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July 2006 Vol. 21, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fine New Destinations

And slipping old popular destinations

from the July, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Our readers and research have uncovered new information about a variety of dive venues that we want to pass on so that you may plan for better dive trips. Perhaps most troubling is a development in Belize.

Last year, we reported how three divers on a day trip with Advanced Divers in southern Belize were abandoned at sea; one died and two survived after drifting two nights. Vance Cabral, the owner of Advanced Divers in Placencia, had previous safety problems, which Undercurrent had reported on. After this tragic incident the government yanked his license as a tour operator. However, weve been told recently by two concerned Placencia hotel owners that the Belize government may allow him to resume business. Divers beware. But there is better news.

Papua New Guinea: We reported on Tawali as it was being opened (February 2005). While our anonymous reviewer sang its praises, we issued a cautionary note to wait to see how it panned out.

According to many longtime readers, its an exceptional destination. Jeremy Cohen (State College, PA), who has logged more than 1000 dives, spent last Christmas there with local villagers who sang carols in the indigenous language. We dove with co-owners Ronda and Bob; marveled at Capt. Chriss pirate stories; ate family style with guests and crew; appreciated the respect for the environment and for guests; enjoyed international make-up of the visitors; found the forest, waterfall, fishing village, and skull cave hikes to be a photographers joy; had no problem with bugs; found staff and dive crew the nicest in 40 years of diving dive crew accommodating so our daughter could snorkel while we dove night sky overwhelming; the songs from local villagers paddling dugout canoes across the lagoon at dawn inspiring. Rooms are huge and comfy and allow privacy. Views oh, my. He loved the diving, and so did Don Lipmanson (Ukiah, CA) who was there in April. A pod of dolphins frolicked in the inlet below our deck several mornings. All diving is from boats, except the house reef that appears decimated by coral bleaching, yet harbors mandarinfish and leaf scorpionfish. Many dive sites within minutes by fast small boats offered countless varieties of fish, healthy reefs and pygmy seahorses, commensual and palimonid shrimp, nudibranchs and flatworms. The muck diving at Dinahs Beach, especially at twilight, is a must: five species of lionfish and three species of anemonefish, several cockatoo waspfish, Pegasus sea moths, an octopus. We made some trips past the eastern tip of the island to outer reefs, where the walls and bommies were stunning. Humpback parrotfish reached 4 ft., large angelfish were abundant, a 2 ft. map pufferfish allowed a close approach, two species of pygmy seahorses were at 75 and trevally stalked schools of fusiliers. According to our readers, only two problems emerged. Says Lipmanson: the one thing conspicuously lacking was a blender for making tropical cocktails -- even paradise has its drawbacks. And Ray Haberman, (Naperville, IL.), adds that while the big boat Prowler had plenty of room, the small dive boats, with four divers and a 3-man crew, are crowded. Setup was cramped.(www.tawali.com)

Curacao: Why does the management of Habitat Curacao, year after year, continue with a surly service staff that seems not to care about service? We have had critical reports from the day it opened took a half hour before they took my dinner order and another half hour to start the service and the latest comes from Kevin Elman, who says that the hotel and restaurant staff almost went out of their way to ignore you. To check in I had to wait for five minutes until the two desk people could finish their chat and then I had to interrupt. Elman says the dive shop was a smokehouse and it wasnt the guests (my lungs actually hurt). They have a dive orientation at 9:00 but the first morning boat goes out at 8:30, thus losing a morning of diving. When I asked for an earlier briefing, I was snubbed.

To get service with a smile consider the well-reviewed Ocean Encounters, which now operates out of the new Lodge Kura Hulanda, a member of the highly regarded group Leading Hotels of the World. Dave Padowitz (Mountain View, CA) says the Lodge is at the less developed west end, a casual sister to the outstanding Kura Hulanda hotel in Willemstad, but near the best diving on the island. The resort had recently opened and a few details needed to be smoothed out, but its a beautiful place. Ocean Encounters West is run by the friendly and professional Jim and Lisa. The house reef at Playa Kalki is easily accessible from the beach or the dock. The reef begins a few dozen yards offshore at 25 ft with a moderate slope and good diving from 35 ft down. While there were plenty of fish in shallow water, the reef edge was a little too deep for easy snorkeling. The Mushroom Forest is 40 minutes away, but it was overshadowed by the spectacular Watamula, a pristine site just a few minutes from the resort. Watamula had mild current and gradual slope with lush soft corals transitioning to dense and varied hard coral both at a comfortable 35-45 ft depth. Undercurrent hasnt got enough information to give this our full blessing; however Ocean Encounters and a Leading Hotel of the World is an encouraging marriage. (www.kurahulanda.com)

Sandals, Beaches, et. Al. While these resorts offer plenty to sunseekers, those expecting decent scuba diving are nearly always disappointed, if not downright angry. Thumbing through the last few Chapbooks offers ample reports from unhappy divers. Steve Giles (Camarillo, CA) writes that he and four others (all well-experienced divers) were steered to the Grande St. Lucian in May by a travel agent (Classic Custom Vacations) who touted the island as an up-and-coming dive destination wrong! We contacted the dive operation by phone, and were told that we would not be required to dive with beginners. Upon checking in at the dive operation at 8:00 a.m., filling out forms and having our C-cards scrutinized, they told us we must pass an in-water proficiency test at 11:30 a.m. All four passed with flying colors (a couple of us have nearly 3000 dives and the other two have over 1000 dives), but we lost one day of diving. To placate us, they put us on an afternoon boat with two dozen snorklers and allowed us to make a 20-foot dive. The following days we made a deep dive(70 fsw max. for 30-35 minutes) and a shallow dive (20-40 fsw for 40 minutes). Coral growth on the deeper reefs is healthy and beautiful, not so on the shallow reefs. The largest reef fish were 8-12 inches and were few. Fish traps are everywhere. We were encouraged to pay an additional $100 each for a side dive trip to Martinique for a 45-minute boat trip, 200-foot visibility, and an 80% chance of seeing whales and dolphins on the dive. The boat trip took 1.5 hours with a 2-hour return trip, visibility 50 feet, and not only were there no whales or dolphins, but the largest critter was a spotted drum. A freshwater bucket is on the boat for cameras; however they allowed people to rinse masks in this bucket (mask de-fog is not necessarily recommended for use on cameras) and they allowed people to rinse wet suits in this bucket --- we all know what people do in wetsuits.

Nekton Rorqual on Grand Cayman: One of our long time readers, Terry Schmer(Ocala, Fl), had a generally grand time aboard the Nekton Rorqual in the Cayman Islands in May, but raises important points that perhaps by our publishing them here, we may influence Nekton to mend its ways. If not, fellow divers, you are forewarned. . .

The Nekton made transfer arrangements with the Sunset House, where we were able to get a morning shore dive. Once on board, the Rorquals homely appearance fades quickly. The cabins are actually big enough to move around in. The first days diving was spent at Grand Cayman, with an afternoon dive at Stingray City in snowwhite sand in 15 feet of water; about 20 large Southern Stingrays are hand-fed squid. On Grand Cayman dives there were many fish and a turtle sighting on almost every dive. There was an opportunity for five dives a day and six on days that offered an early dawn dive. . . .The 60 mile crossing to Little Cayman takes all night due to the Rorquals sluggish eight-knot speed. Seas were not rough, but there was considerable rocking, mostly forward and aft instead of side to side. The next two days were spent diving Bloody Bay Wall. Wherever we moored, the site was absolutely spectacular. Each dive held its own surprises, from huge green morays free swimming to spectacular soft coral forests to eagle rays and sharks cruising the walls depths. There were many lobster sightings both days. The night dives were excellent, with multiple octopus sightings, squid, as well as nurse sharks. The fourth day we made the six-mile crossing to Cayman Brac and spent the morning diving the Russian destroyer Captain Tibbets.

Unfortunately, the rest of the day was spent refueling. Passengers were not allowed to remain on board, so we were forced to spend the afternoon on shore, though we had paid for a full week of diving, meals, and accommodations on board. We ended up having to pay for our lunch and a rental car. . . .We returned to Little Cayman for another terrific day of diving, then steamed overnight for a day at Grand Cayman. The next morning they dropped us off at the Sunset House. Overall, good diving, good food prepared by a professional chef, a big roomy vessel, efficient dive deck area, and most important -- a really good crew. . . . .$250 for Nitrox is high and Nektons response is that they must comply with U.S. Coast Guard standards. O.K., but $250 is still too high! For the week, the Nitrox equipment was broken down most of the time anyway. Nekton does not provide anything to drink other than Crystal Light, tea, coffee, or water. Passengers must provide their own sodas or alcoholic beverages. Were already carrying a huge load of luggage and dive gear, weve just arrived in a foreign country, and now we have to try to find a store in an unfamiliar city and stock beverages for an entire week ourselves? Nektons answer to this is that they will drive you to the store.

Nekton needs to make some policy adjustments and their boat will be one of the best liveaboards in the Caribbean. As she stands now, Rorqual is not reaching her potential.

Cayman Aggressor IV: Readers report that while theres still a lot of good Caribbean diving in the Islands, the Cayman Aggressor IV falls short as a liveaboard . . . For example, Wayne LeCompte (Cape Canaveral, FL.), whos made better than 1000 dives, says . . .the Aggressor IV appears to be a well maintained and operated vessel, but we had a few marine heads that clogged or overflowed. The generator was off-line for a short period, and the crew was unable to bring the standby generator into service. . .The captain warned us that if we did not conserve water, he was going to eliminate some water usages. Even before the warnings, the captain recommended that we hang our wetsuits without a fresh water rinse; the only exception was if you urinated in your suit, then he provided a barrel partially filled with freshwater, without disinfectant. There was no way to rinse any tank-mounted scuba equipment (regulators, BCDs, etc.). However, he did give the sundeck a freshwater wash-down every morning, and windows and the dive deck also received a freshwater wash down several times . . . there did not seem to be a proper balance between the boat and the guests. . . . He insisted that you had to change into dry clothes before you could enter the salon or return to your room from the dive deck. It did not matter how dry we toweled ourselves. When we asked where we were to change, he offered the deck head (small and a very messy floor, as it overflowed several times on the trip), the laundry closet (only a contortionist could pull that off), and the cramped camera darkroom . . . In May, the diving was by and large better than average, says LeCompte, who saw many turtles, a few sharks, plenty of morays, groupers, southern stingrays, a couple of spotted eagle rays, scorpion fish, and plenty of small critters: The first time we have seen the male yellowheaded jawfish with eggs in its mouth. Wonderful swim-throughs on most reefs, and the walls are steep, deep and spectacular. . . .Unfortunately, there were not many offers by the crew to provide guided tours, but their attitudes and performance were above and beyond.. . .Overall, it was an enjoyable trip but below service level that we are accustomed to on other liveaboards.

Gilda and Warren Sprung (Houston) wrote: our 9th liveaboard; the first on an Aggressor, and the only unsatisfactory liveaboard. The staff members were wonderful -- Tom, Boris, Yanis (the wonderful cook), and Kat but the synergy between the crew was lacking, which added up to not being in tune with the divers. The accommodations were lacking in that my husband and I had to crawl over each other to get out of bed. Captain Sams dive briefings always had the same theme: how lucky we are to be at this world-class dive site that only he understood. When Captain Sam informed us to only use the wetsuit rinse barrel if we peed in them, I asked if the barrel would have Sink-the-Stink. He replied, No, it was too expensive! The camera rinse station, to my knowledge, never got changed the entire week. The only way we could enter any carpeted area of the boat after a dive was to first change into dry clothes. The only places to change into dry clothes were the dive deck restroom (very dirty and nasty as the marine head constantly overflowed) or the very cramped camera darkroom on the dive deck. Have I mentioned the reaction of the guests when we were informed into the week that there was no more red wine? The $10 per person shore tour on Little Cayman was more of a promotional thing for the dive operations; why would I want to go see a research station that is under construction and their proudest moment was explaining how their composting toilets would work! This was truly a class D operation as run by Captain Sam. Fortunately the wonderful efforts by Tom, Kat, Boris, & Yanis raised it to a C.

Oleanda, Rongelap, Marshall Islands: Undercurrent reader Daniel Hartman (Houston, TX) booked this 120 liveaboard through World of Diving (El Segundo, CA) for May 2006. A month before his departure, Hartman e-mailed Rongelap Expeditions, operator of the Oleanda, to ask about cabin assignments. He got a response saying that we have put the ship on dry dock to do necessary maintenance. I offer to send you a refund on your deposit. Stuck with nonrefundable airfare, he contacted World of Diving proprietor Will McFarland, who booked him a hotel on Majuro and diving through Bako Divers. Hartman left for the Marshalls with his deposit still unrefunded and asked if Undercurrent might help. We called McFarland, who had yet to contact Rongelap Expeditions but told us he had fronted Hartmans expenses for Majuro, would reimburse Hartmans credit card for the remainder, and then wait himself to collect from Rongelap Expeditions. PS: Exercise caution if you book the Oleanda. Jenny Collister, owner of Reef & Rainforest Travel (Sausalito, CA), says she stopped recommending the boat years ago due to communications problems. There are new owners now, but it will still pay to be careful. After all, if Hartman hadnt contaced the folks at Oleanda, would he have learned of their cancellation before he arrived?

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