Archive for the ‘Dive Travel’ Category

Manatee Excursion 2011

Thursday, January 13th, 2011
Is that my reflection?

Is that my reflection?

Val and I had the opportunity to join Becky and Dave on their annual winter manatee trip down to Crystal River, Florida.  We packed our gear and headed down to Tampa.  An hour later, we were pulling up to the hotel in Crystal River.  Over the last few years, I’ve had some great trips down to this area.  There’s been a load of training for myself, as well as my training others.   The caves and sinkholes are difficult to blow out, so it’s a good area for scuba training for deep dives.

This trip was just for fun.  We planned to dive with the manatees, then spend the weekend relaxing.    Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative.  We left NJ just after a snowstorm.  This winter has been one of the coldest I remember.  Now that we were down in Florida, we were hoping for a little warmth.   No such luck.  Thursday morning was in the 30s with a bit of a breeze.

With the cooler conditions, Becky decided to keep the boat trip short, and head to King’s Springs.  The water clarity is not as good here, but the Manatees were active, and inquisitive.   While you were petting one manatee, another would come up behind you and nudge you for attention.  Staying in the water was the key to keeping warm.  During the entire day, there was steam rising off the surface.  Yes, it was quite cold when we got out.  After getting lots of photos, we headed back to the shore to warm up.  While it may have been cold, we had a lot of fun.

Sanctuary

Sanctuary

Val had filled her fun quota that day, and decided to head to Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park on Friday.  Apparently this is a wildlife preserve that also provides wildlife rescue services.  There she found many animals that had been rescued, and were now recovering before release.

The weather caused a few cancellations on Becky’s next trip, so there was room for me to join them again.  Friday, the manatee excursion headed out to the Three Sisters Spring.  There is a large sanctuary area around the springs that was filled with manatees.   Most were quietly resting, but some would come out of the sanctuary and interact with the divers.  Speaking of divers, there were quite a few.  Probably because it was warmer, but also because it was Friday.  When we arrived there were 5 boats, and numerous kayaks.    With this many people I’m sure it can be overwhelming to the Manatees.  Everyone stayed away from the sanctuaries to give the manatees their space.  Most of our crew were experienced divers, and very calm and careful in the water.  This made the manatees more relaxed, and many freely interacted with us.

Becky and Camera

Becky and Camera

Back in the springs, the water was crystal clear and warm (72), but there were very few manatees, and they were resting.  (You can’t disturb them when they are resting.)  We got a few shots of the one or two in the springs, then headed back to the river where they were more active.

After several hours trying different photo techniques, angles, and subject, we headed back to the boat.  The ride back was much warmer this day.  We quickly got changed and headed out for some hot food to warm up.

Fall in Mexico

Saturday, October 16th, 2010
Swimming through pillars of coral

Swimming through pillars of coral

After missing out on vacation last year, Val and I decided to head south for some warm sun and diving.

We did not realize just how low the low season is there.  Apparently September and October are quiet down in Mexico.  We felt like we had the resort to our selves.   Not that was a bad thing!

There were a few other divers, but even the boats were mostly empty.  This gave the resort staff time to work on a few projects, which they did very quietly.  On the other hand, everyone also received personal attention from the outgoing staff.

There have been a few changes since our last visit several years ago.  Damage from the hurricanes that struck the Yucatan is still evident, but there is also a lot of new construction.  The food was great as usual, and yes, I will be dieting for the next few months.

Before we arrived, we heard rumors that the weather had been windy the day before, and boat diving may still be suspended.  While true, this gave us the afternoon to unpack and unwind from the trip.   The next morning Val had the beach to herself, and I boarded the boat with a group of fellow photo enthusiasts.

Jumping into 85 degree water was a bit of a shock.  For me it was too warm.  I’ve never been in water above 80, and am not used to it.   I should have brought my shorty or 1 mil.  However, this temperature the fish were active.  We saw a lot of sharks, turtles, and rays along with schools of other fish.

After a few days, we made a number of new friends, and were able to hook up on dives, and meals.   We discussed travel destinations and dive history.   Places to go and things to see.     Underwater, we kept an eye out for each other, and provided models where needed.

I also had the opportunity to catch up some old friends that still worked in the area.  It was interesting to hear details of the storm damage over the years, as well as the changes to the Island.   The last time I was here, Nitrox was in limited supply.  Now Tech diving and gear / supplies are  available locally.   This would make a great place for Tech checkouts.  The dive sites are just a few hundred feet from shore. The water is warm and clear, and there is lots to see during deco.
Hurricane Paula threatened to head our way, so many of the resorts transported guests to more robust locations.  We felt like refugees walking through town in large groups.  We made it back the next day, just in time to pack for the trip home.   Oh well, one day of lost diving.

Back to get my butt kicked.

Friday, May 28th, 2010
Cave 2 Kick your butt off

Cave 2 Kick your butt off

Butt kicking again!

In the early spring, a good friend convinced me to take my cave training.    The first part (cavern and intro) was quite enjoyable.  While there were a good number of skills, the conditions were moderate.   This past week we completed the class ( apprentice and full cave).  The dives/ skills were significantly more challenging.  I should have expected this, but it was quite a shock to the psyche.  In addition, I took the first half Open Circuit.  The second half I chose to take Closed Circuit (CCR).

Please don’t take any of this as a negative statement against my instructor.   Just the opposite, he did not hold back, and made sure we were capable of performing the dives safely.   The initial class was restricted by the systems available at the time.  The class was in February, when Ginnie and Manatee were the only systems that were still flowing.  The rest were siphoning river water, and unusable for training.

Given the earlier conditions, I was probably spoiled.   Ginnie is huge with bright, wide open, passages.  Manatee was open with dark but clear passages.    During the dives we practiced our skills and had some really great dives.

This week most of the other systems were open.  We dove Peacock (1 and 3), Madison blue, Cow Springs, and Orange Grove. After getting my butt kicked for a few days, I can say I did survive.   There were many points where I was ready to throw in the towel.  Either my head was not in the right place, or I was struggling with new gear configurations that I did not have time to practice with (my fault).  Either way, it was quite an eye opener.

Don’t get me wrong, some of these passages can be quite beautiful.  The formations and clay layers can be stunning.   On the other hand, I’m not a small man.  At 6’6″, I don’t fit into small passageways.  With full CCR and side mount bailout, I was fighting my way into places that were probably much easier on OC.   However, with the time and duration advantages of CCR, I wanted to finish the class in this configuration.

I’m not going to go into the detail of each dive, but I will say that Paul kicked our butts on most dives.  The skills included several out of air, lights out, lost line… which involved feeling your way along the passages ways.  Some passages ways were smaller than my gear, and involved pulling our way out, as swimming was not an option with OOA diver in tow.   With the low vis on entry, and tight restrictions, it was often difficult to even feel your way.  Only the gold line gave indication of the proper direction.

All in all, we had some great dives, some difficult dives, and some really uncomfortable dives.  Again, this is par for the course.    Many of the skills were to make sure you had the state of mind to survive the worst case.

After all the skills were done, we had the opportunity to just dive.   We hit Orange Grove, and headed over to Challenge sink.  It was a bit of a swim, but a nice open dive with lots to see.  Paul dragged my camera along and took a few shots along the way.  I wish we could have taken a few more shots at Challenge Sink as the light streaming in was quite beautiful, but once we signaled turn, the rest of the group bolted (I’ve got to be more careful with those signals).

The trip was worth the effort.  I know I’ve got a lot to practice before my next excursion.  Paul made me work hard, and he did push a few of my limits, but we also had some great dives, and saw a lot of new systems.  Next time down, I’d love to get some more photos, of these great systems.

Cave 2010

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
Cave 2010

Cave 2010

This year, I finally broke down and decided to try cave diving.   Back in the dark ages, I tried a cavern dive in Mexico.  While I enjoyed the dive, it was too early in my diving to fully understand the nuance of the dives.

This year, Becky invited us on a Manatee dive down in Florida, and figured I’d stay in the area and take a cave class.   After many discussions on cave instructors, I settled on Paul Heinerth.  I wanted an instructor that would challenge me rather than let me coast through the class. My Trimix instructor (Corey Mearns) introduced me to Paul at a social gathering last fall.   Others echoed the recommendations, so I made plans to stick around and take the class.

Diver Bubbles

Little Devil

The cavern portion of the class involved a number of new of skills.  Many were familiar, some were not.  Much of the class pushed me to the limits of my comfort zone.  However, after it was all done, I felt much more comfortable diving in this environment.   I guess that’s the point.   I want to thank Paul, for suffering with me.  I’m sure he’s dealt with worse, but I know I was a handful. After the class, Becky and Dave were kind enough to take their time to dive with a cave newbie.   I’m sure it can be a bit annoying to dive with a novice.   I appreciate them taking the time to dive with me.  Given all the flooding in Florida, we ended up in Ginnie Springs.  Two days of our class was spent at Ginnie, so I knew a little bit about of the layout.  Diving after the class removed much of the “stress” involved, and we had a lot of fun.  Becky took a lot of photos.   I’ve posted a few here, but check out her website for more great shots.

I returned to the scene of the crime for some more shots of the cavern and caves.  The weather up North (NJ/PA) was not good, so my lovely wife (Val) suggest that I stay in Florida.   Did I mention that I love my wife?!   I spent the next two days practicing my skills, and taking pictures.   I’m not sure if I’m a died in the wool cave diver, but I did have a good time diving with some good friends.

Manatee 2010

Thursday, February 4th, 2010
Manatee calf looking for attention

Manatee calf looking for attention

Val and I were invited on a trip to Florida, including a Manatee dive in Crystal River. As it worked out, I did have some time off, so we packed our gear and headed down. Val was going to stay a few days, for the Manatee dive, after that, I was planning to stick around for a cavern/cave class.

Packing went smoothly, except for the snowstorm that covered the area the day before the trip. Most of the roads up here were dry with some salt for good measure. On the trip down we stopped over with our friend Grace in Durham. Their roads were not cleared as well, and the drivers were not accustom to snow. It was not a pleasant situation, but with only minor delays we were back on the road the next morning.

We arrived in Crystal River a bit later than expected, but were up and ready for the dive the next morning. Dive gear, camera gear, and all weather gear packed and ready, we headed out.

This was our first time diving with Manatees. The boat rental required us to watch a video concerning the regulations around Manatee interaction. Bottom line, nothing can prepare you for the actual dive! Becky had invited a group of experienced divers. We hit the water expecting to see a few dozen Manatees. I’m not sure if it was the cold weather, or something else, but there were a few hundred Manatees in the area.

We anchored in a small tributary with river water, and spring water running past a Manatee Sanctuary. Within the roped off sanctuary, there were a dozens of resting Manatees. Back in the springs, the sandy bottom was covered with them. We were all snorkeling on the surface looking to see if any were interested in interaction. Many were resting, but others would swim right up to us.

At first, it’s a bit unnerving to have a 1200lb animal swim up to you. These creatures are 5-6 times our size. It makes you think for a second. Then they roll over and want their belly rubbed. Ok, not so intimidating. The juveniles (calf) are more curious than the older adults, but both were curious about us as divers. I’m not sure why, but my camera seemed to draw their interest. Some would swim up and interact. Several would swim up, play for a bit, and then swim away. Many came back again and again.

After I filled up my still cameras memory card, I switched to the video camera. It was both fun and enlightening interacting with these gentile creatures. As usual, they had to drag me from the water, since I was having so much fun.

If you ever get a chance to dive with Manatees, I highly recommend it. Take your time, and let them come to you. They are both fun and engaging.