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April 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 32, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Belize, Vieques, Indonesia, Molokai

Christmas crowds, lousy food, white tips and mantas

from the April, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last year, Undercurrent was the first to write about a new find in Belize -- Itza Lodge -- and our reviewer was quite pleased with the operation, from the accommodations to the service to the diving. Since that review, as one might imagine, there has been some evolution in the resort, as Richard McGowan (Fairfield, CT) describes after visiting Itza Lodge in Belize during February. He wrote, "We found this gem from Undercurrent (February 2016), so it was a little out-dated -- though the underwater parts were very much spot-on.

"In December 2016, Arthur and Selina took over management of Itza, bringing along Elta, the fabulous cook, who makes everything from scratch, and it is delicious. From the bakery goods to plantain chips to fish fillet. What more can I say?"

He makes a few observations that could be crucial to a comfortable stay. "Bring bug spray. We didn't have any sand fly issues, but it was windy all but one day (February and March are the windiest). You need a small flashlight at night to find the bathroom without putting the light on, assuming you have company, as it can be pitch-black. They started upgrading the solar-heated hot water system to cover fewer rooms per unit, so expect better water [supplies] than we got -- mostly maybe lukewarm at best. It didn't help that everyone tried taking a shower at the same time after the last dive."

Regardless of the minor problems, if you're looking for a small, isolated Caribbean resort, give this a go. Another one to check out in Belize: Turneffe Island. www.itzalodge.com

While many of our readers seem to be interested solely in diving during a trip, in December the adventurous Mark Thorne (Raleigh, NC) decided to try a company called "Bonaire from the Sea," which he says "marries diving, dining, and sailing in perfect balance. If you love diving, you definitely love being both above and below the water while being able to see the sights from the vantage point of a sailboat [rather than the more normal shore diving]. And if that were not enough, Bonaire from the Sea offers up some of the best gourmet food I have ever eaten." www.bonairefromthesea.org

Many divers who travel on the MV Cayman Aggressor do so because they want to visit Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, not just spend a week on Grand Cayman sites, which are all easily reached from resorts. That doesn't always happen, as Paul McFall (Cumming, GA) reports: "The weather was a bit windy most of the week, which kept us around Grand Cayman for the entire trip." He went in November, and it's the winter months that can keep the Aggressor from making the 70+ mile crossing to the sister islands. If you don't want to chance that your diving will be limited only to Grand Cayman, try another season. (You'll find a lot of reader reports on Undercurrent citing this problem.) www.aggressor.com

Of course, the winter is when people like to go to the warm Caribbean, and Christmas can be even a bigger problem, as Rose Mueller (Houston, TX) said she was concerned beforehand about diving with Scuba Du/El Cantil, in Cozumel during Christmas week. She reported afterward: "I cannot believe the changes in Cozumel. Twenty planes arrived on the 24th of December. Most days there were seven or eight cruise ships. There were so many boats and divers, it was difficult for a photographer, if not impossible." How to beat the crowds during Christmas: those little hotels on isolated Belize Cayes, Cayman's sister islands, more isolated Roatan resorts, Dominica, Tobago. www.scubadu.com

Disappointment can be more common than we'd like to think, and we find it important to point out problems that divers can avoid. Of course, operations get better (or worse) all the time, but with all the options we have, why chance ruining an expensive dive trip? Hartley B. Wess (Albuquerque, NM) went on MV Humboldt Explorer in the Galapagos Islands in January, and wrote later, "From the condition of the ship to the food, to the dive guides, even our most minimal expectations were not fulfilled. Hardly any of the crew spoke English other than the head dive guide, who took ill after the second day. The bartender then had the additional duties of one of only two dive guides, [which meant he spread his duties rather thinly.] " www.humboldtexplorer.com

Equally disappointed in a trip on a Master liveaboard was Gregg Backmeyer (Atlantis, FL), but he accepts the blame, "The Galapagos Islands was a bucket list trip, and unfortunately, did not rate an 'A'. My biggest complaint was [partly] of my own doing. I should know never to count upon a provider's equipment, yet I let myself listen to their insistence that they had lots of men's 7mm wetsuits on board the MV Deep Blue. [In fact] they had two men's suits and none to fit me. I'd left my Pinnacle Merino wool 7mm at home. What a serious mistake! You will need a 7mm suit for this trip." www.deepbluegalapagosdiving.com

And that is a cautionary tale. There are three pieces of personal gear that you ought to take with you. First, your mask, to ensure the proper fit, especially if you have corrective lenses in it. Second, if you're headed to cool water, take your wetsuit, for the reasons Backmeyer points out. We hear too many tales of woe where people leave their suits at home to reduce their luggage, but find the water too cool for whatever the operator provides them, which at times is nothing at all. People get especially surprised on Komodo trips, where water drops into the low 70s. Or winter Bahamas trips, where water can even drop below 70F (21C). I might add, it's wise to bring your own computer, too, because you know how it works and it is specific to your diving history.

Let us move on to the brighter side and highlight a rarely discussed operation, Molokai Fish and Dive, with whom Marcia Pedersen (Deming, WA) went out in December. Boats from Lahaina, Hawaii, make the crossing to Molokai periodically, but wind and waves often make it impossible. But the diving is arguably better than any other place Lahaina boats reach, including Lanai. And Pederson found that out.

"We were completely blown away by our first day of diving -- healthy reef, white tip reef sharks, eagle rays, puffers, big green morays, more than eight big turtles, and tons of reef fish. The rest of the week we had lower visibility, but we still saw big and little fish, including mantas.

"The shop serves many purposes, including whale watching, fishing, spear fishing, diving, and snorkeling, so they have to choose sites that fit. They did whale watching on separate days, and they took spear fishermen on a separate boat. We had snorkelers on our boat each day."

The dive operation offers condo rentals. There's not much happening on Molokai, not much at all -- after all, its population is barely 7,500 -- but if that's your cup of tea, you know you can find some pretty fine Hawaiian diving. And you won't have Christmas crowds. "Be sure to do the mule ride." www.molokaifishanddive.com

Of course, no matter where you go, the staff can make all the difference to the success of your trip. Lynn Klassen (Egmont, BC) went on KLM Euphoria in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, last November. She said, "Our hopes of what was to be a trip of a lifetime were diminished by the self-described part-owner/manager, Artur. One would expect that a person in that position would lead by example and ensure that his guests left his boat at the end of the trip wanting to recommend his boat to friends and the diving community. [In fact] we counted down the last days to when we would get back to land.

"Prior to each dive, Artur would give a dive briefing. It didn't take too long to realize that his briefings were incomplete or didn't match the site that we would dive. The first issue was when his guides insisted on swimming into the current. I can understand it when there is something to see and might be worth the effort, but after it was repeated a couple of times, I went to him and requested that he talk to the guides to change that. During the exchange, I found him to be defensive and show little interest in speaking to the guides."

She said the majority of the crew "did whatever they could to make our experience memorable," but there was a language barrier, and from a long list of criticisms, the problems with the cuisine stand out.

"Food is probably the most important aspect of life on a boat. At the beginning it was palatable, but meals became mundane, essentially the same menu of fish, rice, beans, and some sort of spinach-type vegetable. Soups were tasteless broth, and desserts were without flavor. . . When passengers start preferring toast for dinner over the offerings from the kitchen, it says everything. After the main course had been left untouched one night, there was a change from fish to chicken. Unfortunately, this was incompletely cooked, so we passed on that as well. . . When we had a barbecue on the beach, it was amazing to be sitting on white sand in a tropical paradise with a roaring fire by the water's edge, but the chicken that came off the grill was again not properly cooked.

"At some point, the water coming through the water maker started to taste of salt. One would have expected there to be more choice for soft drinks other than Coca-Cola, Tang, and some drink called 'juice' derived from powder.

"I expect Artur will question why there were no complaints made to him about the food, [but] the response by him to previous issues raised was poor at best."

I surely would have groused, because, for a $3500, 11-night trip, I'd expect damn good food (which may be why they're offering a discount on their website). But, the truth is, once you're at sea, you're stuck with whatever is provisioned (unless they buy from locals), though you would expect it to be cooked properly. So, before you select a vessel you know little about, see what your fellow Undercurrent readers or reviewers say before you sign up. If we have no reviews, that might just be enough for you to find another operator. It says either no one goes there because they have not heard good things, or the operation is too new to review (and perhaps too new for you to risk big bucks on). http://euphoria.liveaboarddiving.net

Indonesia is a long way to travel to discover your accommodations or food are not up to scratch. That can happen in vessels that are improvised in their conversion from a previous purpose to a liveaboard dive vessel. Last September, Diane and Sherm (Irvine, CA) boarded MV Seven Seas for a trip south of Flores, only to find, "Our cabin, one of the larger ones, I think, was small at about 10x12 feet (3x4m). It was minimal but OK. The bed was at least 3.5 feet off the floor, accessible only from one side and at the foot, with a small stool used to get into bed. If the person on the wall side got up, he had to climb over the other to get out of bed and back in. The teensy bathroom was not air-conditioned and was open to the outside so that it was always quite hot."

However, the diving was so good [it made up for the shortfalls in the boat facilities], they said that they were glad they went and would do it again next fall. www.thesevenseas.net

Ellen Marie Smith (Edina, MN) writes that she has found our reader reports very helpful, and booked a trip out of Cabo San Lucas on the Solmar V in January. Her criticism: "The only thing I had a strong opinion about is the boat itself. Solmar V is an old boat that charges new boat prices. The cabins are all below deck and noisy, with water lapping and galley stomping constant." The diving? She found it fantastic, as people report from those islands, regardless of the craft they take, and there are several visiting, most notably two Nautilus boats and the Valentina. www.solmarv.com

It is true that the quality of the diving can make us overlook some inconveniences. Mark Magers (Oakland, CA) told of an open ocean dive site he went to with East Cape Explorers, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, in December. "Gordon Banks is a seamount with a top at about 110 feet (33m). It is known for its hammerheads, mobula rays, whale sharks and occasional bait balls with attacking billfish, making it a favorite spot for fishermen as well. After seeing some very cool videos on YouTube, we were excited to give it a try. We went out from the East Cape Explorers base at San Jose del Cabo Marina."

He never actually got to see the seamount itself, but the trip lived up to expectations, with blue water diving around it exceeding his expectations, and he signed off, "We'll be back for sure." www.eastcapeexplorers.com

The flip side of that particular coin is that it matters little if the facilities are top-rate when the diving is disappointing. Diving in the Maldives during February/March, Gail M. King (Port Orange, FL) was disappointed, although she went at the best time for big animal encounters. She wrote, "I wish, I wish our liveaboard MV Carpe Vita was in a different location. It was a floating hotel... our standard cabin was huge by liveaboard standards, the salon was large and comfy, as was the upper sun/shade deck. I expected to be impressed by the diving, from all I had researched, but the word had not gotten out as to the reef conditions that happened last year, which really sent the reefs into a death spiral. Bottom line... don't go." www.carpediemmaldives.com

Isla Nena Scuba was the dive center of choice for Mark Zahorik (Chicago, IL), when in January he went to Vieques, a tiny island off the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. Half the island is a park, and the remainder has a small, slow-pace tourist infrastructure. He reported "Very relaxing dives with good visibility, with healthy corals and marine life. We saw several rough tail southern stingrays, one 6-foot (2m) nurse shark, many schools of snapper and grunts -- with half-a-dozen lionfish" (seven of which he dispatched with his spear). www.islanenascuba.com

St. Maarten is the transfer point for Saba, St. Eustatius and other diver islands, but few people stay long enough to take a dive. George Lynch (Duxbury, MA) was pleased with his dives with Ocean Explorers in Little Bay during January.

He wrote, "I have dived with numerous shops, and this was probably the best service I have had in over 30 years. They are very good at pointing out creatures and assisting those who inevitably require it. We saw lots of Caribbean reef sharks, turtles, morays, stingrays, lobsters, occasional spotted eagle rays, and a fair assortment of the usual Caribbean reef fish, plus a few wrecks." With an endless number of hotels in all price ranges, it seems that the diving with Ocean Explorers is good enough to merit a stopover. www.stmaartendiving.com

Of course, it's different strokes for different folks. Some of us will put up with any discomfort providing that the diving is exceptional, whereas others consider creature comforts an absolute essential. We believe our reports provide a realistic way of managing expectations as you plan your next trip.

So, to aid your fellow Undercurrent subscribers, please send us a report on your last dive trip. Send details of any trips you've made in the last six months by filling out our online form. You can follow the link "File a Report" on the left side of our homepage at www.undercurrent.org. Or after logging in, follow the "Reader Report" link in the top navigation bar.

Thanks very much. We exist because of you.

- Ben Davison

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