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August 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caribbean, Hawaii, Indonesia, Red Sea…

hidden travel charges, Hawaiian fish, and a good Caribbean site

from the August, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Those Hidden Travel Charges. While Randy and Carol Thompson (Boynton Beach, FL) had a great time diving with Rich Coast Divers in Costa Rica this May, they got hit for unexpected charges. “You can expect a 5 percent surcharge for using a credit card, and no travelers checks are accepted. Because our credit-card charges an additional 3 percent surcharge for converting charges in foreign currency (common practice for most U.S. credit cards), we asked that the charges be made in dollars. No go. So count on an 8 percent markup on your final tally, unless you want to bring a pile of cash.” Good tip, folks, but there are a couple of tricks to try. While businesses are not supposed to add a surcharge for using a credit card (but it’s okay to give a cash discount), many do. Sometimes you can get it reversed if you call your card company. Another way to reduce these is to head to the nearest ATM. You’ll lose some money in the exchange rates and probably garner a fee for using your card, but you should be able to cut that 8 percent in half. If you’ve got a $2,500 hotel and diving bill, you’ll save $100.

Indigo Divers, St. Vincent. Though it’s got a Cayman namesake, the St. Vincent operation is unrelated. Our readers have been telling us it’s a good alternative to Dive St. Vincent and Bill Tewes, if you think you need one. Leslie Fieger (St. George, St. Vincent & Grenadines) has made around 1,000 dives, most at 20 different Caribbean venues. “I was one of Kay Wilson’s first customers when she opened up shop in 2004. She runs a first-class operation and goes out of her way to provide an optimum experience for all divers. Her love of diving is plain to see and her enthusiasm infects her customers. Her young enthusiastic team, dive instructor Dale and divemasters Andrew and Luke, shared their pleasure of discovering new sites and wonders with their guests. At Kingstown Wall, Kay found an unexploded WWII ordnance. Because she is such a great photographer, Kay can help other shutterbugs find and frame their own great shots.” (www.indigodive.com)

Not All Americans Avoid the Red Sea. A reader who just calls herself Stephanie was aboard the Blue o Two’s M/Y Blue Fin in April and says, “The week was a special reef cleanup trip in association with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (www.hepca.com). We performed 21 dives for the week, three of them as reef clean-ups. We collected approximately 600 pounds of trash (clothes, towels, bottles, yogurt cups, oil filters, etc.). The accommodations and food were good; plenty of hot water and beverages. The Blue Fin has a small equipment deck to so we had to get ready in two different groups. Crew paid good attention to safety, making sure all divers had buddies and understood how to inflate the safety sausages, provided detailed dive briefings (we had some strong currents that week), and would promptly get the Zodiac to divers. The diving was in the northern Red Sea and it was a good mixture of reef diving and wreck diving. We didn’t see many turtles, no sharks or mantas, and a few pods of dolphins. The fish life was abundant, hard/soft corals are plentiful, and small life good - - plenty of blue spotted stingrays, giant moray eels and other eels, wrasses and nudibranches. Thistlegorm is a wonderful dive but most operators from Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheik are damaging it by tying directly onto the wreck! In high season, there are more than 20 dayboats with approximately 20 people each on the sites. All of the bubbles are rusting the wreck quickly. Blue o Two is one of only two operators that don’t tie to the wreck, and it supports a permanent mooring system for the Thistlegorm. Without action, the Thistlegorm will not be able to be penetrated in the next few years. Diving in the Red Sea is always a challenge with currents, surges, and waves.” (www.blueotwo.com)

David Reubush (Toano, VA) was aboard the Emperor Infinity last September and says, “Diving here is better than the Caribbean but not as good as Indonesia, although it’s much easier to get to. You’ll also find anywhere from six to eight boats at any of the dive sites. Everybody either anchors to the reef or ties up to another boat. (Note: The marine nonprofit Seacology is helping to fund the installation of mooring buoys at a number of spots.) There is so much Zodiac traffic that the standard procedure is to send up either your or your buddy’s safety sausage while doing your hang at 15 feet so nobody runs over you. One divemaster said two people had been killed at Sharm el-Sheikh last September after being run over. On a night dive at Sataya, lots of lionfish had learned to use divers’ lights as a hunting aid. I would try to take a picture but my modeling light would attract a bunch of lionfish that would get between me and my subject. Most of the crew were very serviceoriented, and the food was really good. The small gear area was oriented transversely across the boat, with wetsuits hung up at both ends, so you had to make your way through them to get to your equipment station. No camera facilities other than a too-small rinse tank and a charging station. The cabins were relatively small with poor storage. The air conditioning kept my cabin and the salon comfortable but if you left your cabin for even five minutes, the a/c man would come along and turn it off. So after most dives you would come back to a hot cabin.” (www.emperordivers.com)

Hawaii, the Big Island. John Woolley (Olympia, WA) was there in June and writes, “Having read a reader report bemoaning the loss of fish in Hawaii’s reefs, I thought I was prepared but I wasn’t. Reefs are the ocean’s nursery, and Hawaiians have murdered their young. I’m told there are no limits on the taking of reef fish, most of which go to the commercial aquarium trade. Whatever the reason, Hawaiians need to wake up to what they are doing. While the manta night dive was absolute magic, it is a manufactured event. The true joy of diving is experiencing the natural underwater world. I’ve now experienced Hawaii’s and it ain’t pretty. To salvage the experience of diving there, try an ‘adventure dive,’ which means actually taking the boat far enough offshore to find some fish. While very expensive ($205 for three tanks), you at least get some insight into what diving used to be like. Then take your rental car on a day trip to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The land trip to the volcano outshined the diving.”

In our July issue, writer Rene Umberger described how up to 75 percent of Hawaii’s endemic fish are being taken by the aquarium trade. Woolley says a good way to stop that is by contacting Hawaii politicians and reminding them that, “Those coming to marvel at the fish in their natural habitat - - snorkelers and scuba divers - - bring more money to Hawaii than those capturing the fish to send them out of the state. Add to this the ecological impacts of depleting fish stocks, and you have a looming ecological - - and economic - - disaster.” Send your comments to Hawaii’s top state senators Colleen Hanabusa (senhanabusa@capitol.hawaii.gov) and Fred Hemmings (senhemmings@capitol.hawaii.gov), and House of Representatives leaders Calvin Say (repsay@capitol.hawaii.gov) and Lynn Finnegan (repfinnegan@capitol.hawaii.gov).

On the same topic, I received an e-mail from a reader in Berkeley, CA, who said, “I was appalled to read how fish collectors are destroying Hawaii’s reef. I didn’t realize the scope of the problem and hadn’t considered how removing herbivorous fish has led to algae covering the coral. People can’t go into the wild and trap birds to cage them in our living rooms, so why in the world should we be free to trap fish so we can display them in our living rooms? We run around trying to preserve the reefs in a bunch of other countries when this insanity is going on right at home. And why does the Coral Reef Alliance, to which I’ve sent money to save the reefs, not oppose this?”

I too am surprised that CORAL, whose membership is composed mainly of divers, is not opposed to fish collection on Hawaii’s reefs. CORAL argues that its role is to bring all interested parties to the bargaining table and work out a solution - - not to fight against any specific activity. Executive Director Brian Huse tells me that in Hawaii’s “very contentious political environment, the stakeholders spend inordinate amounts of time pointing fingers at each other, accusing each in turn of having a greater impact on the reef. What transpires is effectively a stalemate, with no effective solutions proposed, let alone implemented. Unless and until the warring factions can come together, I fear a solution to fishing will not be found.” Perhaps, but I don’t really buy that. We’re not talking about food fish and besides, for my money, CORAL should be pushing hard to regulate fish collectors and ban much of the practice, not get caught up in process issues to balance interests. If a national citizen’s organization like CORAL isn’t going to stand up to the fish collectors stripping the reefs and force them to bend, who will?

Hotel Santika Manado, Indonesia. Bob Ayers (San Jose, CA) stayed at this Sulawesi resort last October and says, “The Santika is a fine, large resort with beautiful grounds, and is an excellent value. The reef was in excellent shape and the small sea life was by far the best I’d seen in quality and quantity.” But he has a real thumbs-down for the dive guides from the on-site dive shop, Thalassa Diving Center. “They routinely disturbed sea creatures, turning anemones over looking for shrimp, stacking cowries (why?), forcing mantis shrimp out of holes, teasing ribbon eels, etc. And they had two harlequin shrimp that they kept in a bottle and ‘let out’ for divers. This must be what their clientele wants... ” (www.santika.com)

In Depth Watersports, Cayman Brac. Jonathan Scott (Plainfield, NH) dived with this operation in March and says while they cost more than Reef Divers, you get more. “It’s well worth it for their high-speed boat, willingness to visit requested sites, and do drift dives. Reefs were surprisingly unaffected by Hurricane Paloma. A two-tank trip to Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay showed marked contrast in terms of diver impact versus Cayman Brac’s reefs and walls that had been virtually undived since Paloma hit in November 2008. I particularly enjoyed Tibbetts Wreck as both day and night dives (including a rare sighting of mating slipper lobsters). Lots of great barracuda. Only a couple of nurse sharks and no larger pelagics, despite some diligent looking into the blue. I saw a few turtles and stingrays but no eagle rays. Enjoyed some great snorkeling off the beach at our rental house on the south side, including the shallow-water Prince Frederick wreck. Corals and sponges were healthy and thriving. Got up close and personal with ‘Ben and Jerry,’ the resident, semi-tame Nassau groupers at Marilyn’s Cut site in Bloody Bay. Some very fishy sites with great clouds of grunts, parrotfish and angels, and impressive tarpon hanging out where they were supposed to be, on Tarpon Reef. In Depth’s semi-inflatable, high-speed and comfortable powerhouse can go 40 knots, taking only 20 minutes to get to Little Cayman, and to/from any site on the Brac in 20 minutes or less. There is no head but the quickness means requests for trips to onshore facilities are easily accommodated. Captain Craig and his crew regularly visit new locations not accessed by Reef Divers. Divemasters lead a guided tour for those interested but divers may dive their own profiles, and extended bottom times were the norm. Being able to do several dives as drifts was a huge plus. Diving the Brac has never been this good. Go now while you can have the entire place to yourself.” (www.indepthwatersports.com)

Bad Treatment at Sea Explorer, Philippines. Helga Cookson (Brussels Belgium) went to the resort for a third visit last December and dived with Sea Explorers next door. “I had a vestibular accident, which gave me severe vertigo and left me vomiting for two hours. The French divemaster, who was not present, ordered 50 minutes of oxygen and sent me the next day to a cardiologist two hours away. After an overnight stay, I returned and the divemaster said he had spoken to an expert in Cebu who said I could dive again to 30 feet, which I didn’t feel up to. Then a few days later, he said he had spoken to two experts and I had to go straight to the recompression chamber in Cebu, five hours away). With no DAN insurance or credit card, I asked whether Sea Explorers could advance the money. They declined because they said it would cost US$3,500. Luckily, I refused to sign a paper drawn up by the divemaster in bad English that I refused to get hyperbaric treatment that I could not afford! Then I learned from a reliable source that the cost for hyperbaric treatment was only around $550 only, which I could have paid. I was furious, flew back to Brussels and went straight away to a hyperbaric expert who said I was lucky to have no lingering symptoms.”

Sunset Waters Resort, Curacao. As of press time in late July, it was rumored to be shutting down. Bruce Newman (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) had already placed the 50-percent deposit for a December trip when he got an e-mail on July 18 from Lynn Bean, co-owner of the on-site dive shop Sunset Divers. It read, “Due to the financial difficulties of Sunset Waters and its inability to pay services we’ve provided over the last four months, we have no choice but to close our doors. Today will be our final day of business.” Newman e-mailed Sunset Waters’ U.S.-based manager and received an auto-reply that the man no longer is representing Sunset Waters. Then an inquiry to reservations handler Cory Acosta got this response: “Sunset Waters has not been able to honor last week’s reservations. It is just a matter of time before we may be closing our doors [and] until everything is resolved, we will probably close. Please make other travel arrangements.” “Now we either have to drive to Habitat/Easy Divers, or find another hotel in an area with a dive shop,” says Newman. “I’m trying to cancel the villa and get my money back.” Caradonna Dive Adventures, which offers dive packages to Sunset Waters, has contacted the resort, its owners and the Curacao tourism bureau but had not heard anything as of July 20. “I’m not sure if any customers have made deposits but what happens now will depend on whether the resort went bankrupt or just closed its doors,” says Caradonna’s president Tim Webb. “We will try to recoup deposits and relocate divers to a similar property.” We contacted Sunset Waters’ corporate owner, Urban Research Investment Corp. in Chicago, but they didn’t return phone calls or e-mails.

Dive Bouteille, Guadeloupe. Did you know that Martinique is a Caribbean island? Guadeloupe too? Did you know that each has about nine times the population of Grand Cayman? So why do you not hear of anyone diving them? Mainly because English is never spoken, as French and Creole are the languages. George Irwin (Bloomington, IL), who has made more than 1000 dives, went out with Dive Bouteille on Guadeloupe in May and tells us, “We went diving twice and were thrilled with the quality of the diving - the corals were in great shape and the fish life was plentiful. Two dives were the Caribbean at its best -- L’Aquarium at La Rendonde and Sec Pate. The latter is in the channel between Guadaloupe and the Saintes, and it has stiff currents but has the best coral and fish I’ve experienced in 20 years of diving the Caribbean. The couple who runs La Dive Bouteille were excellent and helpful; they speak mostly French but the language barrier was not a major problem. Guadeloupe is a great place and with the excellent diving, it should be on anyone’s short list of destinations.” (www.dive-bouteille.com)

Status Report on Lembeh Strait. In our June e-mail newsletter, we asked divers who recently visited this Indonesian muck-dive site whether fish life was up to expectations. Divers who’ve been there multiple times report it’s noticeably on the decline. Alan Olson (Port Byron, IL) went in May after a trip two years ago and says, “Most fish are juveniles and intermediates; many of the adults were missing. One notable exception was Banggai cardinalfish, which were everywhere.” Larry Pollster (Martinsville, IN) visited for his third time in May and was “a little disappointed compared to a trip in 2007. Most of the typical critters were around, like snake and ribbon eels, scorpionfish, waspfish, stingfish, and devilfish. But I dived eight days and never saw a hairy frogfish; seems they’ve moved on to less crowded areas.” Both men say increased dive traffic could mean more difficulty in finding critters. “It was not uncommon to have two or three boats at the same dive site; that was unheard of just a few years ago,” Pollster says. Olson adds, “I was told there are now 10 dive resorts operating in the Straits, with two more under construction, plus dayboats from the larger cities.” First-time visitors raved about the diverse marine life they saw but commented on the trash amassing everywhere. “The water is strewn with floating garbage and there are slicks of who knows what on the surface,” says Todd Lichtenstein (West Orange, NJ), who visited in late May. “No one seemed to care or be able to do anything about it.” However, everyone agreed Lembeh is still one of the best places for critter lovers and macro photographers. “It’s the only place in 25 years of diving that my wife wanted to visit more than once,” says Rod Challenger (Tierra Verde, FL). “We’ve been there twice and plan to return. We’ve never been anywhere else where such unusual marine life exists in such abundance. We always saw something unusual on every dive.”

- - Ben Davison

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