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July 2005 Vol. 20, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Taking a Caribbean Cruise on a Ship of Thousands?

tips on getting good diving in any port

from the July, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Clutching my newly discovered treasure, I saw the floor of Carlisle Bay in Barbados vanish from sight as I headed toward the surface. Here was a nineteenth-century embossed medicine bottle, the best find during ten dives at five islands in a single week. My Caribbean dive sampler was provided through the luxury and convenience of a live-aboard with two thousand passengers. A cruise ship. Now, if I could only find my dive boat.

In a huge bay filled with many vessels, I eventually spotted the Dive Shop’s dive boat 200 yards away. After ten minutes of waving and shouting, I realized the driver had left to pick up snorkelers and had a hard time spotting us among all the boats anchored in the harbor, so I blew my dive whistle for the first time in 20 years. It was not that I was in danger of drifting out to sea. The problem was that if I didn’t get back to the cruise ship within an hour, it would sail without me. Thankfully, my whistle worked and I made it back with ten minutes to spare.

Many land-based divers have scorned the arrival of cruise ships in the tropics. The hordes of passengers and their busses represent what many pleasure-seekers are escaping. Cruise ships have been considered the refuge of bingo-playing geriatrics wheeling their walkers to the sounds of Guy Lombardo.

Surely, there are a few of those folks, but a savvy diver with a nondiving spouse might keep an open mind. Besides diving, if your interests include multi-island hopping, firstclass dining, plus romantic travel on impressive ships with a chocolate on your pillow each night, consider cruising. A variety of onboard activities, Broadway-style entertainment and bargain prices might look great to anyone tired of tight bunks and stale dive stories. And, you unpack only once since your hotel does all the traveling. If your family includes kids or nondivers, this could be the perfect vacation.

Your main decision is whether to book the ship’s dive excursion and go with whatever operation they have selected, or to book independently. Both have their advantages.

Dive with the ship’s selection?

If your last dive was ten years ago and you remember the term BCD as a brand of underwear, your best bet is to stay with the ship excursion. Chances are, most onboard divers accompanying you will be less advanced than those venturing out on their own. The ship’s excursion will be convenient, you’ll meet fellow passenger-divers you can socialize with on board, and if the dive boat comes home late from an “official” excursion, the ship won’t leave without you.

However, the ship’s divers could be rusty and waste a lot of time with gear problems, forgotten swimsuits, etc. The dive operation the cruise line has selected will likely consider you and the other ship’s divers rookies, so the divemaster might act like your third grade teacher.

But, you might get lucky. Undercurrent subscribers Paul and Donna Lima (Christiana, TN), participating in the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Dive-In program, were picked up at their ship by Hugh Parkey’s well-regarded Belize operation, so they didn’t have to take a tender to shore. “We had a long, scenic ride to Turneffe Atoll, where the dive sites were at the walls. We never felt any time pressure either under the water or on the surface and were delivered back to the ship in plenty of time before departure.”

If you want to increase your chances for advanced dives involving greater depth, caverns, or perhaps wrecks, set up your own dives ahead of time with a local dive shop on each island. The Chapbook is the best reference. Many island operators are accustomed to having experienced divers show up on cruise ships and provide good service. Besides more adventurous dives (generally), there will be less hand holding, fewer people, and you’ll likely be diving with better divers. And better diving may even be less expensive. Cruise ships charge a premium for their excursions.

Making the arrangements can be a hassle, and you must put plenty of time between the last dive and the ship’s departure. Prearrange transportation back to the cruise terminal. If you are independent and get back after the scheduled departure time, you’re out of luck. I’ve seen hapless passengers running down the dock yelling while their love boat sails off into the sunset without them. Their only recourse is to fly to the next island to catch up, which often requires them to find a hotel until the first flight the next day. And, getting a flight might be tough. Just try arranging a flight between Cozumel and Belize City without going through the U.S.

On my most recent cruise ship sampler, I chose Princess Cruises for a Southern Caribbean one-week excursion sailing from Puerto Rico. The Caribbean is an extremely competitive market, so incredible deals are easy to find -- particularly if you can travel at the last minute.

My first island was Barbados where I dived the interesting Stavronikita wreck and took a well-known bottle dive in Carlisle Bay with The Dive Shop (www.divebds.com or 1-888-898- 3483). These were two excellent dives and they weren’t offered by the ship. The wreck dive provided some great penetrations into a user-friendly, but extensive ship. The Stavronikita can cater to many levels of wreck diving experience, which is not often the case in the Caribbean.

For the second island (St. Lucia), I independently booked Anse Chastanet’s Scuba St. Lucia (www.scubastlucia.com or 888-465-8242). They arrived promptly at the cruise ship dock and transported us by boat to the resort 45 minutes away. I dived, my wife enjoyed the beach. The diving was standard Caribbean reef fare, but the resort is beautiful. The ship’s excursion was much closer to the port on poorer reefs.

I took the ship’s dive package from St. Maarten and was happy to explore an interesting broken-up wreck with about thirty other divers. It was a fun bunch though, and relatively loose for a cattle boat. Off Tortola, I was determined to dive The Rhone, if only to see Jacqueline Bisset (remember that 28-yearold classic film, “The Deep”?) in my narcosis-laden dreams. While I booked this independently with Underwater Safaris (800) 537-7032), it caters to rookie divers, typical for the Caribbean. I can’t imagine that the cruise ship’s offering would have been any less challenging.

Our St. Thomas operation was conveniently located next to the ship’s dock and well- versed in Romper Room-style diving. These dives were booked through the ship and came complete with the cocky divemaster, mega-attitude, and a video offering that recalled your occasional image in a herd of divers on a far-too-popular reef.

Subscriber James Heimer (Houston) on a Carnival Triumph cruise, paid $70 for a one tank dive on St. Thomas. He wrote: “A herd of divers (maybe 20) and snorkelers (maybe 50) were taken to Cokie Beach, a crowded tourist beach. The snorkelers had headed off before us, so we had to swim through them, plus several hundred other tourists swimming from the beach. The visibility was 10-30 ft. The dive lasted 41 minutes, following the divemaster all the time.” One might expect a boat dive for that money, but that’s cruise ship prices.

There are great dives to be found in the Caribbean, but for most you’ll have to book them independently when cruising. But, if you want to take the spouse and kids diving, or you need a refresher dive, the cruise ship excursion is the way to go. Either way, for aging baby boomers looking for more luxury and less hassle on their vacation, the cruise ship offers a great way to get wet. If you’ve ever been stuck on the wrong island for a week wishing you’d picked option two, consider a week’s vacation with five or six island options. The odds of a good dive are better and chances are, the memories will be more extensive too.

The author of this article, Chuck Ballinger, is the author of Underwater Odyssey, 50 Dives in 50 States. (See www.undercurrent.org/UCnow/bookpicks2. shtml)

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