Manatees at Crystal River, Florida (December 1999)

My friend Maureen gives me a wonderful gift for the December 1999 holiday: A day of snorkeling with manatees and drift scuba diving at Rainbow River.

Our adventure starts just after work between Christmas and new year’s for the new millennium. While the rest of the nation is shivering in bitter cold, snowy weather, we are off to swim in two central Florida rivers.

Our first stop is the sleepy town of Brooksville, where we stay at a bed and breakfast. The Verona House Bed & Breakfast is a Sears Roebuck Co. Catalog House. The Verona model came to Brooksville in two box cars in the spring of 1925, which happens to be the same date that my Gainesville bungalow house was built (which explains why I notice the bedroom window frame looks very similar to my frames). The house is a two-story Dutch colonial home, which was precut and ready to assemble. It also included a 76-page instruction booklet so that it could be assembled. I do not know if batteries were included…but it was a lovely house with very pretty wood floors. Lot’s of character and cozy charm that made it seem handcrafted.

The next morning, we are treated to a pleasant breakfast, and then drive north to Crystal River-a 30-minute drive.

Our snorkeling is in King’s Bay in the headwaters of Crystal River. The bay is fed by about 30 crystal clear springs, and is found within the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge established in 1983. Spring water feels chilly in the hot summer months, but because it is 72 degrees year round, it feels warm and attracts manatees during the winter months. The springs pump out 600 million gallons of pure spring water each day.

We are taken out on a pontoon boat with a small group. That morning, the air temperature is 40-50 degrees, so I am, at first, tentative about getting into the water. But because of the chilly air, the spring water feels like bath water-especially with my new full wet suit on.

We quietly and effortlessly float around, and are joined by a few of the very gentle manatees. We are able to approach each of them to pet and stroke and scratch them. They enjoy it so much that they roll over so that we can scratch and rub their bellies. Their skin feels leathery, and much of it is covered with a thin layer of slick green algae growth. Manatees can weigh as much as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, but they are so gentle and slow that it is easy to see why they are also known as “sea cows.” Approximately 20 percent of the manatees in the U.S. use the Crystal River Refuge for habitat. The manatee is still considered endangered. The main threat, besides boat propellers, is loss and degradation of their habitat along the coasts.

Next, we are taken to King’s Spring in King’s Bay. Along the way, I notice that the shorelines are crowded with homes built along the water’s edge-one of which has a concrete driveway that ends abruptly at the seawall, making us wonder if anyone had ever accidentally driven off the edge. We also notice the cooling towers for the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant looming off in the horizon. Several snorkelers are gathered at the popular King’s Spring site, where we are able to enjoy playing with 6-8 additional manatees. At one point, a family of 3 manatees-mom, dad and baby calf-float by us. In this location, we are also swimming within an enormous school of yellow-tailed jack, and a few sheepshead fish.

All in all, it is about 2 hours worth of very enjoyable snorkeling with the manatees.

Next, a Crystal Lodge dive boat meets us at Rainbow River-about 30 minutes northeast of King’s Bay-where we are signed up for a drift dive. The boat takes us upstream along this very colorful, bright blue river. Here, we don our scuba gear for a drift dive. It was approximately 90 minutes of effortless drifting, because we are carried along by the strong current of the river. During our dive, which goes as deep as 21 feet, we enjoy sugar white sandy bottoms, investigating spring boils-many of which are pumping out a strong force of water that made it hard to look into the vent without holding on to rocks at the mouth of the vent. The river bottom has a rich growth of sea grasses, and at one point, as we are told before the dive, we see a large school of alligator gar fish-some of which are quite long and large. Apparently, this school can always be found at this spot in the river.

In sum, the snorkeling and diving we enjoy this day can best be described as very gentle, peaceful, pleasant experiences. I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

Categories: 1991-2000, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Scuba Diving West Palm Beach, Florida (1999)

I had recently heard the claim that West Palm Beach had excellent diving. Guide books claim that it has some of the best drift diving in the world.

After diving West Palm, I understand the reason for the reputation. It is truly world-class drift diving. The reefs are majestic and rugged. The Gulf Stream provides the drift dive. As a beginner diver, I have found that drift diving is what I would expect the weightlessness of moon-walking or space-walking to be like. It requires almost no energy, yet you float along and observe the fabulous beauty of the tropical fish and reefs.

The Stream pushes warm water closer to the shore here than anywhere else in Florida. The water is very clear (we have 40-50 feet of visibility). And the reefs here are home to more species of fish than anywhere else in Florida, as well. The area is well-known for having a large sea turtle population (see photo above).

In 24 hours, I enjoy 6 dives, ranging in depth from 25 to 80 feet. It is exhausting, but nevertheless exhilarating.

It is part of a chartered boat—a dive trip arranged by Water World in Gainesville FL, where I live. My dive boat is good and contains a helpful crew. On Saturday afternoon, we dive the Breakers Reef. Here, we see an impressive 3- to 15-foot ledge system. In all, the reef is 2 miles long. Our next dive is at Flower Gardens Reef.

On both of these dives, we see large fish, a large sea turtle, and I have fun watching our dive masters catch several lobster. .

At 7 p.m., I go on two night dives—my first experience with such diving. At first, I am rather apprehensive: Would it be so dark that I would suffer from claustrophobia? Would I be able to signal quickly to my dive buddy if I was in distress? Would I be able to follow the group in total darkness? But because there were 8-10 of us, the large number of flashlights makes for an easy and extremely enjoyable night drift dive. I notice that even more so than daylight drift diving, night drift dives truly provide what I assume it is like to go moon-walking: Weightlessness and darkness. It was wonderful to be able to shine my flashlight on the colorful tropical fish (see photo below), and there is a much different experience at night in the same dive location, because different forms of marine life come out. For example, we see a big moray eel (photo above right) squiggling about on the ocean floor, and many of us shine our lights on it to make it seem like it was the star of a show on a spot-lighted stage. The night dives are at Breakers Reef and Bath and Tennis Reef. We find milder currents at the latter location, which gives us more time to enjoy the tropical marine life.

On Sunday, we log two more dives in the early morning, at Breakers and Flower Gardens. As I ascend on my final dive, I am fortunate to spot a lovely, graceful jellyfish. Earlier, I spotted two enormous, bright blue parrot fish at the bottom, and a good size sting ray.

We escape from West Palm as the fearsome Hurricane Floyd (much bigger than the very destructive Hurricane Andrew) was bearing down on us with Category 4, 145 mph winds ranging out over 125 miles. Fortunately, Floyd veers away from West Palm, so the city escapes significant damage, as far as I know.

I intend to return for more diving in West Palm, but will first check the latest hurricane reports…

 

 

Categories: 1991-2000, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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