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December 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 12   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The 2015 Traveliní Diverís Chapbook

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The 2015 Traveliní Diverís Chapbook


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Editorial Office:

Ben Davison

Publisher and Editor

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what caught my eye

from the December, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I've never sent you an issue in December -- you see, it's Chapbook time and yours should have just arrived via email. However, I've read several reports during the last few months that I want to call to your attention. So, I've prepared this short missive to alert you to a few you might otherwise miss.

But first, I must thank you for being a subscriber and for your loyalty to Undercurrent. We're in our 39th year of publication, thanks entirely to divers like you whose modest subscription fees support us.

You may not know the story, but in 1975 I was horribly disappointed on my first dive trip, which I took to Jamaica; Skin Diver magazine had pictured a beach 30 miles from the hotel and swarms of fish that just didn't exist. I got the message and decided to create Undercurrent, a publication for serious divers, uninfluenced by anyone other than the divers who subscribed -- divers like you. That we've been in business so long seems to mean that our little nonprofit publication is doing its job. But there is always room for improvement, so by all means, email me any thoughts, ideas or complaints you may have. BenDDavison@undercurrent.org

And a note: If you wish to purchase a paperback copy of The 2015 Travelin' Diver's Chapbook, you can do so by going to www.undercurrent.org/members/UCnow/chapbook2015.php

Now, a few highlights from our Reader Reports, the longer versions of which you'll find in the 2015 Travelin' Diver's Chapbook.

 

Ben Davison,

Editor and Publisher

I did nine drift dives on the very healthy Boynton Beach reef seeing about a dozen bull sharks, numerous loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, green and spotted morays, lobster . . . .and about a hundred Goliath grouper on and around the wreck.

Stay Close to Home: For more years than I can remember, the HMS Minnow six-pack in Key Largo, Florida, owned and operated by Jeff Jarvis, was among the best operations anywhere in the Keys. Not long ago he sold out to John Garvey. Howard Kaiser (Liberty, MO), who dived with him in August, reports that the "appeal of using the HMS Minnow continues. John, like Jeff, leaves the dock around a half-hour earlier than the larger operations. I've been underwater on dives like the Benwood and surrounded by fish, rays, etc., only to hear the arrival of the bigger cattle boats and watch the fish scatter . . . I've maintained to anyone willing to listen that the Florida Keys are among the fishiest places in this hemisphere, having been designated a protected park for the last sixty years or so. There are clouds of grunt and yellowtail, and we saw several packs of twenty to thirty midnight blue parrot fish. On Molasses Reef, we saw several large snook, some permit and several nurse sharks. We've also seen reef sharks, eagle rays, spotted eels and cubera snapper . . . This trip I noticed significant coral bleaching that severely impacted Pickles Reef and around the Benwood wreck. I'd suggest that new moorings be set to relieve dive pressure from sites like French and parts of Molasses Reefs. There was also some significant fin damage, especially to the beautiful purple sea fans we'd seen in the past." http://www.hmsminnow.com

Craig Wood (Radnor, PA) has another Florida six-pack recommendation: Underwater Explorers. In August, "I spent six days doing 15 dives with Kevin Metz and Underwater Explorers out of Boynton Beach Harbor Marina. This turned out to be one of the best dive trips I've had. I did nine drift dives on the healthy Boynton Beach reef, seeing about a dozen bull sharks, numerous loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, green and spotted morays, lobster, and nearly all the Caribbean reef fish. I also did six dives on the wreck of the Castor. Even though it was a little early for the peak of the Goliath grouper aggregation, there were about a hundred Goliath grouper on and around the wreck. There were also large bait balls and hunters looking to make a meal of them; very exciting. Underwater Explorers' boat has plenty of room for all equipment and a partially enclosed deck for wind, rain, or to get out of the Florida sun. The boat has a warm-water shower, and there is a "primitive" but functional head, scheduled to be upgraded."

The Undived Caribbean. I've only dived Carriacou once, but was duly impressed with fields of soft corals and more fish life than neighboring Grenada. I always intended to return and haven't, but Lisa Evans (Fort Collins, CO), there in May, has whetted my appetite. "Gary and Alex at Deefer Diving were wonderful. They have package stays with two hotels. We preferred the closer hotel, Laurena, and we got a 2-bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen and common area. The diving was excellent for the Caribbean. A great variety of dive sites, some spectacular -- like Tropical Hill, Deep Blue, and Sharkie's Hideaway and Mabouya Garden. Also, Deefer Diving is working within to get the locals to better respect the marine park. We saw a good variety of fish, several octopus, lots of eels, lots of small turtles, and some large schools of small and medium fish. The larger fish are returning as well!" www.deeferdiving.com , www.hotellaurena.com

Raja Ampat, Indonesia: The World's Best Tropical Diving. When we ran a review of a trip on the Damai early this year, our reviewer questioned whether it was worth all the money and long distance travel to Raja Ampat. As soon as another of our reviewers read that piece, he contacted me to take issue with it.

Raja Ampat Dive Lodge rooms are right on the water . . . When the currents are running, the reefs go wild. Schools of fusiliers are so dense, they can impair your vision. Hunting schools of jacks cause mayhem, scattering thousands of fish. With the recent protections, we saw black tip and wobbegong sharks on almost all our dives.

"First, your reviewer's itinerary did cover some of the lesser quality spots, and he was on the Damai, a very expensive high-end boat -- and with only three dives a day. My diving in Raja Ampat waters was absolutely spectacular, well worth the money and the travel! Undercurrent reviews should be not only about diving the right place, but also doing it the right way: right dive operation, right season, right hotel/boat, etc."

Our new reviewer prepared a full story of his three-week, back-to-back trip on the Mermaid I and Mermaid II, and what he saw will knock your socks off. I am publishing it as a blog so it's a public feature on our website. You can read it by clicking here: www.undercurrent.org/blog/

When we first reported on diving Raja Ampat more than 20 years ago, there were no liveaboards, only Camp Kri Resort run by Dutchman Max Ammer. While today more liveaboards operate there than anywhere in the world, some folks still prefer land-based operations. Oedipus, as he calls himself, dived with Raja4divers on Pulau Pef in March, and says "After a three-hour boat ride from the miserable little town of Sorong, you arrive at Pulau Pef (Island Pef) in West Papua, greeted by a dancing, singing musical staff. Six huge handmade bungalows for guests with four-poster beds with mosquito netting, homemade furniture, large sliding doors to the sea and private outdoor bathrooms with traditional bucket and scoop showers. And an iPad. Nary another boat or pleasure craft in sight. Everything is well- thought-out and spacious, from the lovely dining area to the dive facilities. Hiking trails and kayaking around the island. Nitrox is free and encouraged. Long dives through stunning underwater topographies with over 500 species of coral. Huge schools of fish, as well as black- and white-tip sharks, crocodile fish, pigmy seahorses, unique nudibranchs, numerous varieties of damselfish plus too many other fish species to list. The manta cleaning station was a treat. The staff genuinely friendly and accommodating. The motto: arrive as a guest, feel like a king, leave as a friend." http://www.raja4divers.com

Dan Purnell (Vancouver, WA) likes the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, which he visited in October. "I had last visited this area 10 years ago, when Raja Ampat was just being opened to recreational divers. There has been a lot of development, but the diving is still incredible! Raja Ampat Dive Lodge rooms are right on the water, the food is good and everybody is friendly and helpful . . . There are two morning dives, one afternoon dive and a night dive each day. The night dives are all on the House Reef. Dampier Strait diving is outstanding! Some of the table corals and sea fans were wider than twice my body length. There were fields of acropora/staghorn corals, smothered with waves of anthias, stretching as far as you could see . . . When the currents are running, the reefs go wild. Schools of fusiliers are so dense, they can impair your vision. Hunting schools of jacks cause mayhem, scattering thousands of fish. With the recent protections, we saw black tip and wobbegong sharks on almost all our dives. Commonly sighted were sweet lips, Napoleon wrasses, turtles, groupers, barracudas, trevallys, angel and butterfly fish, pigmy seahorses, pipe fish, bat fish, glass fish, scorpion, unicorn, bumphead parrot, leaf fish and so many more. We saw a few mantas, toad fish and Spanish dancers. I had sensory overload on a number of Dampier Strait sites. This is a very fishy place!" And, a warning note: "I saw a lot of coral being damaged by inexperienced divers and photographers. We divers have to do a much better job avoiding contact with the reefs, if Raja Ampat is going to remain an amazing place to dive 10 years from now." http://rajaampat-divelodge.com

We found our wives frantic because three local (drunken) men had approached the truck and tried to take my wife's backpack. She kicked him away and started laying on the horn.

Bonaire Thieves: Every couple of years we write a cautionary note about the crime in Bonaire, because to a new visitor it seems like the last place one would expect thieves. Nonetheless, we get more complaints about crime in Bonaire than anywhere else. David Bader (Norwood, NC), there in September, writes: "Bonaire has a long reputation for petty theft from vehicles. As long as you don't leave anything in the truck and leave all windows and doors open, there's not much worry. That said, this trip had a new wrinkle. Upon arriving at the Plaza Resort at 11 p.m., my dive buddy and I went into the lobby to register. We left our wives with the rental truck to watch the bags. While we were filling out the registration forms, we heard a commotion outside with the blaring of a car horn. We found our wives frantic because three local (drunken) men had approached the truck and tried to take my wife's backpack. She kicked him away and started laying on the horn. Meanwhile, a second man grabbed my friend's backpack out of the bed of the pickup. His wife was able to wrestle it away. They ran off as people came out to see what was going on. This all happened in front of the Plaza's lobby. When is the government going to crack down on the theft issue?"

Oceanic Whitetips: Not everyone gets to dive with these big critters, but that's the specialty of Epic Diving on Cat Island, in the Bahamas. Jeff Bloomer was there in June and reports, "Greenwood Resort is laid-back and quiet. The German staff can be a bit stand-offish. You need to not be in a hurry and go with the flow. The restaurant served good meals, and the honor bar meant you never had to wait for a beverage. Staying here reminded me of days gone by where expats and islanders went about their day in a routine that many Americans would need to adjust to. Epic Diving picks you up at the resort and drives you to a dock where you take a small boat out to the dive boat. I was here to photograph Oceanic whitetips, and that is a specialty of this husband-and-wife team. Many up close encounters with these big sharks, both on snorkel and scuba." www.epicdiving.com

Like Mexican Dive Boats Were 50 Years Ago: While there can be some great diving with land-based operations in La Paz, my experience with the operators there has always been shaky -- safety is not their primary consideration, to put it mildly -- and Michael Braunstein (Las Vegas) seems to second my opinion after his October diving at Cortez Club with La Concha. "The boat captain cannot be trusted to set up your equipment. Check it yourself. I was given one tank that was two-thirds full. Twice the inflator hose was not connected. Open the tank yourself. They are poorly trained as to how to help you with your tank. Two people had their wallets stolen off the boat. My dive light was missing for a day. It had my name on it, as did my gear bucket. After complaining, it appeared."

Gardens of the Queen is far and away the best diving in the Caribbean . . ., Caribbean reef sharks, silkies, nurse sharks abound and accompany you on every dive. The largest fish I have ever seen -- a Goliath grouper guestimated to be over 600 pounds . . . . We went on our own "illegally." You can easily fly in from Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas [or Grand Cayman].

Which is why divers seek out Sea of Cortez liveaboards. However, the primary boat operating there -- Rocio del Mar -- often gets booked early, but a new boat hit the water this year, the Valentina, a member of the "Fun Azul Fleet." Gail M. King (Port Orange, Fl), who has more than 1000 dives, was aboard in October, and says "Valentina is a large, comfortable, well-run liveaboard . . . a large dive deck with plenty of camera space and rinse tanks, lots of comfy inside and outside space to relax in and out of sun, inside and outside dining areas, larger than usual cabins/bathrooms with comfy bunk beds. Food is good, with cooked-to-order breakfast, buffet lunch, and served dinner with wine. Diving is from skiffs and guided by knowledgeable local guides. Nitrox is 32, with 3 or 4 dives/day. Only night dive on the six-night trip was unique, with lots of small mobula rays drawn to an underwater lighted area to feed on plankton. However, the huge lure for divers is the great interaction with lots of young, playful sea lions . . . they love to gently nip at hands, fins, cameras, hair, or anything you move around. Our last afternoon was spent snorkeling with several whale sharks. This was an Island Dreams group trip well done by Susan Young. Contact Island Dreams at www.divetrip.com or the MV Valentina at www.fun-azulfleet.net/lapaz/

Like Diving Was 50 Years Ago: That's what everyone says about the reefs of Cuba, as we reported in our full review last year. While you can get to Cuba legally, for a price, most folks ignore the U.S. government's archaic attitude and travel illegally. Others are more cautious. If you're one of them, Robert Nissenbaum (Emerald Hills, CA) says a trip with Ocean Doctor to Jardines de la Reina is your cup of tea. You see, they are a nonprofit organization engaged in U.S.-government-approved research and education. In May Bob went on their new liveaboard, the Avalon II, "a brand-new, beautiful liveaboard launched by the Spanish dive and sport fishing venture that operates at Gardens of the Queen. It was an opportunity to dive with Dr. David Guggenheim, a marine scientist, conservation policy specialist, ocean explorer, and founder of Ocean Doctor, who has been trying to foster Havana and Washington D.C. relationships. The Ocean Doctor organization smoothes all the rough spots of the trip, and it's a first-class, near hassle-free journey from when you arrive in Miami for the Havana flight to your return eleven days later. The first three days were spent in the Havana area, sight-seeing and meeting leading Cuban government scientists and educators, mostly pertaining to their ocean preservation work. Enjoying the local cuisine and wonderful live music almost everywhere we went was a special treat. It's an early morning six-hour bus ride from Havana to Jucaro and then a three-hour boat ride out to Gardens, our home base for the next week. Transportation is first-class on land and sea. And the Avalon II is a very comfortable and luxurious dive boat. The divemasters, as well as the entire boat crew, made our week on the ocean a pleasure. The reef system is vibrant, colorful and healthy. It's a thrill to see the massive Goliath groupers that have disappeared from elsewhere in the Caribbean. The shark population is abundant. The population density of lovely, very large sea fans and sponges is incredible. Huge elkhorn coral as far as you can see in some areas around the mangrove islands is stunning. The mangroves are the perfect breeding ground for the dense schools of a myriad variety of fish." This trip runs more than $9000/person, and there are others that can be had for $7700 -- a lot of money, but as Bob points out, "my money was very well spent, as the funds help support Ocean Doctor's vital non-profit work encouraging cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba governments. Ocean Doctor makes the experience a wonderful and entertaining adventure, without having to worry about the politics, hassles, or other issues that may arise." www.oceandoctor.com

The four Newfoundland shipwrecks were iron ore carriers sunk by German U-boats in 1942. Visibility was 50 feet+, while the water was cold (10C at surface, 5C at depth). The Saganaga has a huge bow anchor lying on its stern deck, thrown there by the torpedo blast.

But you can do the same thing for much less money, as one of our good subscribers from Tucson points out (I won't use his name, since this may go on the public side of our website). "Gardens of the Queen is far and away the best diving in the Caribbean, and the marine life present is comparable to top locations in the Western Pacific/Coral Triangle and Indian Oceans. The highlights are dive encounters with Caribbean reef sharks, silkies, nurse sharks that abound and accompany you on every dive. And a Goliath grouper guestimated to be over 600 pounds, relatively healthy corals (some bleaching noted). Pelagics and smaller tropicals are here too. Avalon is a huge operation, including the stationary Tortuga unique barge/hotel, and up to six liveaboards varying in comfort from quite luxurious (Avalon 2) to nice, with the Tortuga comparable to above-average liveaboards. While accommodations vary, the food and dive program is identical. We went on our own "illegally." You can easily fly in from Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas (or Grand Cayman). You can book on the Avalon web site and safely pay in advance with a credit card through their system. They include hotel in Havana before and after the diving. We paid around $3500, but this varies depending on which vessel you pick. We spent a week prior exploring several cities in Cuba, and were warmly welcomed. We used Pototo Travel Services." http://cubandivingcenters.com , www.pototocuba.com

Being Petty about Dock Privileges: No matter where you stay in Cozumel, it's been customary historically for dive boats to pick you up or drop you off at your hotel's dock. We reported a while back that the Iberostar Grand Rose Hall was being uppity about the practice, and Kenneth A. Skitt reports that they are still ugly neighbors and won't let "operations other than their Dressel Divers load or unload at their dock. None of the other hotels seem to have any trouble with operations picking up and leaving off divers staying at their hotels." That's a good reason to stay at any other hotel on Cozumel if you want to dive with good operations such as Aldora or Jeremy at Living Underwater.

Moose Soup for Lunch: Drysuit diver Neil Burgess (Flatrock, NF) writes that in June he "had a great weekend of diving in Newfoundland with Ocean Quest on the four Bell Island WWII shipwrecks (each 400 feet+). The new MV Mermaid provided a large, warm cabin for changing and setting up camera gear. The open back deck provided ample room for eight divers, and the power lift made getting back in the boat very easy. The four shipwrecks were iron ore carriers sunk by German U-boats in 1942. Visibility was 50+ feet, while the water was cold (10C at surface, 5C at depth). These two wrecks were intact and upright, with the main decks around 80 feet deep. Lots of superstructure to investigate. Iron ore, hatch covers, and spare parts in the holds. The Saganaga has a huge bow anchor lying on its stern deck, thrown there by the torpedo blast. Both had stern guns intact and covered by anemones. Flounder, sculpin, crabs, urchins and anemones all over the wrecks. Rose Castle wreck's main deck is at 120 feet, more intact with masts and cargo derricks. Marconi room on top of superstructure contained all the radio gear, with glass dials and tubes intact. School of cod swimming over the holds. Back on the boat, skipper Bill served up a fabulous moose soup for lunch. What a treat!" http://www.oceanquestadventures.com/

I don't want to be lectured about politics when I am paying to dive. The owner, would engage in anti-government rants and then his wife Tamil would say "no politics!" We tired of listening to his bs."

Farewell, Alaska: The Nautilus Swell provided a great diving platform, but as John Sommerer (Laurel, MD) tells us, "Just before we made our trip (Juneau to Sitka), the Nautilus was sold, and 2014 will be her last season. This was a great trip, and if Nautilus were to get another boat for BC and Alaska (which all of us guests recommended in our feedback to the company), I'd expect a similar operation."

People we'd Rather Not Dive With: For an annoying dive operation to avoid in Curacao, Neal Rakov (Tavernier Florida) nominates Go West Diving at the Kura Hulanda. "We had pre-purchased four boat dives in November. The divemaster, Dario, insisted that the group stay at the surface until the whole group jumped off the boat, and then we descended as a group to 60 feet. If we went deeper than 60 feet, he shook his annoying rattle at us. He insisted that the entire group stay together for the entire 55-minute dive. When my buddy and I lagged behind to take photos, the rattle was again deployed. He insisted that we all ascend together to the 3-minute safety stop. It was then mandated that we all surface together and wait until it was your turn to re-enter the boat. In an attempt to avoid the obnoxious rattle, my buddy and I bagged the next three boat dives."

It's just as annoying to have a dive operator rant politically, as Kathleen Matthews (Berkeley, CA) points out, having had to listen to uninformed drivel in April from the new Chicago owner of Liquid Blue Divers in Cozumel. "Not sure that the new operators have the right personalities to run a dive operation. I don't want to be lectured about politics when I am paying to dive. Steve, the owner, would engage in anti-government rants, and then his wife, Tamil, would say "no politics!" But he would insist that we agreed with him. We would say 'uh, no we don't agree with you.' 'I love my country but hate my government' was said several times. He asked us a couple of times to 'name one thing the government does well,' Uh, national parks, roads, bridges, protecting the country ... we tired of listening to his bs." Got that, Steve?

Two Trips Belly Up, Third's a Charm: You may recall, we reported early this year that Buddy Dive got chased out of the Galapagos due some shady dealings, leaving many divers with reservations out of luck. But, our reporting saved some divers big money. Jim Garren (Boynton Beach, FL) was one of them. "We saw notice of that in Undercurrent prior to notification from the dive operator, so we immediately filed a dispute for the deposit we had charged to our bank card. Buddy Dive did not fight the disputed charges and we did not lose any money, but we had to scramble to rebook dates with Aggressor, and because of time lost, the best time still available was early July. Once again, we paid our deposit and waited for our adventure to the Galapagos, then two days prior to our flight, Aggressor called, saying the boat was down for repair and our trip was canceled! As disappointed as we were, others booked for the same week had even worse luck -- some had already traveled to Ecuador! To Aggressor's credit, they did everything possible to make it right, including finding us an opening on a trip in September due to a cancellation. Aggressor reimbursed us for all charges incurred to rebook flights and hotels, paid for limo service to the airport in Miami from our home in Palm Beach County and gave us a $500 voucher for a future trip. The third time proved to be the charm. Our goal was to see at least one whale shark, and we saw several huge females on four of the six dives at Darwin Island, schools of hundreds of hammerhead and Galapagos sharks at both Wolf and Darwin islands. We also saw spotted eagle rays, dolphins, mola mola, mantas, yellowfin tuna, turtles, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas, huge schools of Creole fish and black stripped salema, red lipped batfish and even nudibranchs . . . The Galapagos Aggressor III (the old Aggressor I rebuilt and upgraded) is the nicest one we have used to date."

Diving with Hawaiian Monk Seals. Unique warm (unique means one-of-a-kind; you can't say the most unique) water U.S. diving is to be found off that mystical Hawaiian island, Niihau, reachable only in the summer by dayboats from Kauai. Zygmunt F. Dembek (Suffield, CT) has dived it many times, always with Bubbles Below. "Linda Marsh has run a first-class eco-friendly dive operation for some time. Took 2 day-long boat trips to Niihau with BB for world-class diving there. Huge schools of endemic fish, resident sandbar sharks, and monk seal make this location sparkle! Niihau never disappoints, and I even got in a "first" at "Vertical Awareness" with seeing a "juvie" (~9 foot long) tiger shark. Schools of spinner dolphins around boat between dives and during crossing. Good chow (including pizza warmed on the boat's engines) provided during day-long Niihau trip by Bubbles Below crew." http://bubblesbelowkauai.com/

***

Our regular issues will resume in January. We have several unadvertised or little known boats and destinations on our radar screen, as well as some of the better known destinations that we'll be checking out to ensure that they remain up to snuff. Look for pieces on why C-cards shouldn't be forever, an unusual law suit, why diver's die, how to finally get that computer battery replaced if the manufacturer won't do it, and much, much more.

Happy Holidays, and thanks again for your loyalty.

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