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May 1997 Vol. 12, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Notes

Diving at this end of the earth

from the May, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Costa Rica

Mainland Costa Rica didn't really become a dive destination until 1988, when El Ocotal opened up a resort on the Pacific coast with its dive operation, Diving Safaris. In recent years, it's been Bill Beard's Diving Safaris. However, after a dispute with El Ocotal, Bill Beard moved his Diving Safaris a few miles north to Sol Playa Hermosa. El Ocotal kept the Diving Safaris name as well. This has caused confusion among travelers ever since.

Jenny Metcalfe's (Toronto) travel agency thought Bill's operation was still at El Ocotal when they sent her there in February. Jenny had dived with Bill two years earlier and wanted to do so again. She ended up driving the 15 minutes each day to Sol Playa Hermosa to dive with Bill's operation. She also liked the fact that Sol Playa Hermosa had a tram to take you up and down the steep hill to the beach and reports that next time that's where she's staying.

Jenny and Eliot Sekuler (Los Angeles) stayed at El Ocotal and had no complaints about their Diving Safaris. They found the "large numbers of whitetips and enormous schools of rays thrilling" on their September trip. Another confusion about diving Costa Rica is the season. The best time to dive this coast is during the rainy season, May through November -- even though the water is clearer the rest of the year. Why is this so? Because after the rainy season the wind picks up and it's sometimes difficult to get out to the best sites, which are offshore. Having made a few trips to Costa Rica, I consider both visibility and big-creature dives a bit of crap shoot anyway. The big lure here is the setting -- cloud forests, rain forests, and other natural wonders. Diving, if it's good, is just the icing on the cake.

El Ocotal, 506-670-0321, fax 506-670-0083

Bill Beard's Diving Safaris, 506-670-0012

Sandwich Isle Divers, 808-329-9188

Ocean Divers, 305-451-1113, fax 305-451-5765

Force E, 954-943-3483

Silent World Dive Center, 305-451-3252 or 1-800-966-DIVE

Fisheye, 809-947-4209, fax 809-947-4208

Coconut Harbor, 809-949-7468, fax 809-947-7117

Parrot's Landing, 809-949-7884, fax 809-949-0294

Chico's Dive Shop, 011-322-2-1895,
fax 011-322-2-1897

Sesto Continente, 011-58-2-743873 or

Lost World Adventures, 800-999-0558

Hawaii

Bruce Praet (Santa Ana, California) noticed that Sandwich Isle Divers on Kona was not mentioned in our 1997 Travelin' Diver's Chapbook and thought it was a disservice to the diving community. He admits that six prior trips to various Hawaiian islands had resulted in only average to good diving, but this year he returned to dive with Steve Myklebust at Sandwich Isle Divers and found Steve "not only personable, but with a degree in marine biology. With over 10,000 dives under his belt, he knows the Kona Coast. Limiting his boats to six divers (or less), it's like a private charter instead of the cattle boats operating elsewhere on the Island. When asked for manta rays, octopus, eels, frogfish, and other specific requests, he delivered." Bruce was right -- no one reported on Sandwich Isle Divers last year -- but I checked past Chapbooks and found a few mentions of Steve's operation, all of them favorable.

Florida

I've made four dive trips to North America's only living coral reef, which parallels the Keys four to seven miles offshore. Three trips were in late fall and winter and the fourth was in the summer. On only one of those four trips -- in the summer -- did I get in a decent dive. Otherwise it was days on end of six- to eight-foot seas, puking dive partners, and poor visibility. However, on every trip I was impressed by the fish life.

Because of the great number of divers that flood south Florida, there are many dive operations to choose from, but that doesn't mean it's always easy to get out. Dr. Michael Nelson (Edinburg, Texas) offers this tip for weekdays or when the weather is somewhat chancy in the off season: "Dive stores with their own boats want a deposit to put your name on a list, then IF they get enough divers to sign up they will go out. Stores who don't have their own boats (like Force E, whom I booked through) will call around and find someone who is going out. I ended up diving with Scubatyme and can highly recommend them."

What Tom Maloney (Lyndhurst, New Jersey) liked about Ocean Divers on his November trip to Key Largo was their great T-shirts in the gift shop. "However, when you get on the dive boat, it definitely resembles a cattle boat. Numerous divemasters are aboard, but none get in the water with divers; they just administer the dive plan and send everyone off the aft like lemmings. When they took me out to dive the wreck of the Bib, visibility was a poor 3-5 feet, water temperature a cool 73-77 degrees, and the current was ripping -- they should have called the dive off. If a diver wanted to cancel, they were reluctant to return the deposit. One diver got into trouble with current and a divemaster had to retrieve him. Other members of crew commented that the party in trouble should leave a good tip for causing the divemaster to get wet."

Maybe it was because it was July, but Albert Ammons (Vallejo, California) found a dive operation in the keys that he liked, Silent World Dive Center in Key Largo. "They don't run a preset schedule of dive sites, one for each day of the week. They talk with the divers and ask who has dived where and who wants to dive a particular spot. Pre-dive briefings were complete. No problems using computers. Standard bottom times were given for the depth, but those of us on computers were allowed to dive the computers. The only catch was that you had to be back aboard the boat before it left for the dock or the next dive site. July diving in Key Largo was great visibility, tons of fish, and warm water."

"Other members of crew
commented that the party
in trouble should leave a
good tip for causing the
divemaster to get wet."

Grand Cayman

Seven-Mile Beach, with its palm-lined white sand and turquoise water, rivals top beaches of the Caribbean. Speaking English, offering a good selection of hotels, and maintaining a clean infrastructure of touristy things to do makes Grand Cayman an appealing destination. Clear water, coral walls, dropoffs, and sting rays make it a top draw for divers, but between the praises I hear three consistent complaints from readers: it's too expensive, it's too crowded, and the diving is too restricted. Art Weller (Milwaukee) stayed at the Westin on his fall trip. He took offense at the cost, the exchange rate, and the diving restrictions. "Besides extremely high prices, the automatic 20 percent loss in the exchange rate seemed not to relate to economic and world conditions, but simply on par to get more money from the tourist. Restrictions for diving were 100 feet and time to their specifications, regardless of computer or experience."

Where Did Everybody Go?

We've analyzed our reports for this year. Here's where
In Depth readers have been traveling to get wet in the Caribbean.

Dive Destination 1995 (rank) 1996 (rank)
Caymans 20.0% (1) 17.6% (1)
Honduras 10.0% (tie 3) 12.1% (2)
Cozumel 3.4% (8) 11.1% (3)
Bahamas 10.0% (tie 3) 10.0% (4)
Turks & Caicos 9.6% (5) 8.6% (5)
Belize 9.0% (6) 8.0% (6)
Bonaire 13.0% (2) 7.9% (7)
Curaao 1.7% (10) 3.1% (8)
Saba 6.5% (7) 2.3% (9)
St. Lucia 2.6% (9) 1.8% (10)

Reader N. B. R. (Abilene, Texas) reports that he can live with the high prices, but will not go back to Cayman as long as he has 1,250 to 1,500 psi in his tank every time he comes up. He could tolerate the $35 to $40 for a case of beer or the $16 cab rides, but "diving with Fisheye, the dive times were 20 minutes (30 minutes with a computer) for the first dive and 40 minutes for the second dive -- not good enough."

Larry Spruill (Oklahoma City) reports that he traveled to Grand Cayman with "a group of 41 slightly twisted personalities, mostly doctors, lawyers, cops, and paramedics," and dived with Parrot's Landing, which gave them their two largest boats and did an excellent job organizing and tolerating them. "Each dive guide had his own set of priorities. Walt was out having a great time, Brian just wanted to get finished, and Scott wanted our females. The hotel Coconut Harbor was very average. Meals in town were excellent, but overpriced. Most of the locals were surly and rude, and the island was crowded and hectic, with frequent traffic jams. What do I wish I had known before I went to Grand Cayman? Little Cayman!"

Weather and seas permitting, the North Wall of Grand Cayman still has some excellent dives with healthy coral and sponge growth. Seas are almost always rougher, but it's usually worth the effort if you can find someone to take you in a small group. Don't lock yourself into a package with an operator you're unhappy with. Try to get a group of divers together with same experience level, then talk an operator into taking you to the better sites.

West Coast of Mexico

There is diving on the Pacific coast of Mexico, but the visibility is usually miserable unless you can get someone to take you out to the offshore islands (a boat ride of an hour or more), and although dive operations do exist in the resort towns, the reports I get are more about the lack of safety standards than the diving. Elizabeth Urban (Madison, Wisconsin) reports that she found a decent operation in Puerto Vallarta on her January trip. "Chico's Dive Shop was well run, staff was friendly. They would allow only advanced divers because of the surge. I saw a humpback whale, dolphins, manta rays, turtles, and a seahorse. Their boat is a six-pack with a limit of four divers."

Margarita Island

Right down there off the coast of Venezuela in line with Curaao and Bonaire, Margarita Island looks like a prime dive destination. Back in 1992 we sent a correspondent down to check it out but came up empty-handed. Hector Buffa (Miami) found a new dive operation on his October trip to Margarita. Hector rates the condition of the corals two on a five-star scale, and fish life twoand- a-half. I wouldn't plan a trip to the island for diving, but if you end up there for other reasons (they have good wind surfing), check out Bandido's Diver. "They know very well Los Frailes, the best of Margarita's dive sites, and offered their best efforts to find the best diving."

"Each dive guide had his
own set of priorities. Walt
was out having a great
time, Brian just wanted to
get finished, and Scott
wanted our females."

Los Roques

Keep going east for another 120 miles past Bonaire, past Margarita, and you run into the more remote islands of Los Roques. It was here, on a trip in 1994, that Ben Davison dived "reefs as free from exploitation as I've found in 20 years of Caribbean diving." Mary Martin (Seattle) reports on her February trip and concurs with Ben's observations about the diving. "All the reefs were healthy and lush with coral and sponges. The fish life was incredible, mostly very large swirling schools of small reef fish." Like Ben, she dived with Sesto Continente, which she found to be well run and the staff helpful. Conditions are still a little on the rough side; it's hard to get back into the boat (no ladder), and boat ride are long and bumpy. Surface intervals were pleasant, "spent on different islands on lovely beaches, enjoying picnic lunches." Ben did his stint in Los Roques on the live-aboard Golden Lion, but Mary stayed ashore in a small posada, which she describes as clean and comfortable.

A copy of the February 1995 issue on Los Roques is available for $6 (800-326-1896).

J. Q.

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