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June 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Indonesia, St. Lucia, Vietnam, Hawaii . . .

blah Caribbean and Nam dives, great ones with sharks and seals

from the June, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

This month we’ve got a couple of short reviews from our regular reviewers, plus some travel tips from a lot of readers including this first item, a caution to every diver who visits resorts that do it all for you.

Wakatobi Resort, Sulawesi. One of our readers visited Wakatobi before Christmas and while he thought the diving, food and accommodations were superb, he noted that the tendency of the staff to do everything for the diver was a bit annoying and, in one case, problematic. It’s the sort of problem that can occur at any busy resort.

“My wife and I used air-integrated Suunto Cobra computers but with different color identification to avoid confusing them. After surfacing from one dive, I noticed my wife’s computer and regulator had been installed on my rig and mine on hers. Just as this was coming to light, one of the crew began moving my wife’s gear to a fresh tank. When he was about to do the same with my gear, he was called away to help bring in divers who had surfaced. I decided to move my gear to the new tank myself, but became distracted and neglected to turn on the new tank and read the pressure.

“Consequently, on the next dive, preoccupied with the video image on the camcorder monitor and losing sight of my partner, my computer suddenly showed zero air pressure, and I could not pull another breath. I made an emergency ascent from 45 feet. According to my computer, the tank pressure had been 460 psi at the start of the dive and 68 psi at the end. I had been down 11 minutes. I subsequently learned that when tanks on the boat are rotated 45 degrees, that means they are empty. None of the valves had caps and no one had mentioned the tank rotation custom. After that we did not leave our regulators in the equipment shed to be managed by the boat crew.

“It is every diver’s responsibility to check tank pressure when setting up gear. However, the Wakatobi commitment to service is strong. They want to do everything for you, a practice that is contrary to both our dive training and good common sense. My dive buddy and I are accustomed to setting up our gear ourselves together. That way we watch each other and make sure no steps are left out. It is noteworthy that during the first few days of our trip, two other divers experienced out-of-air emergencies, one being our dive guide. She said it was because there was a lot of confusion on the boat and breaking in of new people. Whatever the reason(s), no boat crews will be setting up our equipment in the future.”

Good points. However, I’m not so sure the problem comes with the crew setting up gear. In this case, if the diver carefully checked his own equipment after the crew set it up, turned on his tank, then checked his air and functioning computer, there would be no problem. If the crew sets up your gear, carefully check it before you strap it on.

Anse Chastenet, St. Lucia. Even before receiving a room key, S.P., one of our regular travel reviewers, reports that he got a butler while checking in to this upscale resort.

* * * * *

The receptionist handed me a Firefly telephone to summon my butler. No kidding. Vito is a young, pleasant St. Lucian, a professional English butler, and his services were included in my two-day unexpected upgrade to Jade Mountain, the new, $1100-a-night sister resort uphill from Anse Chastenet, where my room wasn’t yet available.

Oh, you’re wondering why I’m taking a pricey dive trip while the economy is hurting. You see, a year ago St. Lucia was listed in a major dive magazine as in the Top 10 of Caribbean sites for macro life, so I committed then to the $900 double-occupancy, high-season room rate. Sure, I felt like a king for a few days, but I ended up feeling like a chump with empty pockets and few good macro shots. I got a million- dollar view from my balcony, but its dive sites are only Caribbean average. I could have gotten better diving in the Caymans or Bonaire for a third of the bill. Its dive sites are only Caribbean average and not worth extra luggage fees for my camera equipment.

Vito drove me down to Scuba St. Lucia’s beachfront shop, where I suited up for the 80-degree water and the mandatory checkout dive off the beach with Bernita, a friendly young local. Surge limited visibility to 40 feet, but it was easy to see yellow and spotted goatfish rooting in the sand. Black bar soldierfish hung under a ledge; a bearded fireworm crawled beneath them. A blue male sergeant major guarded an egg patch. Bernita alerted us to an octopus hiding in a crevice. Another diver pointed out a spotted scorpionfish, camouflaged on a ledge. My spouse says the snorkeling was just as good.

Except for one wreck dive, the rest of the week was filled with similar, pleasant yet unadventurous drift dives. Typical reef fish like chromis, yellowhead wrasse, trumpetfish, barracuda and bicolor damselfish were present but not prolific or in schools. I saw many peppermint gobies, spaghetti worms, feather sea stars, harlequin bass, and glasseye snappers. I snapped photos of shy hamlet, red lizardfish and magnificent feather duster coral. But this is not a macro heaven like St. Vincent, nor does it have big fish or dramatic coral. The young guides made little effort to point out things, so I got the novicediver experience. For the money I spent, I should have been more take-charge and, if done politely, I think Scuba St. Lucia would honor that approach. Even so, Top Ten in Macro? Well…..

Dives were up to a 15-minute ride from Anse Chastenet’s two small, sandy beaches. The two roomy, covered dive boats hold 40 tanks but the most divers I went with were 12, while the other boat held snorkelers. I saw few other experienced divers, probably because they had wisely read Undercurrent’s online archives before booking, something I failed to do this time. Most divers came from cheaper hotels for a day’s diving. Scuba St. Lucia seems mostly geared toward honeymooning snorkelers; owner Bernd Rac doubles as a wedding photographer and offers plenty of rental gear, but not full-service. The only safety briefing was to signal you’re ready to ascend when you have 700psi, and don’t go deeper than 60 feet unless you have a computer. I often came up last with 900 psi left. On the upside, crew checked tanks to make sure air was on and that no diver would be left behind. I had to initial my name twice, upon boarding and then returning from the dive. After my one-tank dives at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. (there’s a night dive only twice weekly), I returned for water, ice and fresh fruit set on a table outside the shop.

While Vito served me breakfast in bed, little things were awry in a resort charging so much. Though Jade Mountain stocked the bar with complimentary beer, champagne and sodas, there was no ice. In front of my room lay an empty beer bottle and leftover building supplies. When I moved into my Anse Chastenet room, the size of a modest house, I got a secluded balcony with a stunning view of the Gros and Petit Pitons - - the mountains are an emerald version of the Matterhorn. Meals were at the Treehouse, a terrace restaurant in the hillside forest. A substantial breakfast buffet came with a chef to make pancakes and omelets. For lunch, I had fresh grilled mahi mahi or red snapper. Simple dinner entrees like seared pork and grilled shrimp were tasty but others with fancy gourmet names weren’t noteworthy. However, one night we had one of our best meals ever - - heavenly goat’s cheese and herb mousse, a king prawn spring roll with coconut and lemon salsa, succulent kingfish and lamb chops. Overall, meals for two hit $250 a day, and you’ll get soaked on the final bill with beverage charges.

“Diving St. Lucia once is enough. Breaking up the monotonous drift dives, I explored the Lesleen M, a 165-foot cargo vessel sunk to 65 feet. An eagle ray glided by at 40 feet. The wreck was bristling with sharp encrustations but easy to enter and explore. Keither, the sharp-eyed divemaster, pointed out a batfish. A sea turtle nestled among sponges atop the stack. The wreck carried the largest schools of fish I’d seen at St. Lucia, like blackbar soldierfish and smallmouth grunts.

“A hardcore diver will feel as out of place at Anse Chastenet as a fish out of water, especially if he’s loaded with camera gear for macro-spotting. But if you insist, you can get a deal offseason and risk the rains, maybe hurricanes. Scuba St. Lucia offers a seven-night, double-occupancy dive package at Anse Chastenet for $1,860/person between June 1 and October 31.” (Anse Chastenet: www.ansechastenet.com; Scuba St. Lucia: www.scubastlucia.com)

Nha Trang, Vietnam. J.D., another regular Undercurrent contributor, had found nothing about Vietnam diving in dive magazines, nor in our Travelin’ Divers’ Chapbooks, so he decided to make the exploratory dives in March.

* * * * *

Rainbow Divers’ bus was to fetch me at 7:15 a.m. from the Ana Mandara Hotel but it never arrived. Turns out an unpublicized but highly disruptive marathon held that March morning prevented motor vehicle access to the hotel. Rainbow had to send a young girl on a motor scooter to whisk me to Nha Trang’s harbor. The ride was 15 minutes of pure terror as she threaded her way through and around lorries and cars, horns honking everywhere. Good morning, Vietnam!

Nha Trang is Vietnam’s version of Waikiki Beach. It is 270 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and has a population of 300,000. Nha Trang is honeycombed with dive shops, mostly PADI or SSI affiliated. A majority of its dive sites are in a marine park adjacent to the Hon Mun Islands. Double-decker dive boats (converted fishing vessels) 60 feet long and accommodating 30 divers reach these islands in an hour. Outboard speedboats 25 feet long cut the time in half. Diving starts around 8 a.m. and ends at noon, by which time the morning’s glass smooth sea has turned to chop as winds pick up. Two-tank dives average $60 on the slow boats, around $150 by speedboat. There also is a $2.50 daily marine park fee. Traveling divers can take solace in the presence of a decompression chamber just north of Nha Trang.

I opted for speed boats, powered by Yamaha 140- or 200-hp outboards for my two days of diving (at age 67, time can’t be wasted). I signed a standard release for Rainbow but no health questionnaire. Rainbow provided me with a 3-mil wetsuit (no hood), an Aqualung Calypso reg, Sherwood steel 72 cu ft tanks, full foot fins, a non-weight integrated BC and a BARScalibrated SPG. I provided my own mask and computer. Anh Nguyen, my dive guide, was a PADI assistant instructor who told me he’d been originally taught by U.S. Navy divers. Anh was adept at pointing out various marine park inhabitants but less adept at identifying them by name.

The Lighthouse in Hon Mun Marine Park is a large rock jutting out of the sea. Visibility was 25 feet, with the water a green hue. At 98 feet, I encountered numerous nudibranchs in combinations of blue, yellow, orange and red. A small, shy octopus peeked out from a crevice at the Lighthouse’s base. Various thermoclines hit me here and at subsequent dive sites. The 80-degree water was suddenly 75 degrees, chilly for me in my hoodless 3-mil, and I was struck by the dearth of fish.

Perhaps this first dive’s most remarkable moment was reboarding the speedboat via a portable stern ladder. Its lowest rung was a foot above the water line. Even after shedding my BC, tank and weights I couldn’t hoist myself aboard without Anh pushing me up while the boat operator pulled me onto the stern deck. This ladder would challenge an Olympic gymnast. The speedboat for the second day’s diving had a stern ladder with a bottom rung at water level, thereby providing me a fighting chance of reboarding unassisted.

“Reboarding the speedboat via its
portable stern ladder would challenge
even an Olympic gymnast.”

Visibility improved noticeably for the other two dives that first day and for my two dives on the next. All these were in the marine park: Debbie’s Beach, Rainbow Reef, Madonna Rock and Mama Hahn Beach. The dives averaged 40 minutes and I was left to dive my profiles as I wished. The water appears jade green as you look at it from the boat. All the dive sites abound in hard coral, staghorn being one of the abundant types. Among the denizens I saw on these dives: trumpetfish in shades of blue, green and yellow; clown and pink skunk anenomefish; common lionfish; various butterflyfish (including orange face, spot-banded, needle nose and raccoon), Moorish idols; bluestriped snapper; banded sweetlips, sergeant majors and blacktail damselfish. A school of pickhandle barracuda languidly wandered by me at 30 feet at Madonna Rock. White feather stars and bright blue Christmas tree worms were abundant.

The only fish of any size I encountered were two Malabar grouper at Madonna Rock, around 20 pounds each. Nah Trang dive shop photo albums and web sites advertise white- and black-tip sharks, stingrays and turtles lurking somewhere in the marine park but I saw none of these. Rainbow instructor Chris told me the park’s larger sea life was essentially fished out.

While Vietnam dive web sites advertise a number of locations, I chose Hon Mun Park due to my time limitations. So how does Hon Mun stack up against notable dive sites like the Great Barrier Reef, the Solomons, Palau or the Andaman Sea? In my opinion, it doesn’t. The corals were less colorful and fish life, especially large pelagics, less abundant. Based on the limited diving I did, then, I don’t recommend the 18-hour flight it will take from the West Coast if all you’re looking for is diving. But for a land trip to Vietnam, diving is worth a shot here or maybe you’ll discover another, better place. The people are uncommonly friendly and polite. Half the population was born after the U.S. left Vietnam. I encountered no anti-American attitudes. Food and accommodations are inexpensive unless you insist on the most luxurious five-star accommodations. Look into anti-malarial medication and Hepatitis A and B shots if you plan to wander Vietnam’s more remote regions.” (Rainbow Divers: www.divevietnam.com)

Cayman Brac Reef Beach Resort. After Hurricane Paloma devastated the Brac last November, the family-run resort had to shut its doors. But it’s being remodeled and renovated and, pending government approval, should reopen in September. The resort’s PR department says there’s a waiting list of 50 divers. (www.bracreef.com)

Hawaii Specialty Dives. We got two good reader reports recently about special dives around the Hawaiian islands. Dennis Jacobson (Lakewood, CO) tells us that Lahaina Divers on Maui offers a specialty trip for advanced divers to Molokai to search for hammerheads. “It is a bit pricey ($199 per person for 2 tanks) but worth it, as we saw a large school and some isolated hammerhead sharks. It is an open blue water dive, and on the March day we went, we had 25-knot winds, 12-foot seas and a stong current. We were forewarned about all of these and have no complaints. However, there were divers on the trip who should not have been allowed, certainly not under the conditions we encountered, and those conditions were known days in advance. Poor divers cost us bottom time, as of necessity all divers had to descend and ascend together (open seas, boat pick up, and challenging conditions). We were led to believe there is a more thorough screening of divers then there actually was, so if you go, ask about who you will be diving with. The sharks are deep, the current can be strong and the weakest diver in each group will set the bottom time and depth limits. You should be a competent diver in good shape.” (www.lahainadivers.com)

Among the most spectacular dives in Hawaii, maybe just about anywhere, is to see monk seals around Ni’ihau island, a difficult schlep in only the best of summer/fall weather. The operation that gets you there is Bubbles Below, based in Kauai. Danny & Doreen Scott, who live on the Big Island of Hawaii, made it to Ni’ihau last September and tell what you might expect if you’re lucky enough to make it this year. “Linda, owner of Bubbles Below, is a very warm, friendly gal who took good care of everyone. We took her boat to ‘The Forbidden Island’ (so named because its small native population forbids you to step foot on the island, but you can dive next to it). On our first dive, we were able to get very close to several very large monk seals. They purr like cats underwater, and their sounds are loud and pleasant. One seal was asleep underwater on its back, a fabulous sight! The divemaster also knew exactly where to take us to see yellow anthias. The crew were fun, upbeat and made the experience wonderful. Lunch was a gourmet pizza, kept warm by being carried on the boat’s engine, and a fabulous salad. The ride back to Kauai is challenging. It was over an hour of extremely rough chop -- and we’re highly experienced with rough boat crossings. Not recommended for those prone to seasickness. Nearly everyone on the boat was lying down to avoid being bounced around. It was a real endurance test. If only there were a more comfortable return ride.” (www.bubblesbelowkauai.com)

Kona’s Missing Fish. Ben Glick (Williamstown, MA), who has logged over 1000 dives, writes, “I have dived with Dive Makai for more than 20 years. Over that time, the dive operation has been wonderful and still is. The problem is with the fish life on the reefs. In eight dives, we saw very little and because the coral in Hawaii is minimal, there was little to see. The dive guide tried hard but was unsuccessful. Even our threedive adventure was pretty much a bust. What a difference from the past when fish of all types were common. The only exception was the manta ray night dive, with many mantas, and coming up close for the whole dive.”

Coconut Tree Divers, Roatan. Last issue we reported on the undiscovered Royal Playa Resort on Roatan, and David Shirley (Minneapolis, MN), who has logged a thousand dives, tells us of a popular dive operator there that does more for experienced divers than most. “In the years of diving with Coconut Tree Divers, I have never found the service, professionalism or quality of the operation to be lacking. Although at times the volume of activity at the operation’s West End facility is trying, the overall experience has been one of the more satisfying this professional dive instructor has encountered in decades of travel throughout the Caribbean and Pacific. The staff is first rate and efforts to ensure customer satisfaction and diving nirvana are exemplary. With two boats now serving their customers, the benefits of segmenting divers based on experience and dive objectives are proving to work well. Dive guides’ attention to detail on pointing out smaller, often missed sealife during dives has been a humbling experience for someone who often claims he has seen nearly everything the seas have to offer. To give divers expanded opportunities for unique underwater experiences, Coconut Tree will, based on weather conditions and customer interest, offer trips to Barbaretta and the Cayos Cochinos, where the fish life is nearly unaffected by the last decade of increased pressure to feed inhabitants and tourists. The staff was helpful in suggesting everything from great, inexpensive meal venues to arranging one of the best shark dives I have ever experienced.” (www.coconuttreedivers.com)

- - Ben Davison

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