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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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July 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Costa Rica, Montserrat, St. Eustatius . . .

hidden gems, bad air and the jerk of the month

from the July, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Our reader reports, emails and letters sent to me, plus my conversations with divers, have yielded a trove of information. From time to time, I think it's wise to share unusual items with you, in hopes that you will be able to find enticing new experiences, while avoiding nasty problems that you might learn about only when you arrive. Diving isn't cheap -- no, it is damn expensive -- and if I can save you from a bad trip, I'm doing my job. Here are a few tips.

The Maldives Aggressor. "Of the 22 liveaboards I've done, this was one of the three most beautiful," writes longtime Undercurrent correspondent Pat Wikstrom (Warne, NC). But larger-than-average divers should be forewarned, he writes. "I was surprised at how small the cabins were . . . My cabin mate and I took turns standing up to access the closet, bathroom or sink. I was assigned one of two 'value twin' cabins in the bow, along with the vessel's owner, a big, burly Italian businessman known as George O. The forward cabins have the narrowest bunks, at 28 inches, with the top one having a minimal amount of head space. No way could you sit up on that bed. I was unable to hold a hardbound book on my chest without it contacting the ceiling. There was a reasonable amount of headspace in the lower bunk, but George O. had laid claim to it before my arrival. Other cabins had larger bunks, and the deluxe cabins had wide lower bunks so that couples could sleep in one and use the upper for storage." Regardless, "the mostly Maldivian and Sri Lankan crew of 10 was service-oriented, friendly and genuinely interested in our having good dives and a pleasant trip. Their Ari Atoll and North and South Male itineraries provided a great mix of dive sites within the 21 dives they served up." (P.S. Go to the website -- www.aggressor.com/maldives.php -- to look at cabin configuration so you can pick the proper cabin for you and your buddy).

Other Aggressors. The Aggressor fleet is a collection of liveaboards owned by individual investors, and not all are keeping their crafts up to Aggressor's standards. Last year, we had reports of the poor condition of the Thailand Aggressor, and in April, Elizabeth Russell (West Mifflin, PA), who had just returned from the South Andaman Sea itinerary, wrote, "We booked cabin 1 and ended up in cabin 9 due to lack of air-conditioning in cabin 1. The sewer backed up several inches into our shower room. We had a sporadic water supply for two days."

"On the first dive, my wife suffered
from carbon dioxide poisoning --
disorientation, hyperventilation
and nausea, and she nearly lost
consciousness at depth."

Word is that the Fiji Aggressor needs some TLC as well. Cheryl S. (Hendersonville, TN), aboard in May, says, "The boat was decent, but we had no hot water in the shower or sink. No Nitrox. Light bulbs burned out and were not replaced, the dive deck was in deplorable condition, so attention to details and maintenance is not a priority for the boat owner, whomever that is . . . This boat is giving Aggressor Fleet a bad name and reputation." She adds that they took "a contrived visit to a village that was way far out of the way . . . meaning there were limited dives the next day because the boat had to travel for six hours to get back to Suva."

When Peter Hughes ran the Dancer fleet, he was a serious competitor for the Aggressor fleet, but now that they are under the same ownership, the lack of Fiji and Thailand competition give divers fewer choices, and doesn't put pressure on individual owners to keep their boats up to snuff.

Bad Air in Honduras. Now here's a report that concerns me. Larry A. Malato (Woodinville, WA), who went out with Coconut Tree Divers on Roatan in May, writes, "The compressor had to be shut down every time the neighbors had a fire to 'roast beans.' A hole had worn in the intake line inside the dark, dusty, oilysmelling compressor shed. On the first dive, my wife suffered from carbon dioxide poisoning -- extreme confusion, disorientation, hyperventilation, nausea, and she nearly lost consciousness at depth. The shop could never get our nitrox percentage correct. We canceled planned normoxic dives. We made a wreck dive down a line that went to a 150-foot. bottom with no wreck in site. The shop did not know which buoy went to the wreck. The boat was tiny and would nearly capsize when we tried to get our doubles on board at the end of a dive. The boat crew were incompetent kids. The owner and lead instructor smoked constantly. Divers Alert Network has been informed, and we are now seeing DAN doctors to determine if my wife has any long-term issues as a result of the carbon dioxide poisoning. She has no memory of the events underwater on that first dive. This was an extreme event."

Diving in the Post-Typhoon Philippines. An unfortunate share of the Philippines got beaten up badly by typhoons last year, but many dive travel agents argued that divers should not cancel trips in order to support the operations that got harmed and help the locals. Jim Willoughby (Bend, OR) was one of those divers who decided to stick it out and proceed with his March group trip to dive with thresher sharks at Tepanee Beach Resort on Malapascua Island. He writes, "Although we were well aware that Malapascua had suffered from significant damage after Typhoon Yolanda, we were led to believe [by the dive operator] that there was little to no damage to the reef system, and that the dive operation was back to normal, as was the resort. We were not told that the restaurant furnishing our meals for our nine days there was completely destroyed by the typhoon. We ate under a tarp out in the weather for every meal . . . The reef system was either completely destroyed by the typhoon or was never in good condition. I feel compassion for the people of Malapascua; however, we had a group of 21 people who spent several thousand dollars on a very disappointing dive trip . . . No real complaints about the resort other than one of the specific requirements of our booking was that we have Internet access, as many of us were on a 'working,' vacation, but the Internet was nonexistent for the entire stay. When talking with the owner of the resort, I only got excuses."

I should add, however, that Mario Mizrahi (Mexico City) dived Malapascua in March with the Sea Explorers, stayed at the Ocean Vida Hotel and had no problems whatsoever. He says, "One has to be understanding. Perhaps living in a third world country [as he does] gives us a more relaxed point of view." That said, my own rule of thumb is that if a disaster hits a dive resort area, I don't listen to the representatives or the agencies that urge us to continue our trips to "support the people." They want their commission, but I want a good dive vacation. I've changed such trips to ensure my good vacation, but showed my support instead with a healthy financial contribution to relief agencies that have boots on the ground.

Below are tips on four interesting venues that get little publicity, but our readers found pretty good diving and lots of other things to do as well.

Montserrat. A short flight from Antigua, Montserrat was covered in ash in 1996 after its volcano blew, making life miserable for residents (only 4,000 or so remain, about a quarter of the previous population). I dived there a month before the eruption and found pretty reefs but endless fish traps and few fish. For the past 18 years, fishing pressure has been reduced, as has the affect of agriculture and sewage on the reef. Mark Magers (Oakland, CA) says it's a good place for a unique vacation. He and his wife dived with Scuba Montserrat last November, and he reports, "We spent five days diving with Emmy and Andrew of Scuba Montserrat and saw a good underwater environment. With the exception of some algae, it compares favorably with Dominica for the variety and health of coral and fish. Lots of healthy soft corals, gorgonians and barrel sponges. Lots of juvenile fish of many species. I saw thousands of scad (guess that is why they call them scad?) about five inches long on a shore dive; they were being hunted, so the action was incredible. We did most of our surface intervals at an isolated beach with lots of turtle nests and fresh turtle tracks, like monster-truck tires, from the previous night. Scuba Montserrat shares a small, open boat with a couple of local fishermen. We were the only two diving, with the exception of one day when we had a 'full boat' of four divers. Emmy and Andrew also run the Montserrat Reef Ball project, and to date have placed nearly 200 concrete reef balls on a large sandy expanse in 15- to 40-feet depths. We toured the area and saw a lot of juveniles, an octopus living in one ball, and a school of about 30 reef squid that followed us for the entire dive. Above water, there is plenty to do if you like the outdoors -- hiking, kayaking, exploring. Drinking Carib beers at Pont's Place after the diving is a good way to end the day." ( www.scubamontserrat.com )

Costa Rica's Pacific Coast. You can get have some great dive experiences in 80-degree water off Costa Rica's Pacific side, but I'm surprised how few of our readers do. Christopher Watt (Needham, MA) went out with Aqua Rica in January while staying at the Hotel Diria in Tamarindo, and reports, "We were on a one-week family trip with our teenage kids, looking for a mix of adventure activities with some diving. Costa Rica certainly delivered -- volcano watching, a zip-line canopy tour, whitewater rafting, surfing . . . We chose Tamarindo as we were looking to find some surfing, scuba, snorkeling and a beachfront hotel with some 'action' for the teens. Lots of restaurants, a small shopping mall, many surf shops, and a beautiful beach with waves that were quite steady . . . Hotel Tamarindo Diria is in the middle of the town and on the beach; Agua Rica is a five-minute walk down the beach from the Diria. . . . they ferried us from the beach to their six-pack-sized dive boat to dive the Catalina Islands, a 45-minute boat ride away. The boat was manned by a captain and one or two divemasters, dependent upon the number of customers. Dives ranged from 45 to 60 feet deep, visibility was 20 to 45 feet. On one day of significant current, our group of five surfaced 500 yards from the boat. I inflated my six-foot sausage and the boat immediately headed our way. I really enjoyed the diving. Highlights: nearly a dozen white-tipped reef sharks, three spotted eagle rays underwater (I also saw many rays jumping out of the water on the surface), a large school of Pacific barracuda, countless green and jeweled morays, a snake eel, Spanish dancers, scorpionfish, countless butterflyfish, king angelfish, and on the surface, bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales. Some great stuff." ( www.tamarindodiria.com ; www.aguarica.net )

When he spotted a whale shark,
he decided to become king of the
ocean and jumped in to grab its
fin and hitch a ride.

Dive Grenada. Grenada is one of the more beautiful and interesting Caribbean islands, and for divers, it has a great wreck dive and nice reefs in the protected area. Ken New (Emery, SD) went out with Dive Grenada in March and found it a "well-run operation, both professional and friendly. Very safety-conscious. Divemasters worked hard to show us interesting stuff and took good care of novice divers with us on two dives. When we requested to dive the Bianca C., a deeper wreck, they arranged it . . . Marine life is fairly prolific in the protected marine conservation area, not so much elsewhere, as this is a subsistence-fishing economy. We got lucky and followed four whales on the way to one dive -- there's a site on the Atlantic side with reliable views of nurse sharks and occasional sightings reef sharks; we saw lobsters and free-swimming eels as well. Hotel Flamboyant is super-convenient, as the dive shop is on its grounds. ( www.divegrenada.com )

Golden Rock Dive Center, St. Eustatius. Finally, off-the-beaten-track St. Eustatius is one of my favorite "old Caribbean" spots, where cruise ships don't visit, restaurants are small and local, and the people are charming. Mark Ward (Beaverton, OR) dived with Golden Rock Dive Center in March and reports "all dives are a short boat trip away. On all but one dive, there were two guides and four divers. Staff is fun, smart, totally into the diving, safe but not excessively so. Golden Rock normally goes out for a dive at 9 a.m. and another at 11:30 a.m., and they can do afternoon or night dives by request. The coral is in beautiful shape -- it has great color and variety, which attracts nice fish life. We saw turtles, lobsters (big ones!), tons of stingrays, a few sharks, and pufferfish. There are a few interesting wrecks, some as shallow as 60 feet. The Old Gin House sits on the shore, with large rooms cleaned daily. The staff was always friendly and helpful. On the day we hiked up the volcano, they actually offered to make us a breakfast that we could pick up the evening before." ( www.goldenrockdive.com ; www.oldginhouse.com )

Jerk of the Month. Jamie Bostwick runs Aristakat Charters, a small dive boat out of Venice, Florida. In early June, when he spotted a whale shark, he decided to become king of the ocean and jumped in to grab its fin and hitch a ride. To him, he accomplished the number-one item on his bucket list and posted it on his Facebook page. To us, he ignored the norms of any good dive boat captain and turned the whale shark into a circus ride. As it turns out, it's not illegal to do such a thing in Florida, it's just that we divers expect our dive boat captains -- especially in the good old US of A -- to keep their hands off the wildlife.

Another Review of the Damai's Food. Regarding our June review of the Damai I, where our reporter didn't think much of the food on that very pricey vessel, Linda Rutherford (Montara, CA) responded, "Our travel agent had written in advance to request certain food items such as Zero Coke, avocados, etc . . . and they were provided. The staff provided a general menu for the day, and one could say, 'Yes, I want that menu," or "No, I would like XYZ instead.' One person was a vegetarian, and she got a special meal. Another person did not eat fish ((he said, 'Fish are my friends'), so he got chicken or beef. And the list went on. Everyone who wanted something special, got something special. The three times I have been there, the food has been very good."

Thanks for your comments, Linda. Our writer was not part of a group and had no dietary needs, so made no requests in advance -- he didn't think it would be necessary on this luxury trip. His concern was mainly that the food was bland and not particularly interesting. He was paying $600 a night in a country where a dollar goes a very long way, and had better meals at $10-a-dinner restaurants. Regardless, tastes differ, and food may differ from cruise to cruise. No doubt the Damai folks have read our article. Let us know how the food is next time you go.

Enough already. Enjoy your Fourth of July, whether you're underwater or above.

-- Ben Davison

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