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September 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cat Island, Chuuk Lagoon. . .

oceanic white-tips, and a nasty tub

from the September, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Epic Diving, Cat Island, Bahamas. If you're looking to dive with oceanic white-tip sharks, here's the place, says Brent Barnes (Edmond, OK), who went there in April. "We spent our week with Epic Diving, run by a couple who specialize in developing and providing sites for shark encounters. What an incredible trip!" Seven days run about $3,000 for the room and diving, and sell out fast. "Greenwood Resort is a pleasant, rustic accommodation, but the service is very personalized. Most rooms are not air-conditioned, but eight are, with wall unit A/Cs for an extra $120 for the week. There is a bar/restaurant with inside and outside seating. Dinners were multiple course, including soups, salads and seafood entrees that were delicious . . . Epic Diving usually takes 10 divers max, but there were only four during our week. Owners Vincent and Debra were first told by local fishermen of the reliability of the oceanic white-tips between April and June each year, and that sharks routinely take their catches. As oceanic white-tips are very tough for divers to have reliable encounters with, because they're deep-water denizens, they began to explore this site about five years ago. The first couple of years, they would often have to chum for two to six hours before the sharks would show, and some days they would not. However, this year, either the sharks have been present before the boat arrives or they show within minutes every day. The sharks are not dependable in the early morning, so we were picked up at 9:30 a.m. and driven 20 minutes to the tiny bay where Epic's boat was kept. The main truck intended to transport us was broken after the first day, so the four of us were packed tightly in rugged small trucks without working air-conditioning.

"We were tendered from shore to the boat in a small motorboat with an inside protected cabin, a head and storage space. If 10 divers were on board, things would be tight. We were briefed on proper activities with the sharks and first snorkeled with them. A bait cage is dropped with a buoy and allowed to float in the current. Divers are instructed to stay within visibility range of the cage and drift with it. The boat loosely follows, and after an hour, it begins to pick divers up as they choose to end their dive. There was rarely a need to go below 50 feet because these sharks stay toward the surface; most of the action was between 10 and 30 feet. Once the sharks came (they were usually there before the boat even arrived), they would stay all day. The fewest oceanic whitetips we saw were three, and most days we had seven, but one day, nine. On the final day, we had encounters with seven white-tips and four silky sharks. One day, we had a brief sighting of a marlin, on another, an encounter with four dolphins.

"The fewest white-tips we saw were three, and most days, we had seven. One day, we had nine."

The diving is not difficult, though because it is done in 3,000 feet of water with no depth reference other than the bait cage line, and with multiple large sharks, this is for more experienced divers. Oceanic white-tips are intelligent and curious, and each seems to have its own personality. Debra reports they have counted over 70 different animals in the past five years. They will routinely circle in close proximity to you, often make passes and bump into your camera. Eye contact is important, as they are very aware of you seeing them. They are notorious for making close passes behind you while you are paying attention to another shark. When they circle past you and you turn your attention away, they will often do a 180-degree turn and come back at you. However, despite a week of physical encounters (literally), I never felt threatened or uneasy with them. During the week, we did nine dives and two snorkels, each lasting about 75 minutes. We were usually back at the resort by 4:30 or 5 p.m. On the last day, we did lure the sharks onto the wall and dove with them; we did no other diving on the corals or walls. There is room for cameras on the floor of the cabin, and a table if you need to work on your camera between dives. The trip is geared to photographers, so the staff is careful with cameras. Debra and Vincent are not only great hosts and really know sharks, they're just great people." (www.epicdiving.com)

Thorfinn, Chuuk Lagoon. After Typhoon Maysak (it's called Mayson on the Thorfinn website) severely damaged the Truk Odyssey late March, a group of 10 divers with May reservations thought they were out of luck until they discovered room on the Thorfinn. Launched as a whaling ship two years before Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel, it has been serving divers since 1982 in the Truk Lagoon. Legendary Captain Lance Higgs, a Canadian, kept his boat out of harm's way during the destructive typhoon that also damaged the Siren, which was later torched to the waterline by locals. Long-time Undercurrent reader Ron Johnson (Katy, TX), who first dived Truk Lagoon 29 years ago, was a member of the group of "20-year veterans of liveaboard trips and stellar Aggressor/Dancer cuisine." He sent me a long and detailed report, backed by all sorts of photos from his trip, so I called both him and the trip organizer. The boat was not up to snuff and Higgs told them he had expected to go to dry dock in the Philippines soon (the last trip there was 2008), but he remains at Truk, most likely because of all the business coming from the disabled Odyssey, now back in business, and the dead Siren. Here are his remarks, which I have edited and take full responsibility for any errors.

"The good news: Captain Lance is one of the most experienced and seasoned liveaboard captains we have ever had . . . The 11,000-ton, all steel, steam-powered Thorfinn was rock-solid as Typhoon Dolphin graced us with gale-force winds and scattered showers. She barely rocked in four- to six-foot seas . . . The dive guides and skiff crew were superb. Toma and Eric led us to places within those wrecks that we would never venture to on our own. The guides' concern for our safety was evident. On deeper dives, they carried down a spare 80 cu-ft. tank, and there was always an 80 cu-ft tank on a hang line at 20 feet under the skiff . . . Our cabin crew was incredibly hard-working and kept our common areas clean despite what they had to work with -- there was one wet/dry vacuum with a round, three-inch hose end, but they vacuumed the entire ship three square inches at a time, nearly every day." (Note from Ben: Now, a vacuum cleaner hose without a rug-cleaning fitting should tip you off about what's to come. It reminds me of requiring prisoners to clean toilets with toothbrushes.)

"The bad news: Captain Lance was not nice to his Trukese and Filipino crew, referring to them as monkeys and showing little respect for them in front of us, making for some uncomfortable moments. Lance continually blamed someone or something else for Thorfinn's shortcomings. "Those monkeys don't know how to fill a tank properly . . . They didn't fix the pipes for the AC units so they could work . . . They didn't maintain the icemaker so we haven't had one since 2010." . . . He gave the longest dive briefings in the entire South Pacific, frequently straying off topic, sharing totally unrelated, although interesting, anecdotes. (His stories would be better saved for evening social times.) As a result, we ended up fairly far behind the schedule each day because the briefings were so detailed and tedious . . . Ice was supplied in short rations. There was no icemaker, so ice was made in a dozen cube trays like the old days, and kept behind a locked door in a refrigerator/freezer in a closet. Each time we needed ice, we needed a crewmember to retrieve it -- that is, assuming it had not all been consumed . . . For shallower dives, most seasoned divers dove nitrox to extend bottom time and shorten surface intervals. However, our dive guides dove on 21-percent air. When we asked them why they weren't diving Nitrox, "the Captain charges us for nitrox" was the response. They don't use it and violate no-decompression levels on nearly every dive, so divers in the boat must wait for the dive guide to finish deco stops.

"Lance continually blamed someone for Thorfinn's shortcomings, saying things like 'Those monkeys don't know how to fill a tank properly.'"

"Food was what they could rustle up on short notice: Spam, hot dogs, frozen bagged mixed veggies, chicken, eggs, pancakes, puddings. We ate, but it was usually wretched. Twice, we were served undercooked chicken legs from a nasty dirty grill . . . One meal, we were served a five-inch-square, thin piece of what appeared to be browned beef in a dark brown gelatinous gravy. It was too tough to chew, and someone said, "This tastes like horse meat." Some didn't finish it, electing to remain hungry . . . No amount of paint could cover up the severely rusted hull or the trim pieces, nasty jagged and sharp pieces of metal, capable of lacerations or impalement . . . A 30-foot section of guardrail was missing on the top deck, supplemented by a 30-foot piece of clothesline . . . We were provided towels after diving, but these were rarely, if ever, washed, just simply hung out to dry by the engine room exit, leaving them with a stout smell of diesel exhaust.

"The dive skiffs were a U.S. lawyer's dream. A smooth, slippery piece of blue wood served as a step as we entered the skiff from three-plus feet above in churning seas. Imagine the back end of the skiff moving up and down in four-foot seas, moving the lower propeller blades, though not turning, up and out of the water. Timing was critical, as the lower ladder would raise and then slam shut. Finger loss and propeller blade laceration were concerns. Good body positioning skill and excellent timing were required to snag a grip on the ladder between swells to avoid being severely injured by the lower units pounding back into the water . . . The single basin-sized camera rinse tank on the main dive deck was totally inadequate for today's DSLR rigs . . . When walking along one of the hallways, I could see sharp cracks in the plastic wall, capable of cutting open a hand. Hall lighting fixtures were equally in disrepair. . . . My cabin had two single beds in a barely air-conditioned room. Other rooms on the main deck were cool. I had to run a fan constantly to barely tolerate the lack of AC. Only a sink in my room; shower and toilet facilities were down the hall . . . Lance would arrive 15 minutes into a meal and magically turn on the air conditioner in the dining salon. It was kept off between meals; it got so hot in the galley that I asked for a few meals to be brought upstairs to me in the salon. AC was marginal all through this boat, save for two rooms and the main salon . . . The tank filling operation was so antiquated and slow that asking for a top-off would delay our departure. Lance tried to charge us $12 daily rent for 100 cu-ft. tanks, plus an additional $4 per Nitrox fill if we used 100 cu-ft. tanks rather than 80s. This had not been previously disclosed, so after some discussion Lance became upset and frustrated, throwing his hands up and telling the first mate to remove the charge as he disappeared to elsewhere on the ship . . . On most liveaboards, last-day laundry of a few items is usually at no charge, although a tip to the cabin steward usually gets it done. Captain Lance charged me $27.50 for a few things.

"In conclusion: I was blessed to be able to make this adventure of a lifetime. Visiting the Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon will always be at the pinnacle of my favorites list, but the Thorfinn itself is a sad experience."

A note from Ben: Monkeys? Vacuum cleaners with no fittings? Crew pays for nitrox? It's everyone's fault but the captain's, the ancient mariner who owns the craft? I'm not talking about poor treatment of passengers or a run-down, rusting liveaboard. I'm only talking about the humane treatment of employees. I'm sure no American travel agency would send clients to liveaboards in California or Florida if they knew the captain called his minority crewmembers "monkeys." Why is Truk different? If I owned a travel business, I'd be ashamed to book divers with this demeaning captain on his floating Heartbreak Hotel. Of course, since Ron's group of divers were able get space on such short notice, maybe nobody is booking it, which would explain dinners of mystery meat and chicken legs, as well as laundry charges. But we know who books it, who markets it, who touts it. Will they continue?

P.S.: The trip leader told me that due to the slippery wood steps on the dive dinghy and an inadequate ladder, he once fell back into the dinghy, landing on his shoulder. Three months later, unable to lift his arm over his head, he learned he had torn a rotator cuff and will undergo surgery.

Air Conditioning on the Arenui. After reading last month's article on the Arenui -- our reviewer liked it, but lamented that although it calls itself a luxury boat and charges big bucks, it falls short of the claim -- Arenui cruise direct Debbie Arriaga wrote to so say that "during our recent annual maintenance, we have installed a new air conditioning system that now ensures that our restaurant is lovely and cool."

-- Ben Davison

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