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June 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 22, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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South Pacific, South Caicos, Sudan, Utila

the good, the bad, the bargains and the overpriced

from the June, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

More Undercurrent readers have returned from dive trips with tales of the good, bad, cheap deals and the just plain expensive. A recurring trend: Some small dive operations in up-and-coming destinations are having a hard time scaling up to meet the needs of large dive groups and well-traveled divers with high expectations. If youre expecting a certain level of service on your next dive vacation, read on about where to go and avoid to make the most of your dive time -- and your money.

Tawali Resort in New Guinea. Dive pioneer Bob Hollis has spent millions on this upscale eco-resort in Milne Bay, but building from scratch in a remote location has road bumps. Carol Conroy (San Diego, CA) says Tawali is not yet a good place for large groups. She went with 22 other divers on an Island Dreams agency trip last November. We paid for four boat dives per day but only had three, says Conroy. We paid for eight days of diving but there was only a single boat dive offered on the eighth day. Unlimited shore diving was as advertised but her group had to beg for a twilight or night dive. There was no guarantee that a site or boat would stay the same after signing up, and both were switched several times. I had to repeat dive sites two or three times, Conroy says. It appeared there werent enough sites within a reasonable boat ride to provide more options. No chance to do a fourth dive at the resort because there were no extra tanks for shore diving and crew had to refill boat tanks.

The local dive guides were friendly but put their hands on the coral, and one guide told us he didnt care what happened to it because he was only working there for a few more years, says Conroy. After a muck dive, she saw toilet paper in the water under the boat. Another diver said she saw crew emptying the head on dive sites while divers were underwater. The rooms are lovely and it certainly is a beautiful resort, and overall I would rate the diving as good to excellent, says Conroy. However, maybe Milne Bay is still best to dive from a liveaboard boat.

Bob Hollis replies by saying Tawali accurately represented its services, number of day dives, night dive availability and photography offerings, but he admits there are still kinks to work out. Our policy with larger groups is to dive separate sites to alleviate any possibility of overcrowding. To hear these guidelines and policies were not followed was a disappointment. I have followed up with staff to ensure customers have been taken care of. He has installed a satellite hookup for quicker two-way conversations with staff, and a PADI course director is on the way to oversee dive operations. Hollis says he is investing in a larger fleet. He defends Tawalis environmental record and says he fired the dive guide abusing coral. We are a new property and pride ourselves on our focus, integrity and consciousness of the environment. But now Hollis has another problem: Manager Bob Brown died suddenly in April and the search is on for a suitable replacement.

S.S. Thorfinn in Truk. Captain Lance Higgs of the S.S. Thorfinn has always had a reputation as a cranky skipper, but reader Ronald Dion (San Francisco, CA) was put off by his entire operation during a February trip. The idea of a steampowered liveaboard sounded great but this is just a old steam boat with no dive deck. His first hint that things wouldnt go smoothly was when he was awakened at his Truk hotel by crew wondering why he wasnt ready to board. They had sail dates mixed up so we became the only guests on the boat. Captain Lance said the water maker was malfunctioning, making the tap water very salty but it was fine to drink and would have to do until parts came. The water was used in tea, coffee and food, and Dion got sick on his third day. Finally, bottled water and soda was brought aboard but kept locked up and given out a bottle at a time. The huge plasma TV was broken, the hot tub was filled with none-too-clean seawater. Dion, a vegetarian, was told he would get appropriate meals but the food was worse than bad. Vegetables were not to be had, and grease was the byword. Most of the untrained crew seemed related to Captain Lances 24-year-old native wife, but two were fired for stealing on Dions third day. He had to gear up in the skiffs, where equipment is stored in lockers under seats with bilge water running through them. Poor wash tanks, and the photo table was small, exposed and used by other divers for their ashtrays. Despite great wreck diving, Dion left after seven days of his 11-day trip, forfeiting the balance. Lousy food, bad service. This is a very poor boat.

Hawaiis Dive Makai: This dive operation set the standard for the Big Islands Kona Coast diving 30 years ago. Founder Tom Shockley specialized in finding unique critters and if any other dive operation wanted to compete, they had to develop his skills. He later partnered with Lisa Choquette, who added great spirit to the operation, but the two have split (she is in the Solomon Islands) and Dive Makai has new owners, Mike and Kimberly Henshaw. With Tom still helping out, the Henshaws are keeping Dive Makai up to snuff. According to subscriber Peter Tsugawa (Emeryville, CA), I had spent some time researching dive operators for my first trip to Kona and after e-mails and phone conversations with Shockley, I was sold. My experience last September was nothing short of outstanding. The guides and owners were fantastically friendly and gave detailed briefings of each site and fish to see. I learned more about fish on this trip than all the years of diving. We saw things not many other dive operators would have been able to point out, like blue stripe pipefish, Whitleys boxfish and gigantic pregnant frogfish. Slow-paced dives were great for photographers, and Tsugawa averaged safe 60- to 75- minute dives. Dive Makai is nothing fancy no shop and limited snacks but Tsugawa praised its outstanding service. I was not fortunate enough to meet Tom, but his legacy surely lives on. (Web site: www.divemakai.com)

South Caicos Ocean & Beach Resort. Some of the best diving in the Turks and Caicos Islands is here, but South Caicos last hotel closed four years ago. Now theres a new one with the fancy name of South Caicos Ocean & Beach Resort, but subscriber Randi Dillow (Cupertino, CA) says it does not yet live up to its name. On its website, the resort advertised a furnished two-bedroom, two-bath condo with air conditioning, full kitchen, TV and a washer dryer, with amenities like daily continental breakfast, a restaurant, pool and four complimentary drink coupons per person at the Tiki Hut bar. When Dillow arrived in mid-March, the hotel was not open because the electrical inspector had not yet signed off, the pool was empty and there was no restaurant or Tiki Hut. Her room had no TV, dresser or nightstands, and the refrigerator leaked. We had made it clear we did not want to stay in a place without a functioning pool, TV, bar, etc., says Dillow. We told owner Greg Wasik we didnt mind that the grounds were being worked on but wanted to be sure this property was otherwise fully operational. Wasik was less than truthful about the condition of the resort in the numerous e-mails we exchanged prior to our booking and arrival four months later.

After they saw the resort, Dillows group debated whether to cut and run but decided to stay the week and not say anything for fear of making matters worse. Wasik was our only point of contact for the three small restaurants on the island and the grocery store. The diving was great but Wasiks one man dive operation was not. The boat was small and not fit for diving (the larger boat was supposedly under repair) and there was no dive shop or place to store or rinse gear. Given enough time, the resort may one day be a pleasant place for a dive vacation, but it has a long way to go, Dillow says.

Wasik told Undercurrent he sent Dillow an apology and refunded some money. He also says the entire resort complex is now open, except for the pool. Everything here is done on island time. Still, think twice about going soon the resorts website says construction on another 36 rooms will start this summer, which sounds pretty noisy.

Royal Evolution in Sudan. For the first time in more than a decade, a Red Sea liveaboard was granted permission to make the voyage across the Egyptian border to Sudan. After 12 months of paperwork, Royal Evolution owner Yasser El Moafi received the go-ahead late last year and after a few trips last winter and spring, he got the go-ahead to start a second season from mid-September to the end of May. The Sudanese authorities know me better now; they got used to our trips and they know I follow the rules, which makes them happy, says El Moafi. The Royal Evolution starts its 14-day trip from Port Ghaleb and does a checkout dive at Egypts Fury Shoel or St. John Reef before heading south to Port Sudan. The Sudanese Red Sea was the setting for many Jacques Cousteau documentaries in the 60s and 70s, and its wrecks remain untouched. Many reefs are pinnacles rising from the depths and pelagic sightings are not unusual. Time a trip right and you could swim with mantas at Mesharifa or hammerheads at Angarosh. The next open spot for Sudan trips is October 18 but theyre filling up fast. Trips will sail every two weeks through June 5, 2008. (Web site: www.royalevolution.com)

Utila Aggressor. The Utila Aggressor is the former Turks and Caicos Aggressor, overhauled and put back into business last year to do seven-day trips out of La Ceiba, Honduras. Readers Tony Flaris (Neptune Beach, FL) says the boat still needs more work. She is definitely showing her age, he reports of his trip in April. Temperature control was a big problem some rooms were freezing while other were saunas. Leaking pipes and a broken ice machine flooded Flariss cabin. Hot water was hit or miss, and sometimes water itself was a rarity because it was occasionally turned off for unknown reasons, Flaris says. The boat had generator problems and ran on one engine for most of the week, and the constant mechanical problems dictated dive sites. Many were chosen for their accessibility to parts and repair, resulting in low-visibility sites frequented by day boats. The daily schedules were modified many times without passengers consent. While we were told it was our boat for the week, never did it feel this way, said Flaris.

David Reubush (Toano, VA) went in March and also had water problems. The showerhead in our cabin leaked constantly and one in another cabin was so bad it kept the carpet wet all week, he says. When those occupants threatened to use the crew shower, it finally got fixed. In spite of that, almost no water came out when I wanted to take a shower. His A/C worked too well, keeping his cabin frigid. His solution: Duct tape to close off most of the vent. Like Faris, Reubush had no complaints about the food but agreed that the crew seemed unfocused on looking for sites with the best visibility. However, Reubush gives Utila Aggressor manager Troy Boddens landbased operation, the Laguna Beach Resort in Utila, a thumbs up. Instead of sticking us with the Aggressors typical Friday night dinner is your own, they invited the whole boat to the resort for grilled lobster tails. I hope they start taking a more active hand in the boat operations and make it as good as the resort appeared to be.

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