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June 1999 Vol. 14, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Updates

Contents of this Issue:
All publicly available

Return to Fiji Aboard the Naia

NASA, Spit, Soap, and Olive Oil

Fiji Insider Travel Tips

Travel Updates

Reader's Travel Tip

New Credit Card Fees

Inflatable Sharks

After Divers Die

Are Rebreathers Safe?

Jellyfish Sting


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Ben Davison

Publisher and Editor

Undercurrent

3020 Bridgeway, Suite 102

Sausalito, CA 94965

Contact Ben

from the June, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Travel UpdatesIn our April 98 issue we mentioned a few of our picks for dive operations on Grand Cayman for experienced Undercurrent subscribers who dont need a divemaster to hold their hands and point out the barracuda. We covered Divers Down (phone, fax: 345/945-1611), a small operation across from Seven Mile Beach in the shopping center Coconut Place, and Cayman Marine Lab (phone, fax: 345/945-5586) with marine biologist Tom Byrnes, whos widely respected and knows the waters of Grand Cayman as well as anybody on the island. Diven Stuff (phone: 949-6033, fax: 945- 9207) is one of the most flexible operations on Grand Cayman, Peter Milburns Dive Cayman Ltd. (phone: 945-5770, fax: 945-5786) one of the oldest and most successful, and Dive Tech (phone 949-1700, fax: 949-1701) the islands only truly technical diving operation.

Heres an update on Grand Cayman: weve uncovered a couple more dive operators, one old, one new, who made us remember why Cayman diving got so damn popular in the first place.

Hell blush at our writing this, but Nick Buckley is one of Grand Caymans better divemasters. Buckley, who handles all of the diving for Red Baron Sail and Dive Charters, has been an instructor for 15 years and has more than 5,000 dives in Grand Cayman. Numbers can be misleading, of course, but how many divers do you know who can sneak up on a garden eel and catch it? No, hes not going to demonstrate his skill for you: Buckley has too much respect for reef creatures, and I wouldnt recommend trying it at home, either.

Red Barons six-pack boat, a 28-ft. Dusky with 225 hp outboard, dive platform, ladder, freshwater rinse and full cabin, is named Deep Blue. While Deep Blue certainly lacks some of the amenities of the Aggressor fleet, the essentials are there. More importantly, the freedom that comes with chartering the boat means almost unlimited diving options. You can choose where to go, when to leave, how long to stay down, and what to do about lunch.

Photographers and videographers should be especially happy with Deep Blue as Buckley is familiar with the needs of film buffs, having recently shot all of the underwater footage for an 18-part documentary entitled Exploring Oceanus, which starred freediving recordholder Pipin Ferraras. Whatever youre trying to shoot, Buckleys likely to find it for you if you ask. When I inquired about nurse sharks, he described a particular ledge (near an unmarked dive site) where he frequently finds them. The next day, there were four nurse sharks there. I was impressed. Red Baron Lodge: phone/fax 345-949-9116, cell 345-916-1293, e-mail deepbluenick@hotmail.com

Cayman Dive Lodge advertises itself as a tourist-free dive experience, and on this count they deliver. The little low-budget Lodge on Caymans East End has been in business for more than 25 years and offers some of the islands better diving in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. With only ten small air-conditioned rooms on the property, boat trips never get very crowded (the Lodge doesnt take outside customers to fill their boats), but what separates Cayman Dive Lodge from other dive operators on Grand Cayman is their staff. This cheerful bunch takes your gear when you arrive, and you wont touch it again until you leave (unless you want to).

The Lodge operates two boats. One is a 45-foot Garcia called Minnow II, the other a relatively new Pro 48 by Custom Dive Boats called East Ender. Both boats are spacious. Minnow II is generally used for afternoon onetank trips while the bigger and more luxurious East Ender is the boat of choice for morning twotank trips. Both have freshwater showers, large camera tables, ice water, camera and mask rinse buckets, defog, dry towels, fresh fruit, and numerous other nice touches. Divers are welcome to explore in their own buddy teams and dive computer profiles (100 feet, give or take a few, 30-40 minute bottom times on wall dives, 40-50 minutes on shallow dives). Briefings are detailed, even personalized. When I asked the divemaster if I could do the wall dive unguided, he said no problem, let me tell you about a couple of places you wont want to miss. Looking for a particular type of fish, critter, coral, etc.? Just askthe boat captains seemed open to requests.

Of course, good diving will make any staff look a little better. The East End is the windward side of the island, and the increased wave action and stronger currents mean more caves, canyons, swimthroughs, grottos, soft coral, etc. If you like tunnels, theres nothing finer in Cayman than the East End (including Little Cayman). There are also more sharks and other pelagics on the East End than elsewhere in Cayman, and the walls here are as steep as any on the north side of the island. Cayman Dive Lodge: phone 800-852-3483, fax 809-947- 7560, e-mail divelodge@aol.com, website www.caymandivelodge.com

. . . but how many
divemasters do you
know who can sneak
up on a garden eel
and catch it?

In this years February issue we reviewed Castle Comfort on Dominica. Although Dominica still doesnt have a large tourist infrastructure, there are several other choices. On my last trip to Dominica several years ago I stayed at the Evergreen, a small Europeanstyle resort between the Anchorage and Castle Comfort, and did my diving with the operation at the Anchorage. Ive been recommending both ever since, and Undercurrent readers are still backing up those choices. Mark Reckman (Cincinnati OH), who stayed at the Evergreen last summer, calls it one of the best hotels on the island, a small, clean, comfortable, well-run family operation with excellent local cuisine. Mark also did his diving with Anchorage Dive Center and found them to be a good family-run operation with professional service.

Walter Brenner (Wayne PA) writes that the Anchorage Dive Center operation was friendly, efficient, and helpful and that their knowledge of sperm whales (in winter months) is a real plus. When reader Bill Thomsen went to Dominica last winter, he stayed at upscale Fort Young, and the Anchorage Dive Center, where he did his diving, has become his pick as well. I have talked to other long-time Dominica divers and they almost all agree that Anchorage Dive Center caters better to smaller, more discrete dive groups. They allow you to tailor your dives to the wishes of the group (within reason) and their boats, equipment, and facilities are all well maintained. He felt that we glossed over some of the other opportunities for adventure the island affords, and I have to agree. Dominica is a beautiful display of nature, and the opportunities to embrace it both above and below water are varied enough that we could fill an entire issue with them.

Robert C. Ewald chose the Anchorage for lodging as well as diving, and he described his room as . . . basic Holiday Inn without a carpet, but spotlessly clean. He found the dive boats at the Anchorage to be smaller than Dive Dominicas but far less crowded, with only four to six divers the entire week. I found the divemasters at Anchorage to be quite enthusiastic, so much so that one of them invited four of us to his own home one evening for dinner. Hows that for friendly service? No one ever questioned my depth on any dive. Although the divemasters were in the water leading dives, they did not insist that everyone follow. But follow them we did (which is unusual for me), because they were extremely good at finding neat critters like frog fish and seahorses. On one dive I was photographing a seahorse and the divemaster stuck his slate out with the words three more coming up. He had spotted three more seahorses, and he didnt want me to burn all my film on this one. Anchorage Dive Center: 800-934-DIVE or 767-448- 2638, e-mail anchorage@cwdom.dm

Cancun as a destination for serious divers? Okay, so there are a few places to dive on the coast south of Cancun, and Cozumel is a short ferry ride away, but how many divers have you heard talk about diving in Cancun? About 15 years ago I stumbled upon a section of reef off Cancun that had the largest stand of elkhorn coral Ive seen anywhere in the world, enormous clusters that started in 25 feet of water and went to within a few feet of the surface. But ever since that was blown away in a hurricane Ive been saying theres no diving around Cancun. Now Im softening that statement: there is an operation in Cancun that does more than shuttle boatloads of novice divers out to 20-foot deep reefs. Though Im not moving Cancun up to the top of my dance card for a dive vacation, if you find yourself in Cancun for other reasons and would like to work in some diving, check out Scuba Cancun, run by the capable Edith Hurtado. Its a small operation with seven boats (two small and two larger dive boats, and two dedicated to fishing) on the north end of Cancun. Reader Gino Dubay (Pigeon Forge TN) reports seeing a sailfish when he was diving with Scuba Cancun this January. Very laid back, personable dive operation that gives good attention to small groups. The diving was a real surprise to me. After a 45-minute boat ride we were 2 miles off the north end of the island in 50-55 feet of water. It was windy on both days I went out, with 4-6 foot swells and currents as strong as Palau. It turned out to be a mini Cozumel of diving: chutes, tunnels, drift dives, rays, nurse sharks, morays, bugs, turtles, huge schools of jacks, grunts, silver sides, barracuda, and a good-sized sailfish!

This e-mail from Crystal Divers on Nananu-i-Ra Island, Fiji, crossed my desk last week: Had a great day today. I had a 15 ft. tiger come up to the boat. My exact words were we need a bigger boat. Then we had a pilot whale, a 9 ft. grouper, and some gait morays 12" in diameter: not a bad day. The only problem was that I lost $$ because after the shark sighting half of my divers back out of the first dive.

When Dan Grenier of Crystal Divers moved his operation from Loma Loma to Nananu-i-Ra Island off the coast of the main island Viti Levu near Raki Raki, I was a little skeptical about whether he (or his guests) would be content after the great diving they had enjoyed at Loma Loma. Marty Dawson (San Ramon CA) shared my skepticism until he checked it out last winter, when he was . . . happily surprised by the numbers of beautiful, healthy hard corals, huge soft corals, and enormous sea fans. Visibility wasnt the best. Lots of subjects for macro photographers. I had been diving early in the week on the Fiji Aggressor and therefore had many reefs to compare these with. The reefs around Nananu-i-Ra were every bit as good as the others.

However, Dr. Terrence W. Dunlop (Annapolis MD), whose comment on the diving here was that it doesnt get much better than this, also warns us not to expect a tropical paradise. Much of island scrubby and scruffy. Two lane roads (mostly well-maintained) with untuned diesel vehicles spewing clouds of unburned petroleum. Litter in populated areas. Merchants in Nadi Town can be aggressive and rude. Many homes ramshackle. Wananavu Resort (the best in Fijian), a 2-1/2 hour trip, has fifteen bures; one beachfront unit (not much of a beach, but pleasant). Rooms smallish, but have bedroom, sitting area & small porch. Bathrooms have showers with lots of hot water. Two ceiling fansif you need a/c, youre out of luck. Food okay. Onsite shop Ra Diversnot recommended. Goes to less interesting closer sites with poorer viz so can get back early. Dan Greniers Crystal Divers is quite different.

Dan should not have to worry about the tiger sharks being bigger than his boat anymore, as his new one is a 39-foot aluminum with a 435 hp jet drive which should enable him to reach E-6 and other sites previously accessed only by live-aboards. Crystal Divers: 679- 694-747, fax 679-694-877, e-mail crystaldivers@is.com.fj, website www.crystaldivers.com (phone 24 hrs., fax 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.)

The biggest dive boat now operating in the Maldives, the Pollux, is also bigger than any boat in the Maldivian navy. You wont get mal de mer on the Pollux: even outside the reefs, shes stable as hell. And youll find plenty of room to stroll around. The Pollux was built in Holland in the 50s to serve as a floating motel for port pilots and designed to withstand powerful North Sea gales. Now she probably thinks shes died and gone to boat heaven, but unfortunately, as is the case with many conversions, that doesnt make her the ideal dive platform. Of course, actual diving isnt from the Pollux but from two dhonis, covered wooden Maldivian boats, that shadow the motherships progress. Theres adequate room on the dhonis, but you have to put your gear on a tank with every new dive. Tanks lie horizontally in the center of the deck and have a disconcerting tendency to roll around.

Breakfast is served in the indoor mess, which is un-airconditioned and can get hot and crowded. Lunch and dinner are served topside, in cooler but sometimes windy surroundings. Except for the occasional fresh fish grill, the food is unimaginative, boring, and deadly repetitive. This is no trip for gourmets. I would have gladly paid a hundred bucks more for something besides chicken, fish, rice, and variations thereof. Cabins vary from the sumptuousness of #9, with its en suite full bath, dressing room, desk, and a/c, to cramped Dantean pits with no windows, no a/c, and little else. There are no photo facilities. A blue-collar vessel thanks to her huge diesels, the interior of the Pollux is quite noisy. Shes run by Norbert Schmidt out of Austria, so her passengers are almost exclusively European and predominantly Austrian, Swiss, and German. The Maldivian/Sri Lankan crew, however, speaks English, although dive briefings can be held in English or German depending on the divemaster of the moment.

The diving itself was very good, but because of the time required to transfer tanks from the Pollux to the dhonis, there is a maximum of three dives/day (morning, afternoon, and a possible night dive). There are strong currents in the passes and lots of big stuff: gray reef, whitetip, and a few hammerhead sharks as well as dogtooth tuna, turtles, huge mantas, very friendly Napoleon wrasses, plenty of small tropicals, and even one whale shark. However, the coral, which is still 90-95% bleached, makes for a desolate underwater landscape, though there are beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise water. Hordes of European tan-seekers on the islands mitigate any feelings of isolation, even when viewed from a distance. Still, if you want to dive a nice chunk of the Maldives at a reasonable cost, you might enjoy what the Pollux has to offer. If you go, take plenty of snacks, plenty of reading material, and ante up to get a cabin with a/c. Youll also feel a lot more at home if you speak some German. If so, you can make arrangements through www.tropicalseas.com or your favorite dive trip booking agent. January is the best time for mantas.

John Q. Trigger

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