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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Taino Divers; MV Juliet; Puerto Rico

by land and by liveaboard

from the March, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Puerto Rico's Mona Island: "the Galapagos of the Caribbean," as the website of the 104-foot steel-masted schooner Juliet claims. That's popped out as I considered a trip aboard the Juliet for Florida Keys or Bahamas trips. I had never heard of Mona Island, but it promised virgin-like diving where not too many have been before. And the Juliet had one trip going in December. I booked it.

I would delay my presumed gratification to spend my first week diving with a land-based operator, Taino Divers, on the Eastern coast, selected because of recommendations on Internet websites. By e-mail, I requested five days of two-tank diving with the chance to go to Desecheo Island; they responded that they had space available every day during my time there, so I sent my CC info. I was set, so I thought.

Taino Divers pilot the boat close to the beach for loading.After a long flight from Germany, where I live, I overnighted in San Juan before hopping a Cape Air twinengine Cessna to Mayaguez. The green land and beautiful coastline below excited me, and when I landed I rented a car for a half-hour drive to Rincon and the Coconut Palms Inn, a small but lovely privately run hotel on the beach.

Taino's shop is in downtown Rincon, close to a beautiful sandy beach and next to the Shipwreck Restaurant, with cheap eateries nearby. At first, the folks at Taino could not remember my e-mails, but when they did find me in their files, they had nothing reserved for me. Monday, they had boat space, but with no bookings Tuesday, they weren't diving. I could go Wednesday, but Thursday they were pulling their boat for maintenance, and Friday was still a question mark. Having flown so far with only diving on my mind, I was not pleased.

The first day of diving started with more bad news. The skipper decided not to go to Desecheo Island, saying the wind made it too choppy for a ride out, and the weather forecast wasn't good. I know one must trust the skipper; it's his boat and his call, but I have missed so many awesome dives while traveling because someone was not in the right mood, wanted to save petrol, had beginners on board, or thought the sea or current was too rough -- though other boats went out -- so some excuses are hard to believe. Who knows the truth? It's what the captain says. And one must trust the captain.

At the harbor, they pilot the boat close to the beach, where divers and snorkelers form a line to pass gear and tanks from their truck to the Katmandu. I don't mind carrying gear and tanks occasionally, and in southern Europe, this is routine. But at $120 for a two-tank dive, one might expect the shop to handle the heavy work. The twin-outboard boat is rather small, with limited shade and no head, tank racks in the middle, and benches all around. With more than eight divers, it was rather tight while gearing up. We made two boat dives close to the mainland, where visibility was less than 30 feet, water temperature 80ºF. For 50 minutes, I kicked among scattered coral heads and sponges on boulders in sandy patches, saw a number of colorful but common reef fish, two barracuda, a moray eel, and a lobster -- a decent intro dive but nothing more. I surfaced with 1400psi.

Map to Taino DiversRincon (population 15,000) is a lovely town posed along beaches and hills, apparently a surfer's paradise. Coconut Palms Inn was a lovely home away from home. Pelicans skimmed along the beach, diving head-first to catch fish, and in the breathtaking sunsets, it was an amazing spectacle. My hotel room, the Gecko, had everything for self-catering: microwave, refrigerator, coffee-making facilities, even a grill on the balcony, but with nearby restaurants for every taste and budget, I tried many. I had mouthwatering meals: rib night at the Shipwreck, fresh oysters at a street stall, surf and turf, and salmon chowder.

With no Tuesday dive, I visited "La Caverna," an impressive cave system where one rides down to the entry on a little train, before hiking deep into the cave, decorated with huge stalactites and openings to the sky and jungle. While bats hung above, water dripped from the ceiling, so I turned my mouth upward and took a drink -- it's pure, they say.

But, I came to dive, and Wednesday started well with the chance to dive Desecheo Island, about a 45-minute trip. They provided a good briefing and didn't insist on buddy teams, so I cruised the reef between 45 and 70 feet deep, continuing after my buddy ascended in the 150-foot visibility for a safety stop. Scattered boulders hosted sponges and coral, and while common tropicals -- grunts, sergeant majors -- were more abundant than inshore, a few trumpet fish, spadefish, an octopus, and tiny nudibranchs and cleaner shrimps provided variety. Three nurse sharks cruised by, and I kicked through some nice swim-thrus close to shore, shooting photos of the surf crashing on the island above. Between dives, they offered soft drinks and pasta salad on board, since no visitors are allowed on the island; it once was used for air force bombing practice, and unexploded bombs remain; I saw one in 30 feet of water, the size of a man's thigh with rusty tailfins.

Plenty of room to store gear and dress on Juliet's dive deckBut, to my great disappointment, that was it for my diving. After Thursday's boat maintenance, they didn't have enough divers to make a Friday trip available. I asked Taino about other dive centers around Rincon; they told me these only offered shore diving. One might expect a dive operator to do what they could for a diver who had come so far with an expected five days of diving, but no, I was on my own to find last minute options, and I found none. A bad show, indeed. Well, ahead lay the Puerto Rico's Galapagos. And I was eager to go.

On Saturday, I took a cab to the Mayaguez ferry terminal to board the Juliet. She surely has seen better days, though I learned she was soon to be hauled out and spruced up. For my six-night, five-day trip, I had booked a big private cabin with a head, but since the Juliet was not fully booked, many of the other seven guests, all Americans, were assigned individual cabins. Saturday night we motored to Mona. Juliet rolled in the deep swells, so sleeping meant fighting the movement. With my bunk running straight toward the bow, I would nearly fall out; when I tried staying at a right angle, I hit either my toes or head, though I'm only 5'10".

Our first day of diving Mona was along terrain similar to Rincon, with huge boulders, scattered sponges and coral, and sparse, shy fish life, probably spooked by spearfishermen in this supposedly protected area. While the water was generally calm, when we motored to the nearby smaller Monito island, big surf was waiting. On command, we jumped and grabbed the tag line, then descended together. I thought negative entry would have been the right choice, but Jessica, our young dive instructor, disagreed, pulling rank even with old experienced guys in a charming way. She towed a marker buoy with a flag at Monito, a tough job.

Juliet is not the youngest lady anymore, but she has charm.On dive two, we had tricky Galapagos-like currents, but 150-foot visibility to view some nurse sharks, turtles, and better tropical fish life along an awesome wall with barrel sponges large enough to hide behind. When we dropped down, I couldn't see what direction to take to the island due to the surf and bubbles; I followed Liza, my guide, into a small canyon and tunnel leading to the other side, where we met our group. Lionfish were free-swimming everywhere (I was later told they stay deep to keep away from spearfishermen). Behind the boulder, the island steeply rose up to the foaming surface. Occasionally, I looked into the blue, but Neptune never offered me a glimpse of a passing pelagic. At times, I would rush ahead to be the first to round a corner, hoping for an awesome encounter, but no luck. At dive's end, we assembled on the surface, and when the Juliet approached, each took his/her turn to grab the tagline like WWII frogmen -- with the boat riding the swells, this was a damned hard job -- and climb aboard.

I had plenty of room to store my gear and dress on the dive deck and appreciated the hot and cold freshwater and buckets for cameras. All dives start from the mother boat; the inflatable is only used to chase divers who are caught in a current and swept away.

Most days, we chose to dive two tanks at the rugged Monito Island and then headed back for a shallower dive plus a night dive in calmer waters at Mona. Once, when I surfaced at Monito, I looked up, and a frigate bird was hovering right above me; it must have been curious to find out what kind of creature was swimming below.

Rating for Taino DiversThe last day we dived "Cul de Sac" at Mona. It's a wall dive with spectacular coral garden on top, Mona's best diving. Along the reef top, lush with coral and sponges, pairs of angelfish cruised around; yellow boxfish hid in crevices, a shy file fish hovered above coral, and a trumpet fish traveled alongside me, switching its eyes in all directions. Three remora looking for a new host checked me out. I dropped down to eighty feet, where small jacks -- one accompanied by a trumpet fish, a strange underwater friendship -- and five barracuda passed, then swam by a huge turtle resting in a crack. In the clear water, sunlight brought out the reef's majestic colors. For only this dive would I give Mona Island good marks. Otherwise, pelagics were rare, and only once did I see dolphins on the surface. While the boulder-lined bottom may suggest Ecuador diving, to call it the Galapagos of the Caribbean is an exaggeration at best.

On our way back to the mainland, we stopped for a last dive at Desecheo Island, a drift dive in ripping current at Yellow Reef. I tried to swim around huge boulders and through canyons to reach the outer reef, but as soon as I raised my head above the reef edge, current stopped me. It was either hide in the lee of the reef or be swept back to the Juliet. Down to 50 feet, I saw a lot of lionfish; one diver took a spear, but in such conditions, he had no chance of scoring. Hanging on either the tag line or anchor line, I rippled like a flag in the wind. As I grabbed the safety bar, the current yanked me to the surface, where my computer shrieked. Our skipper was happy when all climbed aboard safely. So were we.

Rating for Taino DiversRegardless of the diving, the staff was excellent. Chef Anna did a magician's job in the galley, seemingly impossible in the often heavily rolling Juliet. She served good and nourishing buffet meals, and even prepared gluten-free pancakes and French toast for me for breakfast, which also included fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, cheese, ham, smoked fish, coffee or tea. Lunch was mostly vegetables, fettuccini Alfredo, tacos, lasagna, salads, dinner mostly meat like pork or beef, steak or fish, lovely red wine went all around the table, desserts were a sweet sin, most often cake or some mouthwatering warm pudding, from which I just picked a bit because of the damn gluten thing.

Jessica, our instructor/guide, gave informative briefings; I got the chance to brush up my underwater compass skills; finding my way back to Juliet wasn't always easy in unfamiliar surroundings. Jessica seemed not to believe there are experienced divers even in Germany, but she changed her mind as she watched me blow bubble rings and hearts. Liza was the cattle driver, diving behind us all to make sure we stayed together and behaved.

Juliet is not the youngest lady anymore, but maybe it's her charm and the staff that lead divers to her. Surely, I would dive again with her, but never on a journey to the nonexistent Galapagos of the Caribbean.

PS: After this trip, Captain John Beltrano turned ownership over to Liza Hash, a crew member for three years.

- J.M.

Our undercurrent writer has made "1900 dives in more than 100 destinations worldwide. I'm always looking for special destinations with 'icing on the cake' like Phoenix Island Kiribati, Rowley Shoals, Eparses Islands, etc. Pelagics seem to shun me; maybe these guys know about my being a taxidermist."

Kosrae and Yap, MicronesiaDiver's Compass: Taino Divers charge $120 for a two-tank dive. . . . . . . . . . . . The Juliet normally departs from Miami for Florida and Bahamas diving, but also dives the Virgin Islands; 7 day 6 night cruises run $1690-$1890, double occupancy; Nitrox is $100 for the week. . . . . . . . While Puerto Rico's native tongue is Spanish, English is widely spoken, and the dollar is currency. My Rincon hotel room, the Gecko, was $106/night. . . .U.S. Citizens do not need a passport to fly to Puerto Rico.

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