The Wonders of a Rebreather……..

One angle of the USS Spiegel Grove, "crown jewel" of artificial reefs in Key Largo.

One angle of the USS Spiegel Grove, “crown jewel” of artificial reefs in Key Largo.

Okay, I am going to venture into one of those “two sides of the coin” areas since even as we speak, hubby is as happy as the proverbial pig in mud because his rebreather has finally come in and they are training with it today and tomorrow. In the world of scuba diving, there is regular recreational diving with a single tank, and maybe nitrox and then there is recreational diving that moves into the technical diving mode that often involves double tanks, gases other than compressed air, a fair amount of extra equipment, and the option of learning how to penetrate into over heads environments, dive deeper than 130 feet, and other things that I have no interest in doing. My husband, however, as much as he loves teaching scuba, is like most professionals who want to branch out at some point. Becoming a boat captain is a frequent path, but ask any boat captain how that impacts on her or his ability to get into the water and dive. So, for others, turning to the tech side gives that new dimension to diving.

Rebreathers have always been a component of diving, although they were very complex, expensive, and definitely not for your average diver. In the spirit of free enterprise, manufacturers have been working for some time to convert much of the complexity from manual to computer-assisted and to bring the price point down from extremely expensive to ordinary expensive. That has now been accomplished, thereby opening a new market segment for rebreathers. In the most simplistic of terms, a rebreather “scrubs/filters” CO2 that you exhale instead of sending it out as bubbles. This means you can have extended bottom time because you aren’t expending your air as with a regular tank. And since there are no bubbles, it is particularly good for photographers, researchers, and being in an overhead environment. As I said in the beginning of the post, regular scuba and rebreathers are opposite sides of the same coin, so once my husband gets accustomed to those long bottom times, he’ll just have to figure out how to “go backwards” when we dive together. Believe me, I am not a candidate for a rebreather. Happy Diving though to those who are embracing this aspect of the sport.

Australia Planning…..

Okay, as some of you know, this year is going to be both of our 60th birthdays and our 25th wedding anniversary. Therefore, it is the perfect time to do the major trip to Australia. Just like with most people traveling to the U.S.A., you can’t do everything you want to and I think we have narrowed our plans to do some very nice things, and yes, we will leave out others that we wish we could include. We will probably be gone for 19 days – that gives us about two weeks in Australia and accounts for three-four days of travel time. We will probably also go right after Thanksgiving to  get us back a few days before Christmas. Not surprisingly, we plan to stay home and have a quiet Christmas.

Okay, while we of course will dive, we intend to do a four-day dive boat trip rather than spend an entire week because of the other places we want to go and we will fly everywhere instead of trying to drive. It looks like we’ll go into Sydney, then up to Cairns for the dive boat, then Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, off to Melbourne and the wine country before we overnight again in Sydney and fly home. We’re excited about the idea and tossed around different options, but the truth is that we’ll have to start making reservations for certain parts of the trip soon and it was time to stop the, “Gee, we could..”, and settle on a plan.

I will keep you posted with our progress.

Homestead as a Gateway…..

Hampton Inn HomesetadMy husband and I are on a bit of mission. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our great plan for the fun second careers of him as a scuba instructor and me as a freelance writer was well crafted and executed. The insanity of housing prices in the area when we relocated was not something that we foresaw, however, and that’s why we don’t currently live in Key Largo. But just as with us living in Homestead, the same can apply to tourists and we are attempting to convince the City and the Chamber to do a better job of marketing Homestead and Florida City as alternative lodging choices for people diving in Key Largo. No, I do not mean that I’m trying to take business away from the Upper Keys – love y’all down there.

What I mean is that the Upper Keys don’t always have rooms available, or if you have a mixed group of divers and non-divers, Homestead/Florida City are worth looking at. There has been an increase in the number of hotels along Highway 1 South (Dixie Highway) with a direct shot to Key Largo, especially where the Florida Turnpike ends and turns into Hwy 1 S. There are also new hotels on Campbell Drive close to Exit 2 off the Turnpike, not much further to drive. Homestead/Florida City has the distinction of sitting between two National Parks; the famous Everglades and Biscayne on the Southern Part of Biscayne Bay. There are other local attractions as well such as the unique Coral Castle, Monkey Jungle, the charming Cauley Square, the Speedway of course that has different events throughout the year, the picturesque Schnebly Winery and Brewery that uses exotic fruits, etc.,. For those who want something a bit different in lodging, the Everglades International Hostel (www.evergladeshostel.com) might have rooms.

The drive to and from the city limits of Key Largo is 30 minutes give or take, but it is only a two-lane road most of the way, so being behind a slow mover can lengthen the time. It’s a lovely drive though as waterfowl wheel or perch and you move in and out of views of the water. Immersing yourself in Key Largo or the Upper Keys when diving Key Largo does make sense, but Homestead/Florida City may be a viable choice depending on your personal situation.

Ramada

A Gem For Dive Historians….

The Bauer Library Collection at the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, FL

The Bauer Library Collection at the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada, FL

I’ve written before about the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada and my total admiration for Dr. Sally Bauer who founded the museum with her husband, Joe. The couple, who initially hadn’t planned to amass the huge collection of historical diving equipment and material that they did, were able to realize their dream of seeing the museum open. Sadly, Joe passed away soon after that, yet Sally has not only continued with the effort, she has gained well-deserved international recognition for her work. And as important as establishing the museum has been, there was always the intent to create a world-class research repository.

And so it is that the Reserach Library with the Bauer Library Collection is coming up on it’s one-year anniversary. The library is co-located in the multi-purpose room where beautiful custom-built bookcases line the walls, a special drawer case is set up for prints and other flat documents, and the requisite library ladder allows access to volumes that are high over head. The rare book section includes the oldest volume from 1534, a book that provides a treatise on warfare than mentions diving. (http://www.divingmuseum.org/wp/eventsandeducation/research-library/).

Records of man’s attempts to exist underwater date back 4,000 years and much of that history, in either original or academic form, is now availalble to read about thanks to the Bauers. The complete “Proceedings of Royal Society” where Sir Edmund Halley gives his personal account of entering the water in 1716 in the diving bell he invented is among the 2500 volumes and other material in the library. Naturally there is a first edition of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and so much more. Viewing of the collection tucked safely in the bookcases is open to everyone and use of the library is free to Museum members and there is a small fee for non-members. It is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the history of diving specifically, but also overlaps into numerous other areas of maritime, engineering, and scientific history. On-site research can be arranged by calling, emailing, or writing to the musuem. That’s History of Diving Museum 82990 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036; Telephone 305-664-9737; Email: info@divingmuseum.org

A Day in Galveston……

Casey’s Restaurant in Galveston

Combining business with pleasure is always nice. My sister lives in Houston and is a road warrior so she often travels near us and we get in a visit. Last year we had the little mini-family reunion in New Orleans for the Nutcracker performance. When I wrote Deadly Doubloons, I began the novel in Galveston and needed some information about diving in the area. I contacted Tom Andersen of Island Divers and he kindly answered my questions. Although Doubloons began in Galveston and then moved to other locations, I am working on False Front (a little edgier than Doubloons) and it is set in Houston and Galveston. Well okay, it actually starts in Belize. Anyway, the point is that I needed to be on the ground for a day and so I came in to visit my sister and we popped down for a leisurely day and night of “girl time” and general relaxation. I had booked us into the Holiday Inn on Seawall Blvd with a great view. The only real “business” was to go by Island Divers and ride around getting oriented.

Tom and Asa Andersen are a delightful couple and it was a Saturday morning when their shop wasn’t terribly busy. Asa, who has a real estate background, had the perfect place in mind for a location that I needed for False Front. Tom, who has a commercial diving background, also does a lot of technical diving and we chatted briefly about another aspect of the book. It was a pleasure meeting them and when it comes time for us to dive the Flower Gardens, I’m sure we’ll be giving them a call. While we were talking my sister found a great book for their grandchildren – The Dragons of Kangaroo Island, by Jacqui Stanley, who is also an artist. (http://www.islanddiversgalveston.com).

Lunch was at Casey’s where they have 100 beers – 20 of them on tap. My sister rarely drinks beer, but I had a good time with Fireman #4, a local beer. A little shrimp gumbo, chilled shrimp, carb cake, and delicious onion rings made for a fun lunch. Some driving around, popping into a couple of cute shops, and a relaxed afternoon of reading on the balcony as we watched a handful of surfers. We’d driven through on-again, off-again rain that morning, but Mother Nature was kind and the sun came out for partly cloudy skies instead of mostly. In fact, we went across Seawall Boulevard and strolled on the beach to watch the sunset. It was a really nice day topped with a dinner that I’ll talk about in the next post.

Tom and Asa Andersen in their Galveston dive center, Island Divers.

Belize, Final Day…..

General tourist Map of Belize from one of the on-line sites.

The breeze is cooler this morning – I would be more comfortable with a long-sleeve shirt or I could move inside. However, I love early mornings in a harbor as the water ripples calmly, boat moored, waiting for the day to begin. For those who wish to take this trip, I was overly cautious about our planned return. There is a shuttle system arranged by the Sundancer II crew and we could have easily made the 11:30 a.m. flight to Miami. I booked us on the 2:30 p.m. The Radisson cleverly built a hotel across the street with a nice restaurant (long pants and shirt with a collar required) and both a casual indoor and poolside bar/restaurant. They have an arrangement where you can “hang out”, and access wif-fi which is what we will do when we leave the boat at 8:00 a.m. The Belize airport, while nice, does not have extensive amenities. The crew holds your baggage until time for the shuttle, so you don’t have to haul stuff around.

People are already discussing what trips they may take next and of course the crew invites us to return to this one. The sun is fully up now, and it looks as if it will be another pretty day. We knew nothing of Hurricane  Sandy and there is always an element of irony when we who live in South Florida have to be concerned about our Virginia relatives being hit with a hurricane.  Anyway, this trip comes to a close, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed the series of posts. The friends from Maine were staying for another week to go land-based out of Hamanasi Resort in Hopkins, Belize (http://www.hamanasi.com). By coincidence, we sat next to a couple waiting at the airport who were on their way home after spending a week at Almond Beach on Jaguar Beach which is apparently very close to Hamanasi, but is not a dedicated dive resort. It too sounded lovely. (http://www.almondbeachbelize.com)

We didn’t do the interior of Belize with the Mayan temples and other eco-tourism offerings, but with what we saw of the land while staying on Ambergis Caye, I imagine another trip will be in our not too distant future.

The map I’ve shown above came form one of the on-line tourist sites and I thought it might help orient those who aren’t familiar with the area. (Belize used to be British Hondouras.) The larger islands of Turneffe and Lighthouse are the sites we explored in the Sundancer II.

Dive Deck of the Sundancer II

Day Nine, Belize…..

Jacks gathering under the Sundancer II

Our trip is coming to a close. Two dives, then bound for Belize City. It promises to be a beautiful day, starting with a lovely sunrise. I did the first, early dive and sat the second out, but what a nice dive it was. Visibility was better, marine life with good “finds”, although no toad fish, turtles, rays, or sharks. Not a single shark all week for my husband. I could care less if I never swim with another one, (except for a whale shark of course as a goal), but that’s just me. Anyway, lunch is to be traditional Belizean fare of beef stew, snapper in a sauce, stewed beans and rice and oven-baked plantains, and this afternoon will be open for wandering around Belize City or simply relaxing. There will be a wine and cheese event around five, then we’re on our own for dinner. There’s a place that our friends know of and want to try so that’s fine by us. With only beer and wine on board (not a bad thing, mind you), I may need a rum drink of some type. We don’t want to take liquids home with us, but the Belizean coffee is another matter. If I can find that with no problem, I’ll take a bag back. Coffees, like rums, are island products that we frequently take home with us.

This is the time during the trip when gear is rinsed, hopefully drying well before re-packing. It’s perfect weather for that and as clear as the sky is, we should be okay with no rain shower to interrupt the drying process. The water is calm; I’d say no more than 2-foot waves, with an occasional three–to-four thrown in. For a boat this size, it doesn’t get “bouncy” unless the waves are eight feet or greater. I do have to get my rings out of the cosmetic bag. I took them off our first day of diving. It isn’t that I really think they will come loose enough to fall off when we’re underwater, but I don’t want to take the chance either. You do sometimes find the proverbial “treasures of the deep” – assorted items ranging from jewelry to flashlights and so forth. Some can be recovered and reused; others, not so much.

In returning to the Sundancer and crew, however, it is a boat that I can recommend. It’s my understanding that the best time to do this itinerary is in March-April because the visibility tends to be more consistent and you have the chance of seeing migrating whales. The Sundancer II vessel is well laid out and the crew of Captain Eddy (Eddie?), Megan, Elia, John, Simon, Carlos, and Jerry were great. They did everything they could to accomodate us, clearly showed an enjoyment of diving and know the dive sites well.

It has been a pleasant trip and I’m glad we came.

Queen Angel on Reef in Belize at “Cleaning Station”

Day Seven in Belize….

Green Moray Eel. Eels prefer to stay tucked in during the day and mostly feed at night.

Ah, an extra early morning for me. My internal clock that usually goes off at 5:00 a.m. was at 4:00 this morning – an inconvenient time. The reason for that is unless I can go back to sleep immediately (as does happen), then I might as well get up. If I toss and turn for fifteen minutes, then the odds are it will be for another several minutes and now I am approaching 4:30 which rounds up to 5:00. Don’t worry if you don’t follow that logic because my husband finds it to be merely another of those pesky things that one works out in a marriage that lasts for any appreciable length of time. He vainly suggests that I simply try to go back to sleep and I get up knowing the futility of his suggestion. The coffee wasn’t yet made since 5:30 is what is set up for early risers. There was hot water though and I enjoy hot tea, too. I will have my sunrise though, the reverse of last night when now the dark sky transitions through gray, pink and gold tinged clouds become white against a backdrop of blue.

Oh yes, speaking of night brings night diving to mind. There is a passage in Deadly Doubloons where I describe night diving to some extent. As with any ecosystem, there are night creatures that make limited appearances during the day. Fish tuck up into the reef at night to sleep, hopefully protected from the predators searching for a meal. Eels, lobster, octopus emerge from ledges and crevices seeking prey and sharks often feed at night, performing their primary food-chain function of gobbling up fish that have been slowed due to age or other infirmity. Contrary to popular fiction of ripping into humans as a source of food, sharks help keep the reef ecosystem in balance through this natural order. Squid often also prefer night and other activities with corals and so forth take place. It is this nocturnal side of marine life that lures divers into the water, and it is quite dark. Visibility is limited to what you can see within the radius of a dive light and that means one hand is devoted to holding the light. Well, there are some other methods, but in general, it is holding the light in one hand. I find it to be a cumbersome process, plus the topside and water temperature drops at night, frequently to a degree that I is uncomfortable for me. While those factors contribute to my lack of enthusiasm for night diving, the real reason is because night diving interferes with drinking and leisurely dining. The approved mantra among dive operators is, “Your first drink of the day is your last dive of the day.” Having a cold beer at the end of an afternoon dive is a distinct pleasure as is having wine or beer with dinner and then, voila!, you aren’t supposed to dive. In my years of diving, I think I’ve done less than a dozen night dives. The night dive off the Kona Coast to see the manta rays is a definite exception, but once was enough from my perspective.

There is, however, the option of “dawn diving” where you slip into the water approximately 30 minutes before scheduled sunrise. I’ve only done that a couple of times and you get to see the remaining night creatures that are making their way to rocky overhangs as the reef around you relinquishes darkness to light. That, I enjoy, but it doesn’t appeal to most people.

Belize, Day Six……

A Sea Horse that is a bit difficult to see if you aren’t familiar with how they look in their natural setting.

Rain last night and clouds this morning with a trace of rainbow leftover. It was hide and seek with the sun for a while, but mostly sunny with calm conditions. One sea horse before he was frightened by all the attention. Another eagle ray, turtle, stingrays, and fish of all sizes to include some very large groupers. No eels for us, although other people saw them. I found some tiny Pederson shrimp for my husband – creatures that he enjoys photographing. Angelfish and snappers, elongated trumpetfish, little juveniles that are brightly colored and flit about. Sand dwellers that forage for food, parrotfish that munch on coral and process sand through their bodies. A couple of Caribbean reef squid that are always fun to watch and seabirds wheeling overhead as we waited between dives.

It is a relaxed state by the third day on the water, stresses melting away for those who have intense jobs. It is another day to appreciate for those who have achieved retired status and choose travel as part of their lives, be it scuba related or otherwise. For the crew, it is a job they love or else they move on to other work. For most dive cruise operators the arrangement  is three-four weeks on, and one-two weeks off, but while “on”, it is 24/7. Someone must always be on watch and there are many tasks to perform. That is the similarity between traditional and dive cruises; the staff that makes certain passengers are cared for, the chef and assistant who creates and provides the meals. Duck and snapper as entrée choices tonight, as it so happens. My husband loves duck and I will take the snapper. The sun has moved behind clouds so the chances of “sunset” are slim. There may well be clouds suffused with gold and pink though as blue skies relinquish to dark. I skipped the fourth dive of the day today and hear laughter from the dive deck as the divers come back aboard, reports of what they saw. Another good day that will end with dinner and wine for us as we do not do the night dive. We rarely night dive, notwithstanding there are people who prefer night diving over daytime. And that will be one of the subjects of tomorrow’s post.

Juvenile Spotted Drum

Belize, Day Four…..

Hugh taking photo of small Southern stingray and yellow tail snappers

I love sunrises and always have. As we sit in the water, Lighthouse Island in sight to one side, a sister dive vessel to the other, and nothing else around, it would be a perfect morning were there fewer clouds. The one thing that cannot be controlled is weather and like any outdoor-centric activity, divers learn to adopt a philosophical attitude about Mother Nature. As with Mother Ocean, she will have her way.  We are allegedly on the front end of a “system” and may be able to dodge it by going around to another part of the island.

Anyway, I promised to talk about food. Yesterday’s menu will give you an idea. A continental breakfast is set out at 5:30 for we early risers. Oatmeal and cooked-to-order eggs, sausage or bacon, and/or other “breakfast” foods are available at 7:00. There was a lovely plump coffee cake made for the mid-morning snack that is served after the first dive. Lunch was build-your-own sub with turkey, tuna salad, lettuce, etc., fruit, leftover cake (to include chocolate cake from the previous dinner), soup, and potato chips. The afternoon snack was pizza. Dinner was lentil soup, salad, a choice of grilled snapper with a lovely cilantro sauce or pork with caramelized onions, potatoes, and sautéed green beans. Dessert was banana cream pie with a caramel sauce layer. Thereare also a jar of Oreo-type cookies (Chocolate and vanilla) and a jar of dry roasted peanuts that sit out 24/7 for those who need an extra “munch” at all hours.

Today (weather permitting) will be the famous Blue Hole of Belize. I will not actually make the deep dive into it, but the shallow dive (or snorkel) around the edges as the others descend the 130 feet allowed in recreational diving. I can dive that deep, but I prefer not to. As for diving, yesterday’s sightings included French, Gray, Queen, and Rock Beauty angelfish (some of my favorites), yellow-headed jaw fish (also favorites), trumpetfish, fairy basselets, chromis, rays, a seahorse, a small turtle, jacks, chubs, yellowtail snappers, tigertail sea cucumbers, corals, sponges, sea fans, and others too numerous to mention. We shall see what today brings.