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November 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caymans, Cuba, French Polynesia . . .

plus hurricanes, shark dives and two remote sites worth the trip

from the November, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Indigo Divers, Grand Cayman. While the author of this month's travel story didn't care much for Sunset House's dive policies and abundance of newbie divers, Indigo Divers is a longtime favorite for our readers, particularly because it only takes out six divers at a time. Wayne Newberry (Savannah, GA), who has been diving with Indigo since 2010, went again in August, and says, "If you're looking for small group diving, plenty of room on the boat, fruit, snacks, water, soft drinks and clean dry towels on board, you won't be disappointed." (www.indigodivers.com)

A Brand-New Cayman Aggressor. For liveaboard diving around the Caymans, the Aggressor has unveiled a brand-new boat. Lenny Zwik (Austin, TX), went aboard the newly commissioned MV Cayman Aggressor V in August, and was decidedly enthused. "One of the most spacious and efficient liveaboard dive operations I've experienced in my diving career," he says. "There are two large, dual-tiered camera tables, with a large rinse tank available for photographers, generous hanging space for wetsuits and cubbies for small stuff . . . Unlike the Aggressor IV, the cabins have side-by-side twin beds and a reasonably sized en-suite bathroom. There are two master cabins on the main deck, each with a king bed, private balcony and picture window, for $400 above the deluxe cabin rate. The common areas are nicely appointed, spacious and comfortable, too." (www.aggressor.com)

Really Bad Dive Trips. Sometimes a dive day is just cursed with mishaps and injuries that happen too much and can often be easily avoided, particularly by the dive crew. Jeanne Reader (Columbia, MO) experienced that kind of dive day while with Cozumel's Scuba Club on a boat with 18 divers. First, one diver returned to the boat, coughing up blood and experiencing labored breathing, which ended his diving for the week. Another diver fell on her knee while climbing the boat ladder and ruptured her meniscus. It was so painful, she and her husband departed Cozumel early to visit her orthopedist. Reeder also was injured -- a boatman dropped a tank on her hand while she was in the water, holding the railing with one hand and trying to pull off her fins with the other. The tank split open her finger, but fortunately, she only missed the final diving day of her trip.

Deborah Berglund (Bozeman, MT) had an unfortunate experience at Alor Divers in Indonesia last October. The boat routinely had to ply rough seas to get to sites 30 minutes away, and on her first day, Berglund got tossed around and thrown to the deck, injuring her back. The unsympathetic boat crew didn't stop to allow her to crawl back to a safer position, leaving her hobbling around for the rest of the week. To add insult to injury, Alor's food was marginal, with only lip service given to the dietary restrictions she had told them about in advance, Berglund reports. "I would not recommend this resort for anyone wanting comfort or good food."

Albert Stevens (Moorestown, NJ) has dived with Oasis Divers on Grand Turk for 15 years and has a favorite divemaster, Mackie, "who really cares about the reef, and is very knowledgeable about the coral and sea life. His dives are very slow, so you can really look for the critters." But Stevens' latest trip in August was marred. "On the fifth day and after 10 dives, my back was itchy. I never have a reaction to seafood, so I thought it might be the soap at the Manta House, where I was staying. But when I got up in the morning, I had blotches on my shoulder. Much to my shock, I had skin bends. How can this be with no violations in diving? A call to DAN confirmed that I had skin bends and should get checked out." Stevens received therapeutic oxygen at the hospital and stopped diving, but he and his wife enjoyed a relaxing stay at the Manta House, savoring long mornings over good espresso at the Arches restaurant. (www.oasisdivers.com; www.grandturk-mantahouse.com)

It's Not Always Diving Paradise in Cuba. It is home to the last of the Caribbean's pristine reefs, but you can't go just anywhere around the island and expect to find underwater nirvana, as Jocelyn Gill (Woodlawn, ON) discovered during her July stay at the Memories of Jibacoa resort in the northern town of Varadero. "I've been to a number of Cuban dive destinations (Cayo Largo, Havana, Santiago de Cuba), and this one was the worst. It's very unfortunate that Cubans need to overfish these waters." She saw no large vertebrates like groupers, barracuda, sharks, turtles, rays or green morays, but she did spot more common critters, including soapfish, scrawled cowfish, orange filefish, glassy sweepers and large Caribbean squid. So if you're planning a Cuba trip, keep in mind that most of the island's diving accolades are directed at the Jardines de la Reina, an archipelago and protected marine area off the southern (Caribbean) coast.

And if you do go there, also remember that all liveaboards are not equal. Bette Nordberg (Puyallup, WA) was on the MV Jardines Aggressor in April and reported the cabins were incredibly tiny. Despite the fact that she and her roomie were both petite, they could not pass each other in the gap between the beds, and there was virtually no storage room.

"The crew spoke almost no English, with the exception of the 'cruise director' and our 'education specialist.' (Travel to Cuba is limited to educational trips at this time). Because the crew spoke so little English, they made little effort to speak with passengers. Dive briefings were, 'Go out with the reef on your left, come back with the reef on your right.' Our marine biologist turned out to be a Cuban college graduate with a biology degree, not a marine biology degree."

Despite their lack of English, the crew exerted strict control over the diving. "No one was allowed in the water without a guide," Nordberg says. "No one could dive their own plan. No one could be in the water longer than 45 minutes. I even got in trouble with a divemaster for being unwilling to chase a swinging boat at the end of my three-minute safety stop. I knew the boat would swing back, so why swim to chase it? Everyone was kind and wanting us to enjoy ourselves, but the rules were absolute -- even when it led to our group turning back on a reef dive later than they should, with the result that some ran out of air, got flustered and confused, and had to be rescued by skiff."

Food can sometimes be hard to get in Cuba, and the meals reflected that. The generator's exhaust permeated the cabins, so much that divers requested the fans in their cabins keep going at all times. And it got worse, particularly when the generator exhaust got slammed into the dock. "As a result, the exhaust smell on the dive deck was overwhelming, and I believe dangerous. There was nowhere for the exhaust to go, and no place for fresh air to enter."

Adding insult to injury, the cruise director suggested a $400 tip that had to be made in currency other than pesos -- so that the crew could trade it on the black market.

If you want to visit the Jardines de la Reina, read our full report on the Avalon, our boat of choice, in the March 2018 issue.

A French Polynesian Liveaboard with Lots of Flaws. One of our long-time subscribers from Vail, AZ, was aboard the MV French Polynesia Master on a June cruise from Fakarava to Rangiroa in French Polynesia and reports multiple operational problems. "The nitrox, for which there was a charge, was not reliable -- at the beginning, it was like 25 percent. When I suggested I was not paying for nitrox that was less than 30 percent, I got a scolding from the cruise director rather than any acknowledgement there was a problem.

"Passengers were split up thoughtlessly so that 10 Germans who traveled together found themselves in four different groups. My buddy and I were paired with two other Americans, who were very poor divers. One of them never successfully completed a three-minute safety stop without the guide physically holding his tank valve at the correct depth. We requested to not dive with them after it became apparent it was going to be a problem but were rebuffed multiple times."

Max Weinmann (Atlanta, GA), aboard the same vessel in July, noted that the Master had undergone many refits, and cabins were spacious and pleasant. However, the design of corridors and door openings encouraged inevitable accidents and knocks that could have been avoidable, and the food was severely below expectations.

Weinmann was on a "celebrity cruise" with photographer extraordinaire Michael Aw. As we've reported in the past, many travelers are disappointed in trips led by celebs, because the celebs are often disinterested in advising the divers who have paid handsomely to join them, and more focused on their own photography underwater, and their own editing and self- promotion back on board. I first reviewed one of these trips, sponsored by Nikon, more than 30 years ago, got nothing from it and reported as much, only to be handed a rash of crap by both the photographer (who has since disappeared into obscurity) and Nikon.

Based on Weinman's report, he had a similar experience. "Lectures and photographic instruction were a fiction promised on the brochure but consisted only of photos from his travels and the tours he ran," he says. "One would have hoped that, when making such a financial commitment to a leader's skill, veracity and knowledge, he would rotate through all groups, lending his advice, expertise and knowledge to all. In the end, it felt like I was merely there to sponsor his goal of photographing the coral spawning."

This Sounds Like a Better Option. French Polynesia offers more than just good diving, and Fred Kolo (East Hampton, NY) decided to enjoy its full splendor by joining a Lindblad expedition cruise on the MV National Geographic Orion to the Tua Motus and Marquesas in October. There were only 11 divers among the 80 passengers on board, so during the two-week trip, they offered only 13 dives along with the snorkeling, birdwatching, hiking and other shore activities. The channel dives in the Tua Motu are tide dependent and, because this wasn't a dive cruise per se, the Orion was not often there at the right times, but it was the Marquesas, seldom dived by North American divers, that impressed Kolo.

"We spent full days at Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva and Tahuata on the magnificently beautiful Marquesas, so green and vertical, and so different from the flat landscape of the Tua Motu. These dives were essentially on submerged rocky cliffs, and very enjoyable. Fish life was profuse but not extravagant. We saw a manta on the first dive, a curious pair of spotted eagle rays who kept coming back around to check us out, a huge green moray guarding the entrance to a cave, and various sharks, including a hammerhead. But the big news here was the three separate trips to snorkel with manta rays in plankton-heavy water. Maya, one of the dive staff, photographed 22 different mantas from below -- the markings on each manta's underside are unique. This is one of the few places where one can see both reef and oceanic mantas.

"The Orion is really a splendid small cruise vessel," says Kolo. "I can't speak highly enough of the entire staff, the excellent meals and the general wrangling of the Zodiacs to keep everyone on board as busy as they wished to be." (www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/ships/national-geographic-orion)

Hurricanes and Liveaboards: The 2018 Report. Hurricanes (and cyclones) have routinely hit and destroyed dive destinations in places like the Caribbean, Philippines and Indonesia, but they can be especially tough on liveaboards. A notable victim was Truk Siren, destroyed in Truk Lagoon in 2015. The Wave Dancer in Belize was sunk in 2001 while moored in a hurricane hole in Belize and 20 people lost their lives when the captain made a bad decision. This year, a couple of readers reported being affected by the big blows, but both liked how the situation was handled.

David Graham (Orlando, FL) was aboard the Kona Aggressor II in August just as Hurricane Lane approached Hawaii. The passengers were put ashore in Kailua Kona on Wednesday instead of the scheduled Friday afternoon. "From my perspective, the situation could not have been handled any better," Graham writes. "Captain Randy and the crew kept us informed as the situation developed, with the yacht's owners working hard in the background. By the time we went ashore, they had arranged hotel accommodations for us at the very comfortable King Kamehameha Marriott Courtyard. (I had visions of sleeping on some high school gym floor). They arranged for one crew member to stay ashore with us to coordinate while the rest of the crew sheltered on the boat tied up in the harbor. They promised reimbursement at a generous daily rate for our meals - and the check for reimbursement arrived." (www.aggressor.com)

Hurricane Fabio interrupted a July trip of the well-reviewed MV Nautilus Belle Amie. James K. Harris (Benbrook, TX), aboard for diving Mexico's Socorro Islands, says that while the storm didn't pass over them, it caused swells so huge, the captain had to modify their itinerary. Starting at San Benedicto but leap-frogging the Socorro Islands themselves, he went straight to Roca Partida for two days before running for safety to the Sea of Cortez. They lost six programmed dives, but "due to the hurricane interruption, the captain said we'd get 40 percent off a future trip -- a generous offer for something that wasn't their fault." However, Harris did note that the superior suites became very hot, thanks to being directly under the deck, which was always in full sun, and air conditioning was patently inadequate. Cabins below decks in the hull had no such problem. (www.nautilusbelleamie.com)

Where to See the Big Guys. The Sea of Cortez has some unusual diving, and Joel Snyder (Tucson, AZ) had a particularly unusual trip aboard the MV Rocio del Mar -- while on his October trip along the whole eastern length of Baja California Sur, he dived with hammerheads, whale sharks and mantas (www.rociodelmarliveaboard.com)

Fiji's Beqa Lagoon Resort is a great place to join an orchestrated shark feed if that floats your boat. Donald Richmond (Bonney Lake, WA), there in May, wrote, "I never thought I would dive with sharks, but made an exception here for reasons I cannot put into words. When I came back from the shark dive, I immediately signed up for another. When you go down, the area is filled with many different kinds of sharks and thousands of fish. The tigers are more lethargic than I thought they would be, and the Fijian divers are very skilled and comfortable grabbing them by the nose and steering them safely by you. I felt safe the whole time with 20-foot sharks swimming within a foot of me, and I came back absolutely amazed." (www.beqalagoonresort.com/sharkdive)

Of course, the epitome of shark diving is while in a cage watching the great whites, which has become big business off Mexico's Pacific Coast. James Burkhart (Katy, TX) went cage diving in August with great whites at Guadalupe Island aboard the MV Nautilus Explorer. He was unhappy with the on-land accommodation, the bus rides and the long sea voyage, but "the memory of that fades when compared with the thrill of three days of standing in a cage filming the great white shark." The trips are cheap and convenient, with organized bus departure from San Diego. (www. nautilusexplorer.com)

Two Great Out-of-the-Way Dive Destinations. You may not even know of Rota, a small, remote Micronesian island, 40 miles north of Guam, but if you're headed to Truk or Palau, consider a side trip. David Cook (Kingston, TN), there in April, reported large schools of trevallies, tuna and other fish, thanks to low pressure on fish life from the sparse human population. He recommends the Bayview Hotel and Blue Palms Dive Services (www.diverota.com/divingservices.htm).

Jordan is not a place you may have considered for diving, but Curtis Kates (Los Angeles, CA) visited its Red Sea port town of Aqaba in October and was full of praise. "I made nine dives with Arab Divers, and aside from beautiful reefs, healthy coral and lots of colorful tropical fish, I saw octopus, cuttlefish, boxfish, spotted puffers, porcupine fish, stonefish, a massive eagle ray and a turtle. The sunken Cedar Pride, the C-130 Hercules and the tank are great for wreck enthusiasts as well." (www.arabdivers.jo/en)

Read these reader reports and many more next month, when we'll be sending you our latest Travelin' Divers' Chapbook, which will provide you with endless new options, as well as good advice about operations to skip. It's our job to help you create the best dive trip possible, and our great thanks to all the readers who help us do just that.

- Ben Davison

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