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February 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cabo, Cozumel, Dominica, Naples

Some good finds, but what’s with the bad customer service?

from the February, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While the 512-page 2009 Chapbook was full of both super and stinging reviews, plus an endless number of tips on the good and not-so-good diving, we’ve gathered much more information since. To keep you updated as you plan your travels, here are more thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs about dive operations around the world.

What Is a Marine Park? We divers would like to think they are no-take zones but in reality, most permit locals to fish, as we reported about the Little Cayman Marine Park in October. Conrad Kantor (Westlake Village, CA) dived the Bonaire National Marine Park in November and wondered where his $25 fee goes. “The marine park is a joke. The reefs are generally fished out, and I daily saw boats fishing there. I was here 10 years ago and it was pristine. Now, after a week of diving, no lobsters, frog fish, seahorses or anything more than six inches in length.” We tried to contact the marine park’s manager Ramon DeLeon but got an e-mail that he was out for all of January. The park’s web site admits it is short-handed. “The size of the Park presents a challenge…..The primary challenge of managing it is dealing with the varied groups and individuals who use it…each with their own agenda.” In the past, the rangers needed police help to deal with residents spearing and line fishing and throwing nets illegally, but at least now they have special police powers and can write citations themselves. Unfortunately, with a small staff and a big patrol area, it looks like that may not be enough to keep the reefs pristine.

Comfortel De Champ, Dominica. If you’re looking for a new place to stay while diving in Dominica, C. Vernon Hartline, Jr. (Dallas, TX) recommends this new bed-and-breakfast guesthouse where he stayed in October. “It’s owned by an expat Dutch couple, Hans Schilder and Lise van de Kamp, whom I met diving last year. Great facility with a killer view of Portsmouth Harbor. Ceiling fans and A/C, well-stocked refrigerator, great cooked-to-order breakfasts, eco-friendly operation, great Spanish wines by the glass, and friendly hosts who love their newly adopted country. They are presently completing a new bar and hot tub.” (www.godominica.com)

DiveTech, Grand Cayman. We’ve often written about how DiveTech does a good job catering to advanced divers, but reader comments still come in about how they don’t cater to beginners, and how the staff has an attitude. In fact, staff seems to be giving every diver the cold shoulder in customer service, says Mark Thorne (Raleigh, NC). “They’re generally friendly and safety-conscious but if you need something or have questions, you have to ask. They do not proactively offer assistance or information. It reminds me of a place that has all the business it wants, and the staff feels they don’t need to do anything extra to generate additional business. I felt a slight arrogant demeanor in most of the dive staff toward the divers, and they kept their distance.” It’s a great dive venue, but with a recession in full force, reducing dive travel spending, owners Nancy and Jay Easterbrook might consider giving their staff a course in customer service -- and a few well-placed reprimands.

Barracuda Hotel, Cozumel. The reasonably priced Barracuda is certainly handy to all the action in San Miguel, but that means the cruise ships know about it as well. Says Dennis Jacobson (Lakewood, CO), “You should know that the crew members spend off -hours there, sometimes in large numbers. This is not all negative if you like meeting people from all over the world, but can make it loud during the afternoon hours.” (www.hotelbarracuda.com)

St. Eustatius. The charming Old Gin House has great oceanfront rooms and a good dive operator, Golden Rock, whose owner manages the hotel. But it needs to loosen up for its customers. When Lourdes de Cardenas (San Juan, PR) was there in March, a tropical storm went through so she could only do half of the dives in her package. “Asked for a refund; did not get it, just a voucher for two free nights -- the nights I did not use the hotel because I had decided to leave forSt. Maarten. However, the voucher had to be redeemed before the end of 2008, and did not cover missing dives.” Seems far too restrictive to us. Who returns in the same year and what’s the big deal about sticking people in what will most likely be an unfilled dive boat a year or two later?

M/V Spree Moving to Key West. After finishing the hammerhead season in the Texas Flower Gardens, the boat is leaving the Gulf and moving to Key West to visit the Keys and Dry Tortugas. “This allows for fewer weather cancellations than the western Gulf of Mexico,” owners Frank and Melanie Wasson wrote on their Web site. Starting May 15, they will run three- to five-day Dry Tortugas trips, with up to five dives daily. Their Web site will allow you to put down a deposit and pay in installments, a fine innovation in these difficult economic times. (www.spreeexpeditions.com)

Dive Guides, or Lack Thereof, in the Florida Keys. If you don’t like to dive without a guide, be aware that most Keys’ dive shops don’t assign divemasters to accompany divers in shallow dive sites, as Lois Wellner (Hamilton, OH) found out during her October trip to Abyss Dive Center on Marathon Key. “I was informed after the fact that dive shops in the area will only provide a divemaster upon request and for an extra fee. We were not aware of this until we had already booked the dive and were leaving the dock. Our mistake, but one other divers may want to consider before booking.”

Bahama Diver, Paradise Island. This story from one of our subscribers who lives in Macon, GA, is so bad, we’ve got to laugh. While the dive industry is promoting new efforts to get people to dive, this shop seems to have different ideas. “The divemasters did not introduce themselves, pushed the purchase of fish food and attempted to attract fish by dumping fish food throughout the dive. Even then, few fish showed. On the first dive, there was no coral and few fish of any size, an extremely boring dive. The dive boat did not have enough lead weights and they were so beat up that divers had to heft each one to guess the proper weight. The boat engine was turned off by yanking a rope attached to it. The boat ladder didn’t have sufficient handholds above deck level, requiring handsand- knees boarding. My buddy, doing his first openwater dive since becoming certified, was testing his buoyancy to find his ‘sweet spot.’ The divemaster swam over, messed with his gear, smacked his hand off his valve and wagged his finger at him.Also, when my buddy was at surface, the crew asked him to take off his BC and hand it up. ‘Uh, don’t you want my belt first?’ On the second dive, there were more fish and coral, but the divemasters continued to feed the fish and yanked critters out of their homes to show divers. When I refused to partake, they shoved a lobster in my face. When we had to cancel our second day of diving because of sinus illness, Bahama Diver refused to return our prepaid, full-priced fees. We paid $119 for a $50 dive. The purpose of our long weekend was to celebrate my buddy’s long-anticipated certification but after this fiasco, he had no desire to return to the water, as ‘it’s not worth it.’”

Turks and Caicos’ Hurricane Aftermath. After being hammered by multiple hurricanes last summer, the islands’ reefs are still in early-recovery mode, say two divers who visited a few months afterward. “A lot of the coral and sponges have been covered with sand and silt from the recent hurricane season,” says Jason Pellegatto (Worcester, MA) of his November visit to Providenciales. “The coral on the walls is pretty good, but the coral in the shallow areas has declined.” Says Hank Goichman (Los Angeles, CA), who visited in October, “The coral had a fine coat of sand, and the colors were muted. But there were plenty of fish, and we saw grey reef sharks and barracuda.”

Low Key Watersports, St. John. Divers who pay good money shouldn’t get horribly bad attitude like Randy Thompson (Boynton Beach, FL) got from this place in November. “On my first dive on the second day, I had a crappy setup. The octopus free-flowed badly. The dive captain, an antisocial, gruff type, kept yelling at me, ‘Put your reg in your mouth! Turn the octopus face-down!’ I kept saying it was down but because the free-flow was loud, I guess he couldn’t hear me. He told me to swim back to the boat. Jeremy, the divemaster, appeared annoyed with me and messed around with it for a minute. When I lost hold of the ladder and put my hand on him, he said, ‘I need you to hold the ladder and keep your hands off of me.’ He fixed the problem, or kind of, clipped it to my BC and told me, ‘Now I need you to keep your hands off of it. Don’t touch it.’ Like I was a little kid who had caused the problem by messing with it. As I descended and checked the gauge, I had a whisker more than 2,000 psi to start the dive. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the mouthpiece had been bitten clean through on one side and just the pressure of the water against it kept pushing that side out of my mouth, so I spent the whole dive holding the hose to keep it level.” Low Key expects payment in full for any package up front, says Thompson. This is in addition to a hefty down payment before you arrive. “When I expressed surprise because the e-mails they sent me made no mention of this rigid policy, I got the cavalier, flip reply, ‘No cash, no splash.’ Real nice.”

Good News in Cabo San Lucas. Readers have typically had problems finding a good dive operation in Baja California, but Georg Gottschalk (San Francisco, CA) found this one in November. “Sunshine Dive & Charter is run by Lars Helten, an extremely experienced instructor who has run dive shops from the Maldives to Bali. He provides free Nitrox on any dive (he can because he supplies all the other dive shops), and he and his crew are top-notch, flexible and accommodating. The entire operation runs smoothly and efficiently, and is lots of fun to dive with. When my guide and I followed a stray ray into the blue at Neptune’s Finger, we found an entire school of devil rays, then hung at 80 feet while they circled us. At Gordo Bank, Lars eyed a hammerhead at 100 feet. We followed it down to 130 feet and hit upon at least 75 of them. Pelican Rock is a snorkel paradise, and the safety stop there was always literally in the middle of a huge swarm of tropical fish of every size and color. Lars will find just the right dive for anyone, from beginners to the most experienced divers.” Sunshine has branches in San Jose del Cabo, Cabo Pulmo and La Paz. (www.bajadivecharter.com)

Club Cantamar, La Paz. I did a full review of this operation three years ago and it looks like the staff attitude I found still lingers, according to A.C. Davidson (Sacramento, CA), who visited in December. “The first morning, we were not even greeted with a hello. We had to ask about everything and were made to feel as unwelcome as could be. Divemasters Fabricio and Chucho did as little as possible to be helpful. While they were lackluster about their jobs, the captain of the Siempre Si was very helpful with cameras and getting divers back onboard. He even prepared the Mexican lunches. Always willing to redirect the boat to see whales surfacing, dolphins riding the wake, even an occasional turtle, so he made up for the poor service. Fortunately, the diving did, too. Diving with the sea lions was phenomenal; they tugged at fins and prodded us with their noses. El Bajo lived up to its reputation with strong currents, but the reward was 250 schooling hammerheads.”

Sipadan’s Tight Permit System May Ease Up. In the January issue, we wrote how the Malaysian island’s permit system of 120 divers maximum per day was screwing up many divers’ travel plans, with some not getting a chance to set fins in its waters. Now after settling a territorial dispute with Indonesia, the Prime Minister is set to hand over administration of Sipadan to the Sabah state government. “We have set up a small panel to look into various aspects governing the administration of Sipadan,” a Sabah official reports, “to ensure, among others, that the island’s pristine environment remains untouched, and to plug the loopholes.” Then Sabah Parks will handle day-to-day running of the island. One proposal is to modify the restrictions to allow 120 divers in the morning, and another 120 in the afternoon.

Centro Sub Campi Flegrei, Naples. We don’t often write about European diving, but every so often there’s a reader report about a unique-sounding site - - and hey, the Euro is down. Robert Halem (San Jose, CA) recommends this Italian dive shop he dived with in October, but for the ruins instead of creatures. “Just as the Naples area is famous for Pompeii, it has another set of ruins underwater at Baia. The government has established a national park covering the archeological site, and diving with an approved leader is mandatory. The first dive is on a series of brick pilings that once supported a Roman causeway. Near one end of the row of pillars, the sea floor bubbles due to volcanic activity. If you put your hand in the sand, you can feel the warmth. On the second dive, we were in only 11 feet of water, but diving through a complete Roman village. You could see the two-foot-high remains of walls, and follow the doorways, rooms, and in some of the more opulent, complete mosaic floors. I was on a cruise, so had to rent all equipment but stuff was in reasonable condition. I had informed them in advance that I needed a 2X or 3X wetsuit but they had nothing large enough, so I had to dive in 72-degree water without a wetsuit. That would be my only issue with the operation, and I was more than compensated by the sights.” (www.centrosubcampiflegrei.it)

Aggressor Cancels North Sulawesi Trips. Kent Roorda (Denver, CO), who had booked an upcoming trip on the North Sulawesi Aggressor, told us he was notified by the Aggressor Fleet that it has cancelled all future trips for that boat. “Apparently, they are helping all future booked passengers, as we were, with air and hotel cancellations and refunds.” We contacted manager Anne Hasson, who said trips were not profitable for the franchisee. Aggressor has taken the North Sulawesi itinerary off its Web site but as of mid-January, had not listed any details about the cancellations. If you booked a North Sulawesi trip on Aggressor, contact the reservations office ASAP at 800-348-2628.

That’s enough for this issue. As we and our readers uncover more developments, we’ll keep you informed, both in these pages and in our regular e-mail updates. (PS: If you’re not getting e-mails from us monthly, it means we don’t have your e-mail address. Send it to pete@undercurrent.org, with your name and hometown.)

- - Ben Davison

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