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March 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Toilet Paper, Dirty Money, Tiny Cockroaches

Undercurrent subscribers tell it like it is

from the March, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent's Reader's Reports have become something of an institution, simply because they provide both an up-to-date insight into the actual impressions people came away with after their trip and a long-term perspective on how things might have improved or otherwise. When it comes to dive resorts and liveaboards, this sort of reliable information, found conveniently in one place, is almost impossible to come by elsewhere, but Undercurrent subscribers are well-served in this regard, with more than 9000 travel reports filed to date.

Of course, everyone wants to have a great time on a trip-of-a-lifetime -- and most people do. Mainstream diving media is rich with the wonderful experiences to be had, and Undercurrent reader reports are no exception. However, often some small detail can spoil things for you, and to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Well-informed travelers can cope with the inevitable imperfections of life.

Jennifer Bowers (Bellville, TX) offers a simple example, the absence of toilet paper during her trip to Cuba, a trip on the Aggressor I. A toilet roll packed in your bag can make the difference between an unfortunate drama and a sublime experience. Jeanne Reeder (Columbia, MO) didn't like the idea of raw sewage being dumped into the calm lagoon waters of the Gardens of the Queen either.

The travel agent or destination should explain things like this shortage of toiletries in Cuba to a diver at the time of booking, along with straightforward things like diving certifications and medical certificates that may be required. When they don't, divers can miss dives.

Medicals and Certifications

Richard Bruch (Durham, NC) was disappointed to find that three out of four in his group "failed the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society (SPUMS) dive medical clearance utilized in Queensland, Australia." They eventually sorted things out, but it required hurried emails. Bruch says that DAN advised him that SPUMS has the world's strictest fitness-to-dive criteria.

While checking in with Ocean Encounters in Curacao, Sterling Levie (Holmdel, NJ) learned that "My daughter and I both had problems involving PADI's medical forms. She had had sinus surgery years before, and I have a stent in a coronary artery. PADI requires a doctor's approval for diving in both instances. Although it satisfied the PADI requirement, my daughter's approval was challenged for not being on a doctor's letterhead," but she eventually still got to dive.

David W. DeBoer (Duncanville, TX) wrote that Special D Diving in Anguilla appeared to want everything but a DNA sample! "He declined that foolishness" and went elsewhere.

In French Polynesia, Lindsay Battles (Los Angeles, CA) discovered they use the European CMAS system, which does not necessarily translate directly to American expectations. "You want at least PADI Rescue certification. Rescue divers are limited to 160 feet (50m). PADI OW and AOW are limited to 100 feet (30m), regardless of whether you have the deep diver specialty." Tim Schiaff's wife (MO) "has advanced open water and around 100 dives but was classified as a CMAS one star diver" and was limited to 100 feet (30m).

In Jamaica, George Lynch (Duxbury, MA) wrote that Scuba Carib was evidently accustomed to very inexperienced divers. "A bit officious and self-important, [demanding] excessive paperwork, perhaps more interested in potential liability than customer satisfaction."

Prices and Money

Your booking agent should give you fair warning of any idiosyncrasies to expect, but too often they overlook important information. Linda Dunn (Riverside, CA) wrote that the liveaboard Raja Ampat Redux "emailed us a week before departure that no credit cards could be used. This was a problem, as we were already in Asia and couldn't get cash from our U.S. bank. So, we visited ATMs in Indonesia to garner enough cash, which was a huge hassle, because we didn't bring our own dive equipment and needed to rent."

"We were emailed a week before departure that no credit cards could be used."

In Roatan, Rik Pavlescak (West Palm Beach, FL) pointed out that shops and restaurants only accept immaculate dollar bills. You can't use well-worn or torn bills, and often you can't even exchange them at banks. William G. Bain (Marietta, GA) wrote that few places in Montserrat accepted credit cards, so take cash. This happens in many parts of the world, we should add. Mae L. Ding (Anaheim, CA) wrote that in Fiji, one is charged a fee to use a credit card, but the cards are readily accepted.

And, of course, those excess-baggage charges on small airlines can be a real surprise. Laurie Pemberton (Arroyo Grande, CA) had to pay extra because she faced a miserly 10kg (22 pound) weight limit flying between Jakarta and Sorong. Bruce Versteegh (McKinney, TX) found Solomon Air limits carry-on weight to 15 pounds (7kg) and charges for checked bags over 40 pounds (18kg).

We've noted in the past that even with nitrox essentially the go-to gas on liveaboards these days, it's often considered an extra, and we're surprised at how much divers may get tagged. John Miller (Lubbock, TX) says that the Turks & Caicos Explorer II charged him and his partner each $150 for a week of diving EAN32. "Then, a heavy hotel tax and a fuel surcharge caught us by surprise, and for the two of us, amounted to an extra $500 or so."

But while there are unexpected costs in some places, there are still bargains to be had elsewhere. Carol L. Cohn (Livermore, CA) rightly pointed out that tourism in Egypt is down due to the country's [undeserved] reputation for terrorism. "That means the cost of the trip [to the Red Sea] is a fraction of what it would be anywhere else. It's great value." Taking a trip aboard Heaven Saphir (via an Austrian operator), Ann Firestine (Durham, NC) found Egypt to be very safe, the diving was amazing, and she was left puzzled as to why more Americans don't make the trip.

Flying from London, an all-expenses-paid trip for one week (including return flight) on a top-quality Egyptian boat like Whirlwind, booked through British operator scubatravel.com, can be as little as $1500.

Climate and Seasonal Weather

It's amazing how often booking agents fail to point out that traveling in the low season means one may risk bad weather. Hurricane or typhoon season varies in different parts of the world, and it is easy enough to check. You may not encounter a disastrous storm, but you may be put out by rain and heavy seas. There's nothing worse than trudging around a tropical island in your raincoat, dodging the puddles, while you hunt for something to do because your diving has been canceled.

"A resort like this tends to attract people who don't mind roughing it a bit."

Damage left by big storms underwater can be variable but subject to misinformation. That's where the on-the-spot experiences reported by our readers are crucial. For example, we had varying reports of the damage left by Hurricane Winston in Fiji, but the smart liveaboard operators took their divers to where the famous colorful reefs had survived intact. Peggy Goldberg (Citra, FL), diving with Nai'a, wrote, "As it turned out, we did see some areas badly damaged, but not far away, the reefs were still pristine."

In the Caribbean and Atlantic, hurricane season runs July through November, with September and October being especially chancy (though not as far south as Bonaire). Calvin Sprik (Wausau, WI) left Freeport, Bahamas, just before it took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew and learned afterward that it took days for the utilities to get back on line and that the resort and dive shop sustained a lot of damage.

Writing about Little Cayman, Lori Ann Krushefski (Verona, NJ) said, "I suspect that November may be a dicey period each year, so if you have your heart set on Bloody Bay, choose a different time." Paul Barrett (Albuquerque, NM) confirmed this when he wrote, "The Southern Cross Club was great, but unfortunately the seas were rough, so we were only able to dive the north side of the island including Bloody Bay once." During the winter, the Cayman Aggressor frequently can't make its promised trips to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, instead devoting the full cruise to the reefs and walls of Grand Cayman.

While everyone loves warm tropical waters, many don't like the heat and humidity topside. While good air conditioning mitigates it, readers are quick to point out when it's not efficient. That said, Blake Hottle (Los Angeles, CA) was philosophical about Papua Explorers in Raja Ampat, writing, "The lack of air conditioning might be an advantage, because a resort like this tends to attract people who don't mind roughing it a bit, and those people, in my experience, tend to be more fun and less maintenance." But oh, that humidity. Mike (MI) giving no surname on his report but diving in Bunaken, North Sulawesi, was just not able to get things dry at the end of the rainy season. If it's your dive gear, give it a good washing and drying when you get home.

John L. Hosp (New Hartford, NY) wrote, "The Maldives are one of the muggiest places I've ever been." They're in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and at times the sun shines unmercifully. In fact, it's wise to dive with a hood, not for staying warm underwater, but for sun protection while waiting at the surface to be picked up after a dive. George S. Irwin (Bloomington, IL), diving from Blue Voyager, wrote, "With these currents and 21 divers, people were spread far and wide, and the single dive vessel was hard pressed to get everyone back on board in a timely fashion. I spent 40 minutes waiting at the surface in a blistering sun after several dives."

Insects and Repellents

Looking at a photo of a tropical island paradise, one may be left unaware of the downsides, and insects are one of them! Roatan is famous for its sand fleas and other no-see-ums (invisible little bugs). Rik Pavlescak ( West Palm Beach, Fl,) wrote, "Figure out what you'll do about sand fleas before arriving. DEET or non-DEET? There's an environmental angle/debate, but the sand fleas are horrendous." Of course, studies show that DEET (at least 25 percent), is clearly the most effective solution.

"Figure out what you'll do about sand fleas before arriving."

Harvey S. Cohen (Middletown, NJ) seemed unfazed that the Infiniti, cruising in the Andaman/Nicobar Islands, was infested with ant-sized cockroaches "that appear harmless, but are unpleasant." Gross, but harmless.

After an Eastern Australia dive tour, Henry O. Ziller (Conifer, CO) reminded us, "You may not know about the fly problem. In some areas, they were really bothersome, so much so that we purchased hats with screens over our faces. Well worth the 10AU$.

West Africa has a serious malaria problem. Michael Jöst (Wurtenberg, DE) was reminded to take prophylaxis, insect repellent and long-sleeved shirts and long pants against malaria mosquitoes. And that also applies to Papua New Guinea and some other countries.

Food and Facilities

Everybody's tastes differ. Some travelers expect to be treated to food the same as at home, whereas others relish culinary adventures. Reader's reports give good guidance as to what you might expect. If you have particular requirements such as vegetarian food or you suffer celiac disease, you must be sure to confirm at the time of booking that your needs can be met, otherwise they may not be, and you can't expect them to provision at the last minute just for you.

Staying in Grenada, Matt Overholt (Dayton, OH) told us, "The best food we had was home-cooked food sold by locals from tents on Wall Street across the street from the Allamanda. Grilled Jerk chicken and homemade "oil down" [the national one-pot dish] were delicious, and you can have dinner dirt-cheap (US$10-15)."

At the Sipadan Water Village in Malaysia, Robert and Laura Mosqueda (Pasadena, CA) said, "food was OK at times and just plain bad at other times." Angela Richards (Honolulu, HI) said of Cooper's Beach, Palawan, "Having been to the Philippines before, we knew that getting vegetarian food would be a challenge."

Facility standards cover a wide range, both onshore and on liveaboards. For example, David Madorsky (Littleton, CO) wrote of Blackbeard's Morning Star, "They say it is like camping at sea. Be prepared to do all of your personal grooming with as little fresh water as possible".

Richard E. Heath (Murrells Inlet, SC) said of the Queen's Gardens Resort in Saba, "There is no water system on the island -- so your hotel collects rain water or has water delivered by tanker -- drink bottled water."

If you have never been on a liveaboard, be aware that they rock and roll at the whim of the ocean, and there is usually a lot of noise if the vessel is underway. Even when at anchor, there will be the continuous hum of a generator, as there is at some small island resorts. If the noise is intrusive, you can be sure our readers will mention it.

Diving Conditions

Archipelagos such as Raja Ampat, Komodo, Galapagos, French Polynesia, Cocos Island and the Maldives are known for their strong currents, so don't always expect swimming-pool conditions. The information you need is in those reader's reports. Chrys Martin (Portland, OR) wrote, "Raja has rockin' currents at most dive sites that can change instantly or stop to calm, so learn how to use a pointer or reef hook."

And currents swirl garbage. Douglas (IL) (no surname supplied) says, "You hear a lot of talk about trash in Lembeh Strait, and we certainly saw some trash on every dive site, but nothing overwhelming. Considering how often the dive sites are visited, why aren't the guides picking up one piece of trash apiece, per dive trip?"

Larry Smith, the famous pioneering Kungkungan Bay dive guide (now deceased), used to say, "If you see a piece of trash it might be an animal that looks like trash, but if it is a piece of trash, it will almost certainly have an animal living in it!" That's what the Lembeh Strait is all about!

So, keep your reader's reports coming. We and your fellow divers thank you. Subscribers can file a report here: www.undercurrent.org/members/UCnow/SubRRTopMA.php and you can check out a destination report here: www.undercurrent.org/UCnow/dive_reviews/all_destinations.html

- John Bantin

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