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March 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Barbados, Oman, Puget Sound, Samoa

updates on far-flung diving locales

from the March, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You have probably thumbed through the 2008 Travelin Divers Chapbook by now, but we have gotten a steady stream of reader reports coming to us since the book was mailed out. Here are a few from subscribers about both up-and-coming and tried-and-true dive sites.

AquaSamoa in Apia. No island south of the equator is more South Pacific than Western Samoa (not to be confused with American Samoa), but is it an undiscovered gem for diving? Reader Edwin Granite (Chaddsford, PA) decided to find out last October. He first tested the waters by snorkeling at Palolo Deep, a protected underwater area near the capital city of Apia. A small shack on the rocky beach entry rented gear. Much of the coral was dead due to a hurricane a couple of years ago, but the live coral at shallow depths was colorful. Enormous tridacna clams were surrounded by cages for protection against aquarium hunters. There was a scarcity of fish and visibility was poor.

Granite stayed at the upscale Aggie Greys Resort and Spa (its owned by the heirs of Grey, who ran a guesthouse on the site and was the inspiration for Bloody Mary in James Micheners Tales of the South Pacific) and dived with its dive shop AquaSamoa. Equipment is up to date and rental gear, including computers, is included in the price of the dives. However, the two-tank morning dive is a pricey $120. His weekend of diving was led by Barry, a British expat technical diver, and Fiti, a Samoan boat driver with eagle eyes. The boat was a small, fast inflatable with two 100-horsepower outboards. Getting out of the 25-inch inflatable was no problem with a back roll, but somewhat difficult getting back on board with just the rope ladder.

Water temperature averaged 83 degrees. Granite dived the Rock, 15 minutes from the dock. (The site is closed on Sundays for locals who go to church nearby and dont want to see dive boats.) The reef starts 45 feet below the surface and slopes down over three ridges to the bottom at 100 feet-plus. The hard corals were lively colored and there was little soft coral, as in nearby Fiji. I encountered a school of striped barracuda, then I was surrounded by multiple reef fish in a rainbow of colors. Visibility of 100 feet.

Bucks Reef, near the uninhabited isle of Nuulopa, started at 30 feet. There I saw a coral head with more anemones and clown fish than I have ever seen in one spot. The great visibility showed off lovely staghorn, lettuce and plate coral, large and small. I poked into ledges, canyons, tunnels and caverns.

Barry told Granite that he had visited the best dive sites Samoa had to offer, and confirmed Granites suspicions that there was no big stuff, few eels, and only the rare shark. Thats surprising since Samoa is so remote, says Granite. Because of those factors, plus the time and money needed to get there, I wouldnt consider Samoa as a dive destination at this time. (www.aquasamoa.com)

Wrecks and Turtles in Barbados. The Caribbean island of Barbados is not a must-dive, but you can enjoy some good dives for frequent turtle sightings and the wrecks surrounding the island, says reader Ernie Krumbein (Munster, IN). Yearround water temperatures around 80 degrees and average visibility between 50 and 100 feet also helps. On nearly every dive, I saw hundreds of colorful fish, although most were small, and morays from large green ones to small gold-spotted snake eels.

Krumbein stayed at the Sandpiper Resort but used the dive shop at its sister resort, the Coral Reef Club. Hightide Watersports is a small shop but has over 100 aluminum 80s and dozens of rental gear sets. Nitrox is available. My divemaster Edwin, a Bajan with a big smile and a loud laugh, loved showing off the underwater sights. Hightide uses two 30-foot, custom-built, twin-hull dive boats which are slow-moving and noisy, but they have a ramp between the pontoons which is lowered onto the beach, allowing divers to walk on and off. Staff carries all the gear and if you are diving a second or third day, it will be set up for you to put on.

Barbados has one of the Caribbeans best wreck dives in the 365-foot Greek freighter SS Stavronikita, which caught fire in 1976 and was sunk as a wreck near Bridgetowns harbor. She sits upright in 135 feet of water, and the forward mast is 20 feet from the surface but after 32 years on the sea floor, the Stav is beginning to fall apart. Visibility is 70 feet, and small fish abound on the main deck and around the masts. She is covered with small hard corals and hundreds of sponges and sea fans. Penetration is only permitted in the afterhold. Another good wreck is the 155-foot SS Pamir. Almost completely intact in 50 feet of water, she is home to green and hawksbill turtles. I saw juvenile spotted drum and tiny high hats, along with the usual parrotfish, angelfish and butterflys, but none are large.

Research divers from the Barbados Sea Turtle Project use Hightides boats every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for tagging hawksbill and green turtles, and divers can join. When one is brought onboard for tagging, inspection and sexing, divers can ask all the questions they want and even look closely at the turtles to determine the sex, Krumbein says. Hightide also offers free half-hour trips to a spot four minutes south to snorkel with and feed turtles. Besides turtles, other visitors were a four-foot porcupinefish and huge tarpon and yellowtail snappers. (www.divehightide.com)

In the Bridgetown harbor, centuries of sailors tossed bottles overboard and Haroon Degia, who operates The Dive Shop, founded in 1965 by his father Paki, will take you out looking. He has a splendid collection and knows where to look, especially after storms. Just last month, Haroon emailed us to say were still finding bottles down here and Im tempted to go to add to my 19th century Barbados bottle collection. (www.divebds.com)

Bandito Charters in Puget Sound. Cold-water-diving lovers will enjoy dives with this fleet based in Tacoma, Washington, says reader Tom Carlson (Tacoma, WA). Bandito Charters operates year-round, with three boats running charters every weekend. Carlson went on the Sampan, a 43-foot dive boat for 14 divers. The heated galley has a cook stove with hot water for coffee and tea, and snacks and sandwich fixings. Theres also plenty of table space for camera work and a rinse bucket on the deck.

Carlsons trip in January was a twilight drift dive at the North Wall of Point Defiance. Formed in a series of stairsteps, the wall resembles a giant slab of Swiss cheese as it is full of tens of thousands of fist-sized holes bored by piddock clams over the years. Prime marine life viewing is at the 30- to-70-foot range. Drifting along the wall and examining the holes, crevices and caves, I found decorated warbonnets, mosshead warbonnets, grunt sculpins, sailfin sculpins, saddleback gunnels, clingfish, several huge wolf eels, giant Pacific octopus, and smaller red octopus out hunting the big rock shrimp. He also saw schools of striped sea perch, pile perch, roving brown and copper rockfish, and kelp greenling.

This area takes the full brunt of the current, therefore its advised to never dive on ebbing currents. Currents and depth make this a dive for more experienced divers. Drysuits are also a must. (www.banditocharters.com)

North Shore Explorers in Maui. Mauis North Shore with its brisk winds and choppy waves is not often visited by tourist divers, but North Shore Explorers, just opened last September, takes experienced divers there. Peter Heseltine (Dana Point, CA) went in November and reports out of the ordinary diving. The dive locations are pinnacles and lavastrewn, rocky bays. Hammerheads are not uncommon. I saw 20 lobsters in a single cave, nudibranchs, schools of fish, turtles, and I was followed by a curious six-foot green jobfish over the course of a 100-minute relaxed, rebreather dive.

North Shore Explorers boat is a 30-foot rigid inflatable from the U.S. Navy, powered by twin 300-hp jet drives, and helpful crew made climbing back on the boat with a purposebuilt ladder tolerable for this geriatric diver. Explorers also supports open circuit nitrox, as well as mixed gas technical diving. Choppy seas, a windy boat ride and great scenery add zest for advanced divers. (www.northshoreexplorers.com)

Al Marsa Dhows in Oman. Separated from Iran by 200 miles of water, the Arabian country of Oman is friendly and features excellent diving, says subscriber David Christmas (Dubai City, Dubai). Last November, he dived with Al Marsa Charters around the Musandum, Omans northeastern tip where the Arabian Sea flows through the Straits of Hormuz. Pristine coral beds and large shoals of fish native to the Indian Ocean. I saw several turtles, spending 15 minutes with one while it was grazing, and large rays, some five feet in diameter.

He spent three days on a dhow, the traditional Arab sailing vessel that Al Marsa has outfitted for divers. It still features the historical, triangular lateen sails but runs on a diesel engine for cruising and switches to a quiet, small generator when anchored so that the peacefulness of this remote location can be enjoyed. Most dives were from a fast boat towed behind, and this is where gear was kept during the trip, although night dives were done off the dhows dive deck. Flexible dive scheduling allowed time for relaxing, while kayaking and snorkeling sites were made available for surface intervals. The dhow is modern, clean and has excellent twin cabins with en-suites. Crew is friendly, attentive and professional. Scenery is mountainous and rugged but still beautiful. (www.musandamdiving.com)

Seagrape Plantation in Roatan. This resort on Roatans West End brags how its five bungalows have beautiful ocean views, but reader Natasha Deighton (Ramah, NM), who visited in January, says they lack privacy and are a constant target for thieves. There are actually two units per bungalow so youll have to share your balcony. The windows did not open, so you must use the air conditioner. One night, someone came through and stole a lot of stuff off the balconies, including the hammocks. I was told this happens quite a bit.

The Caribbean Explorer I in the Bahamas. The Caribbean Explorer I, originally the Turks & Caicos Explorer three years ago, is showing its age, says reader Milann Reynolds (Crescent City, CA) who went in November, but the worst part was poor maintenance of dive gear. I had my regulator plugged up with A-l oxide from poor tank maintenance. I cleaned my filter three times and finally got a different tank. One other person was having problems and actually had an out-of-air experience at depth. We checked her regulator and it was plugged solid. Overall, we found at least three tanks with this problem. The tanks are two years old and crew claimed they were just checked. The tank valves had crud buildup and the boat didnt have any way to get the valves out of the tanks, or even a light or brush on board to check and clean the tanks. Overall, its a good operation and the crew tried to meet everyones needs but I would check for proper maintenance issues before diving.

Clay McCardell, president of Explorer Ventures, told Undercurrent that the tanks had problems because the company doing the visual inspection didnt use silicone when they reinstalled the tank valves. We do have the tools on board to remove the valves but several of them were seized and couldnt be removed. The tanks whose valves couldnt be removed were replaced, and the others were given a clean bill of health back in November.

Captain Dons Habitat in Curacao. Captain Dons in Bonaire consistently receives good reviews in our Chapbook, but its sister resort in Curacao is going downhill, says reader Loretta de Nardo (Fort Myers, FL). On our last visit in November, we found conditions downright dangerous -- broken tile steps, sagging docks and algae on the boat rails and steps, making entry and exit slippery. Lockers are in poor condition, the majority of them broken. Guest rooms are being renovated, but still in poor condition, with air conditioning not working most of the time. The restaurant was once good but substitutes are common. For example, the crab, shrimp and fish platter had no crab, says de Nardo. When asked where the crab was, the response was, We never have crab, but the charge did not reflect the absence of crab. Management of both hotel and restaurant does not seem to care. Shore diving is still great and it was once a wonderful resort.

Peter Hughes Sky Dancer in the Galapagos. Now that the United Nations has declared the Galapagos an endangered site, tourism restrictions are even tighter, but dive boats are still allowed to venture out, albeit with less leeway. Jeanne and Bill Downey (Baden, PA) still had a memorable time in December on the Sky Dancer. On our first dive at Darwins Arch, someone spotted the silhouette of a whale shark and everyone took off. Then came another one -- two whale sharks on the same dive! We saw 35 more over the next four days. At Wolf Island, we saw dozens of hammerheads, turtles, Galapagos sharks and dolphins that were jumping out of the water like crazy.

In fact, one of the dolphins, a large one, miscalculated its leap and jumped into the panga where the driver and an earlysurfacing diver sat. It crashed into the driver from behind and landed in the panga with its jaw stuck under the floor. An Aggressor panga towed them back to the Sky Dancer, where the staff started unscrewing the flooring to release the dolphin. When the rest of us, crammed into the remaining panga, arrived back at the boat, we saw five crew members hoisting the dolphin back into the water, with blood everywhere. The dolphin swam away, the driver suffered a concussion and the next dive was canceled to repair and clean the panga. Also at Wolf, a finned hammerhead was spotted lying on the bottom. Four days of four daily dives, plus 37 whale shark sightings, left the Downeys content. Back at Wolf Island for a final day of diving, a small school of eagle rays hung close by for two separate dives as we clung to the rocks in the current -- an awesome sight. (www.peterhughes.com)

- - Ben Davison

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