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October 2000 Vol. 15, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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New Destinations on Land and at Sea

and one airline not to fly

from the October, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Looking for a not-so-widely known destination for your next trip? How about live-aboards in Cuba or Panama? The romantic island of Bequia? Or Caymans East End? All are good trip choices, but not the islands of Bonaire, Aruba, and Curaao not if you must fly ALM.

An Aggressor in Cuba?

Now plying Cuban waters is the Belize Aggressor, rechristened Ocean Diver. Owned by those who own the Cayman Aggressor, the Ocean Diver is not marketed by the Aggressor Fleet, but by Scubacan, the Toronto firm that seems to have a virtual monopoly on scuba travel to Cuba. Here is a report by an Undercurrent correspondent, on board in May.

I flew to Havana via Cancun, with no problems getting in or out of Cuba. We landed at Havanas new international terminal (a joint venture between Canada and Cuba), which rivals any U.S. airport. Scubacans local rep escorted me through customs and made sure they stamped my visa, not my passport. Next stop, the run-down domestic terminal, where Scubacan charters a DC3 for the short flight to Cayo Largo, where the boat is docked.

The Ocean Diver is a typical Aggressor, well-equipped with outstanding photo facilities, E-6 processing, a photo pro, underwater scooters, Nitrox, emergency equipment, a working Jacuzzi, a fax machine, and even e-mail access. Unlike the newer Aggressors, the cabins were damp, dark little holes below decks with a washbasin (no heads, but there are three on the boat) and basically no storage space. The crew was helpful, hard-working, and friendly, but the meals were pretty bad. Beer, wine, soda, and no-name booze were available gratis.

The diving compares to the Cayman's. No big stuff a single shark and an occasional turtle but the reefs were 100% pristine, as if I were diving where no person had gone before. Beautiful untouched coral and sponges made for good wide-angle shots. While macro subjects were few, fish were curious and did not mind our presence. The full moon brought schooling snappers and a fleet of rickety old fishing boats. The week began with 120 foot visibility, but with the onset of a plankton bloom, it dropped to 40 feet. I dove in a thick skin in the 80-82 degree water, while other women dove in full suits.

Reader Mary K. Wicksten, there in August, said they dived the Canarreos Archipelago miles of small sandy islets and banks separated by lovely sheer walls with lots of sponges, blackcap basslets, black corals. Area is a reserve now, but big fish and conch populations are down. Best dive: Devils Hole, archway in a reef opens on wall at 70-80 feet.

The package includes one night in a Havana hotel (adequate by U.S. standards, but nice by Cuban standards) and an escorted day tour. Beautiful in its heyday, Havanas buildings havent been maintained for forty years. Classic old cars (vintage 1940 and 1950) are everywhere; quite a hoot. Bring extra medicines to give to the guides and hotel staff and dollar bills for tips.

You cannot use credit cards or travelers checks, so Scubacan prepays everything. Changes are limited, so get cancellation insurance. And be flexible; Scubacan has canceled several scheduled trips for lack of a full boat.

Scubacan in Toronto (www.scubacan.com), call 888-799- CUBA (2822), 416-927-1257, or fax 416-927-8595. Scubacan International, 1365 Yonge Suite 208, Toronto, Ontario M4T 2P7.

...Now plying Cuban
waters is the Belize
Aggressor, rechristened
Ocean Diver...

The Best of the Small Islands

The little island of Bequia, in the Grenadines south of St. Vincent, is among the more romantic and civilized destinations in the Caribbean. To show you the possibilities, I asked an Undercurrent correspondent to report on his May visit:

I have visited more than 40 islands in the Caribbean, diving 30 of them. I keep going back to Bequia, not because its the best place to dive, but because its got the best combination of good diving, beautiful scenery, wonderful people, terrific places to stay, and top-notch bars and restaurants. This is what the Caribbean used to be, before the crowds.

New Destinations on Land and at SeaMy wife and I love the upstairs units on the waterfront at The Gingerbread, among the nicer small hotels in the Caribbean. Our room had a full kitchen, a dining area, and most attractive and comfortable furnishings. From our balcony, we watch the constant ferry, schooner and yacht traffic, and fantastic sunsets. We love to walk to Spring, and then to the Crescent Beach Inn to enjoy the beach and one of Dean Nichols great lunches. One of the best restaurants (and bars and views) is Cocos, on a hillside overlooking Lower Bay (and Admiralty Bay and Port Elizabeth, the main town on the island). Another nice walk is to Friendship Bay, where the largest hotel on the island is located, and the best beach bars, Herbies and Spiceys. The Frangipani has a great waterfront bar, usually crowded in the early evening because of the sunsets.

Bequia Dive Adventures is a new operation, formed by Ron and Laury, excellent instructors who used to be with Sunsports. You can dive two dives in the morning and a third in the afternoon. Most dives are drift dives, with the boat following. If youre using a computer, which they rent, youre free to dive your own profile. Currents are generally moderate, not enough to interfere with photographers who want to stop for a picture, but sometimes they make the ride exhilarating.

They pull their boat sternfirst to the beach; tanks are on board, BCs and regulators set up. On this day we head to Pigeon Island, picking up a diver from a yacht in the harbor. Laury checks the current, which as usual runs counterclockwise around the island, and we drop to the bottom at 30 feet. These are volcanic islands, not the limestone islands of the Caymans or the Bahamas, and the sites rock encrusted with corals, sponges, and gorgonians are more reminiscent of Dominica or Saba.

We drift halfway around the island. Part of the dive is on a wall, part on slopes with elkhorn coral, hard and soft corals, and sponges. I watch two juvenile spotted drums in a secluded spot, then a huge green moray in the open. Great schools of Creolefish, Creole wrasse, and French grunts feed in the faster currents, flowing around me as I glide through. I spot a big nurse shark on the bottom, seven large great barracuda drifting overhead, spotted morays, and a spotted snake eel. Maximum depth for the hour-long dive was 62 feet.

As is normal, we return to shore for our surface interval. My wife and I relax over a cup of excellent coffee at the Gingerbread Caf, outdoors on the waterfront. At 11:30, its back to the boat, where the tanks have been changed and our equipment set up. Off to the Cathedral: brittle stars are everywhere, and the current carries us through an unusually large school of chub. A wide sloping area with beautiful corals reminds me of an alpine meadow with colorful wildflowers blooming. During our five diving days, I see eagle rays, more nurse sharks, turtles, horse-eye jacks, mackerel, black jacks, southern stingrays, chain and golden moray, scorpionfish, several seahorses, and chain morays, but the frog fish seem to have disappeared since Hurricane Lenny hit Bequia.

...The best Caribbean
combination of good
diving, beautiful
scenery, wonderful
people, terrific places
to stay, and top-notch
bars and restaurants...

Bequia has a fine new airport; you can fly in from Barbados or St. Vincent, but we prefer to take the ferry from St. Vincent after staying there as well. (phone: 784-458-3800; fax: 784-458-3907; www.begos.com/gingerbread), and let Bequia Dive Adventures (phone: 784-458-3247; fax: 775-665-7088; www.bequiadiveadventures.com) take you to Bequias best dive sites. For general info on Bequia, try www.bequiasweet.com.

Diving Panamas Jurassic Park

The diving offered by Coiba Explorer, operating on the Pacific side of Panama, is getting great reviews. Says Milton Provel (Edison NJ), there in June: They meet you at the airport, take care of you, put you in a first-class hotel one night coming and going. First-class live-aboard. 12 divers, crew of 11. Large schools of fish on huge pinnacles. Whitetip sharks on most dives. King angelfish in schools. The perfect trip for an experienced diver sick of the lack of fish in the Caribbean. John V. (Southampton NY), says July water temperature was 75-81 degrees. From the town of David, near the Costa Rican border, you take a two-hour boat ride out a mangrove-lined river to the 115 ft. mother ship that travels six hours to Jurassiclooking islands with birds and rock pinnacles. 300 miles from Cocos Island, 600 miles from the Galpagos Islands, 200 miles from Malpelo Islands. You dive from two 28-ft. boats 8 people per boat (6 divers/1 divemaster/1 captain), little room for cameras but ok. Two a.m. dives, then lunch on main ship, then two p.m. dives, night dives when you can. Rooms are clean with good storage, TV and VCR, air-conditioning, sink, four people share a shower and toilet. The diving is great eastern Pacific diving, rocks covered with a carpet of white gorgonian.

Large schools of fish. Spadefish, barracuda, king angels, Moorish idols, jacks, trevally, tuna, groupers, turtles, eagle rays, manta rays, moray eels, sea snakes on just about every dive! Sharks: whitetip, Galpagos, nurse, and some tigers every dive. On one dive we saw 150+ golden cowrays at 10 ft. A lot of rain. Wet season May to October, so bring a rain jacket. Some strong downcurrents; be fit and have good equipment with advanced training. The last day in Panama City we took a good tour of the Panama Canal and the old city, founded in 1510 AD.

David Gouge (Kissimmee FL) adds due to current, surge and viz, diving was group, but relaxed. Sites explode with variety. Scads of whitetip sharks, occasional tiger and Galpagos sharks. Mantas, turtles, pilot whales. Surface interval spent trolling my wahoo fed the boat one night. Every person involved with this operation is committed to making this a memorable dive vacation. E-mail info@coibaexplorer.com; phone 504-871-7181; fax 504-871- 7150; website www.coibaexplorer.com.

New Cayman East End Hostel

Since the 70s, weve said that the best diving on Grand Cayman is on the East End. Now a new hotel has opened and Ocean Frontiers, an excellent operator, has a shop on the premises. Says our stealth correspondent Daniel, its luxurious and far more comfortable than home. All units face the beach and ocean and have a Jacuzzi next to the king-size bed. (Question: What do REAL divers do in the Jacuzzi? Answer: Wash out their dive equipment isnt that what it was designed for?) A mini-kitchen with refrigerator and microwave occupies one corner of the tremendous room or suite, depending on the accommodation chosen, and theres a double sink in front of a giant mirror. (Since the spotlight is between the sinks, its necessary to shave half your face at one sink and the other half at the other sink that must be why there are two sinks.) A small onsite store is well stocked with breakfast and lunch fixings which is fortuitous since the restaurant doesnt open until 9 a.m. and any self-respecting East End diver is breathing Nitrox by then! Always Leave Maana.

ALM From Bad to Worse

We must keep warning about ALM because so many divers take it for forays to Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaao. However, I wouldnt fly it on a free ticket.

While an ALM rep told Undercurrent that they are not considering bankruptcy, they are in big trouble. They have slashed their work force and increased pilots monthly flight hours from 55 to 80. The court has ordered ALM to pay its pilots more than $10 million they owe; ALM says it doesnt have the money. You have to wonder what theyre doing about maintenance.

Thats why travelers like Andrea Weiner took 17 hours in August to get to Curaao and 26 hours to get home. We had to spend the night in Miami because they prohibited all ALM flights from leaving the gates. The day in the Curaao airport was a nightmare. Many areas werent air-conditioned and it was nearly 100 degrees. They gave us vouchers for sandwiches, but there werent any sandwiches. They gave us vouchers for beverages, but they didnt have anything identifiable to drink. The restrooms were so disgusting, none of us would use them. KLM and AA planes were coming and going, so people crowded the gates screaming threats. The ALM staff either didnt speak English or pretended not to speak it. They said international airline inspectors showed up unannounced to make a surprise maintenance check of all the planes. Meanwhile, were looking at the planes all day and there was no one inspecting anything. The ALM plane we took from Miami to Curaao was in such disrepair it was scary. The seat backs couldnt be brought upright. The whole interior was dirty.

Do you need any other reason not to fly this airline?

- Ben Davison

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