When I was thinking about making my Florida trip in July, I made a post on Facebook asking for recommended dive ops. I’d been looking at different shark dives and had thought about going to Guadalupe Island in Mexico for the Great White Shark dives. In the end I decided I wasn’t going to be able to afford that nor did I think that a whole week sitting in a cage was something I wanted to really do! I wanted to photograph sharks, but I also wanted to see other things. I wanted variety! In Florida I could dive wrecks, reefs, and see sharks! For those who have been following my blog, I’d done two of the nicest wrecks in Florida (or anywhere for that matter) along with some great reefs with lots of fish. I’d even dived for fossils in Venice. Now it was time for sharks!
For sharks, my friend Jen Nelligan gave a recommendation for Deep Obsession out of Lake Park in Palm Beach County. I contacted them and heard back almost immediately (like within minutes) from Ryan Walton via Facebook and Amber Boutot via email who are the co-owners. I decided to dive with Deep Obsession after seeing how responsive they were and the strong recommendations from people who had dived with them. I booked a three tank trip on the 17th. As it turned out, it was also going to be the height of the 2 month spawning season for goliath groupers!
I might add that Palm Beach County in Florida attracts divers from everywhere. I made trips there whenever I could afford it back in the 80’s when I lived in Orlando. Why here? The Gulf Stream makes it’s closest approach to the US Mainland here. The end result is warm water, nice reefs, plenty of fish, and the chance to see pelagics like sharks. In other words… great diving!
As I mentioned in my last blog post, after diving Key Largo for two days I headed north. I got on the road about 2 PM. I opted to take the back roads, rather than the toll roads. I took my time and made a few stops along the way. By 5:30 PM I was pulling into the parking lot of the strip mall where Deep Obsession has a shop. Unfortunately I’d missed them and they were closed.
I walked in too Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures and Marine Life Art Gallery next door and inquired. I told the woman there I was diving with Deep Obsession the next day. She told me they were already gone for the day but were usually in the shop in the morning around 8 AM preparing to go out. I decided to take a look around the shop since I was there. I saw a very thin pair of gloves that I thought would be ideal for the shark dives. While I was paying I was asked if I had a hotel yet and when I said no she gave me a coupon for a discounted rate at Best Western!
I got back in my car and continued north up US Highway 1 until I reached the Best Western Plus in Palm Beach Gardens. At $75 dollars a night it was the second best rate I’d paid on the trip and turned out to be the nicest room! While checking in I asked for a room close to parking and downstairs because of all my gear and the desk clerk very nicely put me in a 1st floor room closest to the exit to the parking lot.
I got my things unpacked and messaged Amber that I’d arrived and would be in the next morning. Then I started setting up my camera gear. Before returning to the US I’d made a decision to upgrade my camera equipment and had starting ordering the week I came back. After a lot of research I opted for the Nikon D500. One issue was expense… which for an underwater photographer is going to be significant no matter what! By sticking with Nikon, it allowed me to use the lenses that I’d made a significant investment in already. I’d also decided to stay with Ikelite. Ikelite without a doubt makes some of the best strobes out there and I have and continue to receive good service from my DS125 and DS160. I also believe Ikelite makes a quality housing which is much less expensive than other systems. Yes I know other systems like Nauticam and Aquatica will go to 330 feet, but I don’t expect to ever dive that deep! The Ikelite is rated to 200 feet well beyond recreational depths so I don’t feel the need to pay for more safety margin I won’t use! I decided that all things considered I would be okay with Ikelite.
The first dives I’d done with the new system were on the Texas Clipper on July 29th. While familiarizing myself with the new camera I opted to use only my Kraken 5000 video light. My dives on the Oriskany in Pensacola and in Key Largo had all been done with just the camera, housing, and video light. I was still exploring exactly what my new Nikon D500 could do. I’d been getting decent results, but decided that now was the time to pull out my strobes. I got everything set up and tested to make sure it was all working. Then I went to sleep.
My alarm went off at 7 AM the next morning, Thursday, August 17th. I got up, grabbed a quick shower and dressed. I walked out to the lobby and got a cup of coffee, then walked over to the next building where breakfast was being served. After a leisurely breakfast I went back to my room and loaded everything in the car and left for the dive shop. I arrived there around 8:30 AM. Amber was there and we got all the usual paperwork out of the way including one that said I wouldn’t sue if a shark ate me… just kidding, it didn’t say that :)) After that I got directions to the boat which it turned out was only a couple blocks away.
I arrived at Lake Park Marina around 8:40 where there was a buzz of activity. The crew was loading the boat and told me to just leave my gear and tanks and they would take care of them. Those of us going out for the day just stayed out of the crews way and they took care of everything. They have a very large cooler with a top on it that was filled with fresh water. This was exclusively for cameras. Something nice to see! Once the boat was loaded I went aboard and started setting up my tank. A thorough brief was given about the boat by Scott, the Captain. We were underway shortly after 9 AM.
It was looking like another beautiful sunny day in Florida and the water was absolutely flat as we left the marina. I stood at the stern and chatted with Derek, one of the crew for the day. There wasn’t much traffic out as we made our way down the intracoastal, under the Blue Heron Bridge, past another marina, and then a left turn to the east and down the channel to the Atlantic Ocean. On the way out Autumn and Derek cut up fish and prepared a milk crate of chum that would be used to lure the sharks to us.
We pushed east towards our first dive site which Scott called Deep Ledge. Possibly because the water there approaches 150 feet deep! Plenty of sharks hang out there and the goal was to attract them up to a depth where we could have a prolonged interaction with them. Not much bottom time at a 150 feet!
Autumn and Tony gave a very thorough brief on the dive. Autumn would work with the sharks and Tony would be the safety diver. Her enthusiasm was contagious. She obviously really loves her job! For the dive we were to be completely covered. Hood, gloves, and no low top booties that would leave the ankles exposed. I’m thinking because light colored skin could be mistaken for a piece of fish and who want’s to feed one of their hands to the sharks? 😉 This would be a bluewater dive. Everyone would enter the water and arrange ourselves around Autumn who would stay with the crate to prevent the sharks from tearing it up to get at the fish scraps! The crate would be suspended from a buoy on the surface at a depth of about 30 feet. We were cautioned not to let our depth drop to low as this could have an affect on the sharks and cause them not to come up.
We were given a warning 15 minutes before arriving at the site so we could start getting ready and everybody started gearing up. When we reached the site and given the word by Scott we started entering the water. I stepped off the dive platform, turned and Derek handed me my camera. Autumn was already doing her thing and we formed a rough circle around her, hovering in the water column. It didn’t take long for the sharks to start showing up! What followed was almost non-stop sharks for the hour! There were bull sharks, silky sharks, and sandbar sharks… sometimes only one and sometimes in two’s, three’s, and fours, but always there were sharks! It really was an amazing experience! I have many friends that do not dive (and some who do) who have communicated a fear of sharks, but I can truthfully say I never felt threatened in any way. The sharks were obviously not interested in us, but in the scraps of fish that Autumn would periodically toss from the crate into the water to the water column. Before we knew it our time was up and it was time to say goodbye to the sharks and surface. The dive started at 10:02 AM and lasted 55 minutes. Average depth was around 30 feet, but I did drop as deep as 46 feet a few times to get shots looking up. Water temperature was 84F and visibility was easily 50-60 feet…. a great dive!
Once on the boat, the crew circulated offering drinks and people chatted about the dive. A discussion ensued about the second dive and it was agreed that combining the next dive with an opportunity to see goliath groupers was something we would all like to do. Captain Scott set a course for the Bonaire.
The Esso Bonaire was a tanker built in Honduras in 1926. It was seized by the US Government when the US Customs Service discovered 55,000 lbs of marijuana aboard. The Economic Council of Palm Beach County purchased it to be sunk as an artificial reef. She was sunk 4 miles E/NE of Jupiter Inlet on 23 July 1989. She’s sitting upright on her keel in 85 feet of water.
The dive was briefed and because of current we planned a negative entry and drift down and into the wreck. This will stand out as one of my best dives! Autumn perched on the stern while we gathered behind her and she was swarmed by goliath groupers, sharks, and clouds of fish! They all wanted what was in the crate of course and she had to be quite firm with them to keep them off. After several minutes we moved off the wreck and made our depth shallower. The goliaths stayed with the wreck but the sharks stayed with us. At one point I counted 7 sharks and they were there for pretty much the entire dive! The action really was fast and furious and the dive was over much too soon! I had sharks swimming close enough to touch and I did! This dive started at 11:45 AM and lasted 58 minutes. Water temperature was again 84F and our maximum depth was 84 feet. Visibility was over 50 feet.
During the surface interval we had a light lunch. Sub sandwiches that were quite good! There were plenty of sodas and water too. The crew was good about encouraging people to stay hydrated.
The last dive of the day was a site called Shark Canyon. Shark Canyon is just a half mile south of Juno Beach Pier. We didn’t chum on this dive and we didn’t need too. What we saw here were mainly Caribbean reef sharks. We also saw some nice corals and plenty of fish. I spotted a very nice size lobster near the beginning of the dive. This was a drift dive and we went with the current. There were places we could drop out of the current and be sheltered by the reef and we made a couple of stops. There were plenty of sharks about and they weren’t shy about approaching either! I really enjoyed this dive as well. We started our dive 1:52 PM and I ended up with a 42 minute dive. Water temperature was 83F for this dive and maximum depth was 82 feet. Visibility was 40-50 feet.
As they’ve done on every boat I’ve dived with in Florida, roll was called after each dive. Nothing was left to chance in that respect! On the way back in I decided that I would stay and dive another day. The diving was that good! Before reaching the dock I went below and changed into dry clothes. When we arrived back at the dock, I took my camera and the crew assured me that they would take care of my gear and have my tanks filled for the next days diving. The next days diving had a departure time of 10 AM and I was asked to be at the shop around 9 AM to do paperwork. I said goodbye and headed to the car.
After getting back to the hotel I showered and rinsed my camera gear again. I put my batteries on charge and then started going through photos as I’d promised a shark photo to my friends and after picking one sent it out to them. I went out to Burger King for dinner later and then headed back to the hotel. I caught up on Facebook and then went to sleep.
I was up about 8 AM. I got dressed and went to breakfast. After breakfast I went back to the room and installed freshly charged batteries to my strobes and camera. Once everything was set up to my satisfaction I put everything in the car and headed to the dive shop. I was there about 9:15. Once I’d finished my paperwork, I headed over to the marina. My gear was on the boat and my tanks had been filled. I was ready for another great day of diving!
Everything from the day before pretty much repeated itself. Autumn and Tony were leading the dives. They were both very professional in their briefs as they’d been the day before. The first dive of the morning was North Double Ledges. The dive started at 10:26 AM. This was another drift dive. As in the previous day, there were loads of tropical fish. Only a couple of sharks, but that was to be expected almost as the day before had focused on sharks so they took us to sites where we would see the maximum number. I was diving air and my maximum depth was 85 feet. Sooner than I would have liked my computer was telling me it was time to surface. Most of the group was on nitrox, but as I was thinking about sending up my SMB I noticed one of the other divers in the group pulling his out. I did my ascent with him and his friend. Dive time was 37 minutes.
The second dive was at a site called The Corridors. Tony did a very thorough dive brief. This was another drift dive. In “The Corridors”, there are four wrecks and two rock piles so there was plenty to see. How much we got to see was going to depend on air and our computers.
This dive starts about a mile northeast of Lake Worth Inlet. The first wreck is the Mitzpah. She’s an old Greek luxury liner sitting in 86 feet of water. She was cleaned up for diving and has had all the doors and hatches removed and cleaned up for diving before being sunk as an artificial reef way back in 1968 making it the oldest artificial reef in Palm Beach County. We found several goliath groupers there. I managed to fight the current long enough to get some photos then drifted along the bottom to the end of the wreck and up to the deck. There were plenty of fish, but I was ready to go as I was watching my no-deco limit approach. I’d spent most of the time allotted for this wreck photographing the goliath groupers.
After a few minutes we started towards the second wreck in the lineup, the PC-1174, and old patrol craft. It’s heavily deteriorated and I spent almost no time there as by then my computer was starting to flash at me to go up. I grabbed a couple of shots and drifted as I started to go up. Nearby is an old rock pile.
I saw the next wreck, the Amarilys, as I drifted by. I looked down and saw another goliath grouper. This is a 441 foot long banana freighter that was blown ashore in a hurricane in 1965. The upper deck and helm were removed, but the lower deck, including the engines is still there. It was towed to the present site in 1968 and sunk in 85 feet of water as an artificial reef. Beyond that was is a sunken barge and then a pile of old concrete. I would have liked to explore it, but it was time to go up.
I sent up my SMB and after completing my safety stop surfaced. Captain Scott was nearby and came over to pick me up. My dive started at 12:16 PM and lasted 38 minutes. Water temperature was 84F and maximum depth was 85 feet once again. I estimated visibility at 50 feet plus.
Once back at the dock the crew unloaded my gear for me and I stowed it in my car. Then met a few of the other divers for a late lunch.
On Saturday morning I headed to Ft Myers to visit an old friend and his family. After spending the night I left Sunday afternoon, stopping in Orlando to have dinner with my step-son. From there I drove to Tallahassee where I stopped for the night. I got home to Texas late on Monday night.
After surviving Hurricane Harvey over the weekend I’m in the planning stages now for my next dive trip. I’m expecting to return to Dauin where my friend Mark Gormley, from Australia is very close to completion of a new dive resort. Beachfront at the Marine Sanctuary… It doesn’t get better than that! Stay tuned!
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After leaving Venice on Monday, August 14th I was still debating where I would go next. I stopped and got something to eat at Burger King (no breakfast or lunch) and thought about it. After checking Google Maps, I decided that Key Largo was doable and got back on the road. A little after 9 PM I was there!
Why do divers travel from all over the world to visit Key Largo? Key Largo caters to divers in a big way and this has been going on for decades! John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established back in 1963, making it the worlds first underwater park! It covers approximately 70 nautical square miles. With the addition of the adjacent Florida Key’s National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990, this protected area now covers approximately 178 nautical square miles! It is approximately 25 miles in length and extends 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Within it’s boundaries are mangrove swamps, seagrass beds, and of course coral reefs. I did my first trip to Key Largo back in 1983 and am always happy to visit!
On the way there I did a search on Agoda and found that about the cheapest room I was going to find was $99 bucks a night. I stopped at one place that didn’t come up on Agoda, but they wanted $105 a night plus tax for an RV! I asked about Wi-Fi and was told that there were hotspots around the property but not inside the accommodations. That actually made a bit of sense, since they’re accommodations seemed to be cabins and RV’s, but still I felt a bit steep for what I was getting. I opted to keep looking.
The next place I tried was one of the ones that had come up on Agoda. Key Largo Inn was $99 bucks a night and breakfast was included. There was a pool (that I ended up not using) and nice rooms with wi-fi. While talking with the owner I mentioned I was there for diving and he told me they had a dive shop across the street. I made the decision to stay and checked in. With tax the room came too $111.38 a night (a little steeper than I normally pay in the Philippines to be sure!). I unloaded my gear and then after a quick shower, I worked on finishing up my previous blog post on diving in Venice.
The next morning (Tuesday, August 15th) I was up about 8 AM. I wandered over to the bar/restaurant where they had plenty of fresh pastries, fruit, yogurt, and coffee. I got myself a muffin and a cup of coffee. After I finished eating I walked across the street with my coffee to Scuba-Fun Dive Center. There I met Dan who initially told me that it was to late to dive that morning. After about 5 minutes of conversation and discovering that I had my own equipment and was experienced he asked me to give him a minute and let him make a phone call. He ended up being able to get me on the boat with Horizon Divers for a 2 tank trip out to dive the Spiegel Grove! Since that was the dive I most wanted to make I was very happy!
I ran back across the street, poked my head into the office to let them know I’d be staying an extra day, and then went to my room and grabbed my gear. Everyone was already on the boat when I rolled into the parking lot at the marina about 20 minutes later. I’d made it with about 5 minutes to spare!
The boat was the Pisces with Bruce as the Captain. There was a quick brief and the boat got underway for the Spiegel Grove. I started setting up my gear as the boat pulled away from the dock.
The USS Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) was a Thomaston-class dock landing ship constructed by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation in Pascagoula, Mississippi. She was laid down on 7 September 1954, launched on 10 November 1955, and commissioned on 8 June 1956. She spent the greatest part of her active service participating in amphibious exercises as part of the US 2nd and 6th Fleets. She made two goodwill tours to Africa carrying tons of supplies. In May 1962 she was one of the ships supporting Scott Carpenter’s Mercury-Atlas 7 space flight. The Spiegel Grove’s nickname was “Top Dog” and as I’ve seen in many Navy ships this was incorporated into a ships logo that can still be seen emblazoned into the ships deck in one of the passageways. In 1974 she participated in the evacuation of American citizens from Cyprus and performed this service again in 1976 in the evacuation of Lebanon.
USS Spiegel Grove was decommissioned on 2 October 1989 and her name struck from the Navy list on 13 December 1989.
She was then transferred to the United States Maritime Administration and the James River Reserve Fleet near Ft. Eustis, Virginia. On 13 June 2001, the Spiegel Grove was transferred to the State of Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Largo, Florida. The ship was to be sunk near Key Largo as part of the artificial reefs program. After delays due to red tape and financial problems in preparing her to be sunk, she was finally moved from Virginia to Florida in May 2002. $1 million dollars was spent on preparation.
On 17 May 2002 she sank prematurely and ended up with her stern resting on the bottom and her bow sticking out of the water! To make matters worse, she was upside down! Over a 2 day period, 10-11 June 2002, and at an additional cost of $250 thousand dollars, the Resolve Marine Group got her rolled over on her starboard side and laying on the bottom. She was opened to divers on 26 June 2002. At 510 feet long and 84 feet at the beam, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever to be reefed at the time of her sinking (bigger ships have been reefed since). The Spiegel Grove proved to be enormously popular with scuba divers performing an average of 50,000 dives a year on her the first two years! Just 3 years later after Hurricane Dennis passed by in July 2005, divers were surprised to find that the storm at righted the ship and she was now sitting on her keel!
The Spiegel Grove is located 6 miles off Key Largo on Dixie Shoal in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. She sits in a 134 feet of water with her top deck at 60 feet. This is considered an advanced dive due to the currents. Every time I’ve dived it there has been strong current there and this is considered pretty normal due to the location. Not a dive that you want to be fumbling around on. A diver really should be comfortable in the water to make this dive.
I’d been asked before I left the dive shop if I wanted to hire a guide and I’d said no, they could just buddy me with someone on the boat. As I was getting my gear setup I met DJ Hall who was my buddy for the morning and it turned out was also an instructor for Horizon Scuba. We turned out to have quite a bit in common as we’d both served in the United States Navy at the same time. We had both been Petty Officer First Classes, and both served our share of sea duty which gave us plenty to talk about! DJ also, it turned out, teaches tech diving and we chatted about that a bit as well since I’m thinking about taking a course at some point. He’d gotten a call and asked if he wanted to go dive the Spiegel Grove and he said of course he said yes! That worked out pretty well that there were openings and we both got to dive 🙂
Once we arrived at the site, the boat was tied off to a mooring buoy and lines were rigged. As with other boats I’ve dived with where we were off-shore with current, a trail line consisting of about 50 feet of line with a float on the end was attached to the stern of the boat. From the stern to the mooring line a tag line was run. The idea is to pull yourself hand over hand along the line saving your energy for dive. We did a giant stride off the dive platform and then followed the lines down to the wreck.
Our first dive started at 9:48 AM. I was diving 28% nitrox. Once we had pulled our way down to the wreck, we were able to use the wreck itself to block the current. I have to say that I never get tired of diving this wreck. There are tons of fish and it’s a very picturesque wreck as well. We planned to explore the outside of the wreck on this first dive and we made our way around the upper deck. I had told DJ before the dive that I would just follow him as photos are more interesting with a diver in the picture. He ended up being a pretty good underwater model! We stopped to take photos of the flag of course and DJ obligingly threw a salute to the flag for me. Rather than using my strobes, I’d opted to use a single video light for photography on this dive.
One of the things that really strikes me about this dive is the huge numbers of fish around the wreck. That we were in a marine sanctuary was quite obvious! There were big schools of grey snapper. I also spotted grouper, angelfish, and of course, barracuda. There were many of “the usual suspects” as I call them as well, including butterflyfish, squirrelfish, grunts, and damselfish. Jacks out in open water, and the occasional school of jacks.
Much of the outer ship is becoming encrusted with coral. It’s a really beautiful dive! We explored the outer hull and towards the end of the dive did one limited penetration into the area where he mess deck used to be. The metal pedestals for the tables are still there along with the salad bar! Before I knew it my computer started yelling at me to come up. The maximum depth on this first dive was 100 feet. Water temperature was 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Visibility was easily 50-60 feet. Dive time was 37 minutes. I was back on the boat with about 900 psi. Even with nitrox the computer will normally determine the length of the dive!
During the surface interval I tried to stay out of the sun as much as possible… a sun worshipper I’m not! As we approached one hour we started gearing up. The second dive started at 10:26 AM, exactly 61 minutes after the previous dive had ended. I was diving 28% nitrox again. During this dive we made our way along the superstructure towards the bow. There we made a penetration into one of the forward machine spaces. Down and through and then back out. We then made a penetration down some of the main passageways in the superstructure where I spotted the ship logo I mentioned earlier, on the deck. There were plenty of fish in the dark of the compartments wherever I shined my light. Maximum depth on this dive ended up being 99 feet with water temperature and visibility the same as the first dive. Total dive time was 41 minutes.
After returning to the dock I was able to rinse my equipment there and hang it up in a portable building that Horizon has set up near the dock. The made diving with them very convenient! After stowing my gear away I made the rounds. I stopped at the dive shop and picked up a t-shirt and a couple of books. Later I stopped by the drugstore and picked up a few odds and ends, including some snacks and some drinking water. I also bought myself a Panama Jack hat as I’d decided I was getting a bit to much sun! After that I saw a homemade ice cream shop and decided I needed ice cream 🙂 I am on vacation after all 😉
I went by Scuba-Fun and settled my bill since I planned to leave the next day after my dives. The rate for 2 wreck dives including tanks and weights is $85.00. There was a $12.00 per tank charge added on for nitrox. The reef dives were $80.00 for two dives including tanks and weights. The State of Florida has to get their money too so the total came to $203.18.
I also went by Divers Direct, a dive store chain in Florida with a huge selection of gear. I couldn’t resist a t-shirt featuring Florida Keys wrecks 🙂 Dinner that night was at The Fish House, which is a local favorite. They feature fresh-caught local seafood which is quite good!
On Wednesday, August 16th after a good nights sleep I was up in time to pack the car and grab some breakfast at the hotel. My plan was to check out of the hotel before going to dive and then leave after that for the drive north. I was due to be at the dock at 8:30 AM. I was a few minutes early and got my gear sorted out first. I was on Pisces again with Bruce as the Captain. I wanted to do a couple of reef dives. The first dive we went out to dive Key Largo Dry Rocks where the Christ of the Abyss statue is placed.
Christ of the Abyss is a bronze statue. Guido Galletti, an Italian sculpted the original which was placed in the Mediterranean Sea on 22 August 1954. It was placed near the spot where Dario Gonzatti died in 1947. He was the first Italian to use scuba. A second statue cast from the same mold was placed in the waters near Grenada on 22 October 1961. The statue at Key Largo was also cast from the original mold and was a gift to the Underwater Society of America in 1962. On 25 August 1965 it was placed in 25 feet of water at Dry Rocks in the John Pennekamp State Park. The statue itself is over 8 feet tall and weighs approximately 572 lbs. It is attached to a concrete base that weighs 9 tons!
There are several permanent buoys here for boats to tie up too. The reef in this area is shaped like fingers and a diver can follow the bottom along the “indentations” between “fingers”. In one of these indentations is found the statue which is quite popular with snorkelers and divers. One thing you don’t want to do is touch the statue as it’s now completely covered with fire coral! The corals are in great shape!
For this morning I was buddied with a father and son who were on vacation. The dive started at 9:28 AM and would last 59 minutes. We were all told that we should be back on the boat with 500 psi or 1 hour whichever came first. Visibility was not quite as good as on the Spiegel Grove the day before and it was a bit warmer, but the water is quite shallow here. My maximum depth was just 28 feet and water temperature was 86F. Visibility was probably about 40 feet. As you would expect in an underwater park that has been around for over 50 years, there were plenty of fish! Lots of reef fish including parrotfish of various varieties, angelfish, butterflyfish, hogfish, and groupers. Sweepers and damselfish, plenty of grunts, and of course barracuda everywhere.
After seeing the statue, which was swarmed by people (divers and snorkelers), we checked out other areas of the reef. As time started to count down I ran a compass course back to where the boat was and made sure my buddies stayed within sight. When we got back to the area of the boat they went up and I stayed down a bit longer while they were getting onboard, then I surfaced. I still had 1300 psi.
We traveled a fairly short distance and tied up to another mooring buoy. This site was North Dry Rocks. We started getting ready to dive pretty much as soon as we got there. With such shallow depths, no-deco limits really weren’t an issue. Our second dive started at 10:43 AM. This dive was very much like the first dive and lots of fish. Similar reef system, but a bit of current this time. Maximum depth for this dive was 29 feet, it was again 86F and lasted 55 minutes. I came back from this dive with almost 1500 psi.
That was it for Key Largo. Once back at the dock I washed my gear and packed it in the car. I took advantage of the outdoor shower there to give myself a good rinse and changed into dry clothes for the trip north. I stopped at Buzzard’s Roost and grabbed some lunch (a chicken caesar salad… I have to eat healthy sometimes!) , then headed out. It had been a great couple of days in Key Largo, but the sharks were waiting for me on the Atlantic side of Florida off Palm Beach County and I was ready for them!
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In my next blog post I’ll be writing about my visit to Palm Beach County, Florida where I dived with Deep Obsession. You’ll get to hear about my experience diving with sharks in open water (without a cage), and goliath grouper (at 8 feet and over 700 lbs they could swallow a diver whole I think!). Stay tuned!
Venice, Florida is known as the “Shark Tooth Capitol of the World” and for good reason. Due to a set of unique circumstances this is the number one place on the planet to find fossilized sharks teeth! Although they can be found through digging and even just washed up on the beach, one of the best ways to find them is through scuba diving. Divers come here from all over the world to find them along with other fossils. Every April they even have an Annual Sharks Tooth Festival. April 2017 was the 25th year!
Why are so many sharks teeth and other fossils found here? First we go back 50 million years ago to the Cretaceous period. During this period sea levels were high and the area we know today as Florida was underwater. During millions of years, layers of limestone accumulated on the seafloor creating what is today the bedrock of Florida.
During the Oligocene period 28-40 million years ago sea levels began to drop as the planet cooled and the ice caps expanded. An island appeared in what is today North Florida. Geologist have named this island “Orange Island”. Rain created many cave systems and sinkholes in the porous limestone.
During the Miocene Epoch 12-28 million years ago we begin to see land animals moving into the area. Sea levels were constantly changing up and down during the Miocene with the coastal areas still covered by shallow seas. There was also heavy sediment with rich deposits of nutrients that were being washed down from the Appalachian Mountains in the north which were uplifted during this period.
The Pliocene Epoch that began 12 million years ago and lasted until 2 million years ago, was a period of extreme climate and sea level changes with levels as much as 300 feet lower and a 100 feet higher than they are today (long before people were a factor, but I digress). When sea levels would rise during inter-glacial periods many of these animals were buried and preserved through the fossilization process. Sediment also buried and preserved many marine species, as it was deposited into the sea. Sharks continuously shed teeth with some species shedding as many as 10,000 in their lifetime which explains why so many teeth are found in the area. This whole process continued into the early Pliocene Epoch, about 5 million years ago. These deposits created phosphate rich layers or formations which today are mostly underground. One of these is the Peace River Formation, so called because the Peace River cuts through and exposes it. The Peace River flows into the Gulf of Mexico just south of Venice.
Finally during the Pleistocene Epoch that began about 2.5 million years ago and lasted until 11,000 years ago there were several ice ages where again the polar ice caps expanded and contracted which raised and lowered sea levels. During this period Florida’s land area would sometimes double in size, while during other periods it would be largely underwater. Many ice age animals that lived in Florida during that period have been preserved in the sediment through the fossilization process.
The Peace River Formation is exposed just off the beaches of Venice, Florida. Although wave and tidal action can and does wash many teeth and fossils onto the beaches in this area, the best action can be found where the beds themselves are exposed just off-shore. The best areas are found between depths of 18 and 35 feet. This area will begin about a quarter mile off-shore and extend to about a mile and a half from the beach. From Venice Beach Park to the north to the Venice Fishing Pier to the south, this area encompasses about 4 square miles. Because of erosion fossils from the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene are all intermixed with each other.
I’ve been aware of Venice as a place to find fossils and especially fossilized sharks teeth, for several years. When I was planning my trip to Florida I decided to focus this trip on places I’d not dived before. That was why I dived the Oriskany last Friday and then came to Venice to look for fossils.
I did a web search as I normally do and the operation that I saw consistent recommendations for was Florida West Scuba. That their website is: http://www.megalodoncharters.com/ should be a giveaway! According to many scientists Carcharodon Megalodon sharks went extinct 2.5 million years ago, but their teeth are abundantly found here. Why the fascination? This was the largest shark that has ever lived. Scientist have estimated that they could have reached lengths of 80 feet! Just to give a small idea, the boat we dived off of was 35 feet!
On Sunday, August 13th I stopped by the shop where I met Gary and Jerry. There was a trip going out for a 2 tank dive the next day and I signed up. Cost was $84 dollars for a 2-tank trip and included tanks and weights. I also picked up a couple of books. “Hunting Fossil Shark Teeth in Venice, Florida-The Complete Guide:On the Beach, Scuba Diving, and Inland” by Robert L. Fuqua and “Fossilized Sharks’s Teeth & Fossils-A Photo Identification Guide” by Byron Fink. Lot’s of good information in both books. In addition I purchased a mesh bag to place my finds in and a pair of gloves. Gary suggested that I might not want to tear up my good dive gloves as searching for fossils can be quite hard on a pair of gloves! Before I left I took a look at the boat we would be going out on the next day.
I was up about 6:45 the morning of Monday, August 14th. Grabbed a quick shower then loaded everything in the car and checked out of the hotel. I was at the dive shop by 7:15. There I met Captain Steve Jones, the owner of Florida West Scuba. I’d not signed my waiver the day before so I took care of that. I then drove across the parking lot and parked by the dock. I unloaded my dive gear from the car and took it down to the dock where I met Dan Sansiveri, the divemaster for the day. Dan I discovered later, is also a NAUI Instructor and a USCG 100 Ton Master. He put the gear on the boat while I went and changed into my swimsuit. When I got back I let him know I needed DIN tanks. He had two set aside and brought them over and removed the plugs for me Steve showed up and did a brief of the boat. Then we were underway. On the way out Dan did a brief on how the diving would be done and gave a really interesting talk with lots of anecdotes, about the history of Venice and why there were so many sharks teeth there. He gave us tips on finding fossils and had examples of various fossils so we would be able to recognize them when we saw them.
It was a beautiful morning and we were quickly on the first site. We were maybe a mile off-shore and the water was very flat. A very nice day. Dan jumped in to check the site and when he returned and gave the okay the anchor was dropped and we started entering the water. Dive’s were limited to 90 minutes. Easy to do with on AL 80’s in the shallow water. As I mentioned above, the majority of fossils are found in the 18-35 foot zone.
We geared up and stepped into the water. Dan handed us a float with dive flag and off we went. The float had a line winder with 50 feet of line on it. The winder is big enough that you can stick your arm through it and once it’s unwound that’s what you do. Stick your arm through it and forget about it. At the end of the dive you just wind it up as you are surfacing.
Diving for fossils is essentially solo diving. Everyone did their own dive, which required a compass and would find their way back to the boat. The rule was 90 minutes or back on the boat with at least 500 psi left in the tank, whichever came first.
My first dive started at 8:29. On the fossil side I didn’t find much besides a few bone fragments on the first dive. Dan said several times during the day that the more you dive in Venice the luckier you get and there is certainly an element of luck involved when it comes to finding fossils and sharks teeth! Visibility was not the best… maybe 10 feet. There were plenty of fish though! Some followed me around as I sifted through the different spots searching for finds. There were grunts, cardinalfish, and jacks swimming around. I saw a few different crabs. Although I didn’t find any teeth on the first dive, I did find a 5 gallon bucket with about 50 feet of line attached! I brought it back to the boat of course 🙂 My dive time on the first dive was 1 hour and 24 minutes with a maximum depth of 25 feet. Water temperature was 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
The second dive started at 10:16 AM and lasted a hour and 26 minutes. I’d decided to remove my farmer john wetsuit and just dive in swim shorts and rash guard for the second dive. Visibility was a bit better at around 15 feet or so. I had much better “luck” the second dive (the more you dive the more luck you have 😉 ) In addition to bone fragments I brought back a fossilized oyster shell, a fossilized manatee rib, and two teeth! Once during the dive when I overturned a rock searching for fossils, I saw a small shrimp moving away. One of the fish that seemed to always be nearby ate it! Water temperature on this dive was 88 degrees Fahrenheit and maximum depth was again 25 minutes. I came back to the boat on both dives with around 80 bar (about 1200 psi). I think it wouldn’t have been difficult to do plus 2 hour dives! Next time I go I think I might try to stay a bit longer and maybe do some beach dives also.
Once back at the dock, there was large barrel for us to rinse our dive gear. There is a refreshment shack near the dock and it has restrooms with showers. Once I’d rinsed my gear and put it away, I grabbed a quick shower and changed. I swung by the dive shop and picked up a couple of items and then I was on my way.
I haven’t dived Key Largo in a couple of years and that is where I’m at tonight. I know it might sound crazy but I don’t always really plan trips 🙂 Sometimes I have a rough outline in my head and then I just go and make it up as I go along 🙂 The only “scheduled” dives I’ve made for this trip was the ones on the Oriskany and the shark dives I’m going to do with Deep Obsessions in Palm Beach on Thursday. Everything else is “flexible” 🙂
I’m planning right now to do at least one day of diving here in Key Largo, but I could do two, or I could decide to go somewhere else to dive on Wednesday… Stay tuned! 🙂
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The Oriskany is a WW II era Essex class aircraft carrier that is now the largest artificial reef in the world! It was one of the few Essex class carriers completed after the war. It’s construction was actually suspended in 1946 but was eventually resumed and she was commissioned in 1950. She won 2 battle stars during the Korean War and 5 in Vietnam. She was featured in the films Men of the Fighting Lady and Bridges of Toko-Ri in 1954, that are both classic films. In 1966 one of the worst fires since WW II broke out on Oriskany when a magnesium flare was accidentally ignited. 44 men were killed. Review of this fire was part of my training in firefighting school when I was in the United States Navy.
Oriskany was decommissioned in 1976 (coincidentally the year I joined the Navy). The Oriskany was sold for scrap in 1995. After 2 years she was re-possessed in 1997 due to a lack of progress on the part of the contractor in scrapping her. In 1999 she was towed to the Maritime Administrations Beaumont Reserve Fleet (also where the Texas Clipper that I dived a few weeks ago was before being sunk as an artificial reef). In 2004 it was decided to sink her as an artificial reef off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental preparation work was completed in Corpus Christi, Texas. She was sank 22 miles off the coast at Pensacola, Florida on 17 May 2006. An appropriate place as US Navy pilots are trained in Pensacola.
She came to rest upright in 210 feet of water. Initially the flight deck was at a 135 feet and the top of the island was at 70 feet. Following Hurricane Gustav in 2008 she shifted and ended up 10 feet deeper. The ship is 911 feet in overall length, 129 feet at the beam, and over 30,000 tons! The Oriskany has made top 10 lists for the best wreck dives in the world and remains the worlds largest artificial reef!
Around the same time that I was planning to dive the Texas Clipper, I was also looking at a trip to Florida. Since I had to drive through Pensacola it only made sense to make a stop and dive the Big O! I contacted H2O Below and received a response on July 26th that they had room on August 11th.
I’d initially planned to make a weekend diving Pensacola then continue south. Unfortunately the transmission on my brothers vehicle (that I’d planned on driving to Florida) malfunctioned (wouldn’t go above 2nd gear) and I found myself having to rent a car. I decided to cancel the other dives in Pensacola because of the unexpected expense.
I left around 12:30 PM on Thursday, August 10th and arrived in Pensacola a little after 9 PM. There were a few accidents along the way and it also rained off and on the whole trip. I went to South Wind Marina first so I would know where it was. It was after 11 by the time I found a hotel. I needed to be there by 7 AM and was asleep by midnight.
After the long drive I ended up sleeping through my alarm the next morning! I’d set my alarm for 6 AM so I’d have time to shower and have breakfast, but woke up to find it was already 6:40! I threw on my clothes, grabbed my bag and checked out! Fortunately it was only a little over 15 minutes to drive to the marina so I was there about 7:05. People were unloading gear and checking in still so it was all good! I filled out the usual paperwork and signed the normal release, then unloaded my gear. While I was parking my car my gear was loaded on the boat.
The Oriskany is considered an advanced dive. One of the questions on the form along with certification level, was “How many dives have you made in the last 12 months?” Even with the 6 month break because of my heart attack, my answer was still “122”. I found out later that possibly this affected the choice of dive buddy.
Before getting underway, Captain Doug Hammock gave a very thorough brief on the boat and what the procedures would be. Captain Doug is one of the few full-time dive charters operating out of Pensacola. The H2O Below is a 36 foot Newman custom dive boat. It runs an average of 20 knots which puts it at the Oriskany between 60 and 90 minutes depending on conditions. There are freshwater showers on board. An enclosed marine head with dry storage. A large equipment/camera table. Plenty of O2 in case of emergency with a first aid kit and AED (defibrillator) as the O is a long way out! There was fresh water for drinking provided and snacks provided.
The Divemaster was Nine Henriksson. She is from Sweden originally but has live in the US for 9 years. She originally came on a soccer scholarship. She has been diving since 2003 and has a Masters degree in Marine Biology. She’s working now as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of West Florida and conducting research on biogeographical trends in the Gulf of Mexico (everything except the soccer scholarship I found out from google 😉 ).
After Nine called roll the boat got underway around 7:30. We had about a dozen people on board including a number of tech divers. I went and changed and then started getting my camera equipment set up. I then set up my tank for the first dive. Captain Doug had called me on Wednesday night to check on tank rentals. I had opted for 28% nitrox for the first dive and 32% for the second. Like the Texas Clipper, the Oriskany is a fairly square profile. The tanks were waiting for me on the boat.
We were onsite about 9 AM. Today we had the wreck all to ourselves! Nine went into the water and secured the mooring. Line’s were rigged. There was a trail line from the stern and a current line running to the mooring line that was also the descent line (standard practice in the Gulf). There was a very slight current. A tank was lowered in case of need and also a bucket with weights in it, in case someone mis-judged how much weight they needed and required a little extra at the end of their dive. Obviously a lot of forethought has been given to mitigate potential problems.
On the way out Nine asked if I had a buddy and when I responded no, she called one of the other divers over and asked if he would mind diving with me. He agreed and we introduced ourselves to each other. My buddy for the day would be Alton Hall. One of the first things he said was that he donated his primary. I smiled and said, “So do I”. I’ve talked a bit about my setup before in my blog. This was the first time in quite a while that I’d dived with someone who also dived with a long hose.
We made a bit of small talk as we gauged each others experience (a natural thing to do when diving with someone you are just meeting for the first time). He was obviously experienced. I started to guess later on the way back when we were swapping stories and talking about diving in general that not only was he experienced, but way beyond my level! He casually mentioned that he normally dived by himself so when he was asked if he would buddy with me, he figured I must be experienced else they would not have asked! Turned out he has a ton of tech diving and cave diving experience with over 3000 dives. Way beyond my level! We’ve all dived with beginners, but when you’re paying a fair chunk (boat dives that are more than 20 miles off-shore are always going to cost because of the fuel expense), one does not want to cut their dive short because their buddy has burned through all their air! Initially he was going to follow me around the wreck, but it ended up being the opposite as I had a camera and photographs tend to be more interesting with people in them 🙂
Alton entered the water just before me. I stepped off the stern just after him and Captain Doug handed me my camera. I met Alton at the descent line as we had arranged previously and we descended to the wreck. Dive time started at 9:19 AM. I was immediately struck by the number of fish on the wreck including species like queen angelfish, butterflyfish, tobies, neon damselfish, pufferfish, trumpetfish, and even lionfish which are an invasive species not native to this side of the world. There were lot’s of barracuda in the water as well!
On the first dive we dropped down to a 130 feet, then worked our way around the island as we moved back up. The “island” for those who don’t know is an aircraft carrier’s command center. The structure sit’s on top of the flight deck. On the Oriskany the flight deck is at 145 feet, which is beyond recreational depths. The top of the forward bridge is at 118 feet, top of the aft gun platform at 109 feet, the forward gun platform at 107 feet, and the top deck level of the island is at 84 feet. This makes most of the island, which is bigger than some wrecks I’ve dived on, within recreational limits.
A line had been rigged and the American flag and POW/MIA flag were affixed. I took several photo’s while Alton obligingly was my model. I forgot to mention that I was shooting silhouettes, but I guess he’ll see that now! (Note: after originally publishing this I discovered that my Facebook friend Tim Duncan, is the one who put the flag there and maintains it. Thanks Tim!)
Dive time was 29 minutes on the first dive. Because of no-deco limits, not because of air. I was back on board with 80 bar (Because I dive so much in Asia I have a metric gauge… 1 bar=1 atmosphere so about 1200 psi). No decompression limits can only be stretched so far diving nitrox when also diving deep. You also have to walk the line between depth and oxygen toxicity. For the first dive I was diving 28% Nitrox. Water temperatures were a bit warmer in this part of the Gulf of Mexico at 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Visibility was probably around 50 feet.
Back at the surface, I handed my camera to Captain Doug, removed my fins and climbed the ladder to the dive platform. He’d already put my camera on the table where it would be safe. He walked with me to where I could sit and remove my gear.
During the surface interval we had watermelon and there were snacks available. It was very relaxed and a beautiful day off shore. The water was very flat. The sun was shining, but there were some clouds and a breeze so it really didn’t feel hot. Off in the distance, a few miles away, we saw a rain shower, but it didn’t look like it was going to be a threat. I’d been a bit concerned about the weather with all the rain I’d run into on the trip from Texas to Florida, but it was turning out to be a beautiful morning. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions!
During the surface interval, I mentioned to Alton that I wouldn’t mind doing a limited penetration so we planned that. The island has many openings where doors and windows used to be. All the doors, windows, and ladders (Navy-speak for stairs) had been removed which made penetrations of the island relatively safe. After an hour we starting gearing up for the second dive.
Our second dive started at 11:05 AM. Likely we saw many of the exact same fish on the second dive as we did on the first! This dive our maximum depth was 112 feet. I was diving 32% nitrox. We did one penetration through the back of the island. We crossed a room and into a passageway where Alton dropped down through an opening in the deck where a ladder used to be. I had a flashback to my time on the USS Nimitz and being in the island on that ship. My many years of sea duty means it’s not hard for me to imagine what this ship would have been like so many decades ago. Alton exited from the deck below while I exited from the deck above. Unfortunately, about half-way through the dive, I noticed condensation on the inside of my port. That ended up ruining a few shots. We then made our way around the outside of the bridge. Nine showed up with two slipper lobster and motioned for Alton to take them as he had a thigh pocket big enough to hold them until we were back on the boat. I swam away from the island to get some shots and before I knew it my computer was again blinking at me that I was getting close to deco and it was time to go up.
During the safety stop I killed time by photographing several barracuda including one that got my attention because of a large hook in it’s mouth. This dive ended up being 33 minutes. I had 75 bar (1100 psi) left in my tank. That’s usually the problem with deep dives. It’s not air consumption, but no-decompression limits which are the deciding factor for run time.
After everyone was back on the boat and accounted for, we headed back in. During the trip back more food came out. Really good “submarine” sandwiches which seemed somehow “appropriate” 😉 There was plenty of food and good conversation on the way back.
As we approached shore it was starting to cloud up. I ducked into the forward compartment and changed. Packed up my gear in preparation to leave. Once we were tied up and I’d gotten my gear and camera equipment cases on the dock I settled up with Captain Doug. Cost of a two tank trip to Oriskany is $150 plus $15 a piece for the nitrox. Worth every penny! If you would like to dive the world’s largest artificial reef, then you can contact H2O Below via their website at http://ussoriskanydiver.com/
I loaded my gear in the car and started driving. I stopped and got a hotel on the way last night. Tonight I’m in Venice Beach, Florida which is famous for “fossil” diving. I’ll be writing more about that in my next blog post so stay tuned!
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I left the Philippines on July 12th for home in Texas. I travel almost constantly now so it’s nice get home from time to time to visit friends and family!
I also planned to dive while I’m in the US of course. It might surprise some people to know that up until a week and a half ago, I’d never dived in my home state of Texas! I decided during this trip home that I needed to rectify that!
I’d often thought about diving the Texas Clipper since I became aware of it as a dive destination a few years ago. Of course as those of you who follow my blog know, I’ve dived almost exclusively in the Philippines the last few years. Now I decided, was a good time to do some diving here in the US.
The Texas Clipper was originally christened the USS Queens (APA-103). A Windsor class attack transport ship named after the the borough of Queens in New York City. She is 473 feet long and over 7000 tons. She served with the US Navy during WW II. She was built and commissioned in 1944. After the war she was sold to American Export Lines in 1948 and renamed Excambion. For the next 11 years she sailed a regular route from New York to ports in the Mediterranean carrying passengers and cargo. In 1959 she was returned to the Maritime Administration under a trade-in program. Consequently she was laid up as a part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet from 1959 to 1965 when she was loaned to the Texas Maritime Academy as a merchant marine officer training ship. She filled this role for the next 30 years. After that she was returned to the National Defense Reserve Fleet and moored in Beaumont, Texas until 2006 when she was transferred to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reef Program.
The Texas Clipper was docked at the Port of Brownsville, Texas where $4 million dollars was spent in preparing her for sinking. The ship underwent a cleanup of hazardous materials and openings and modifications were made in order to make it safer for divers and wildlife. Masts and kingposts were cut to meet Coast Guard Clearance requirements and secured to the deck. She was sunk in a 136 feet of water on November 17, 2007, approximately 17 miles northeast of South Padre Island. Unfortunately she tipped over on her side when she contacted the bottom. The shallowest part of the wreck is at 70 feet.
The week after I got home I contacted American Diving in South Padre Island about diving her. They run regular trips on the weekends during the summer. A two tank dive trip is $175. I opted for 32% Nitrox as it’s a very square profile. That was $10 dollars per tank.
From where I stay near Houston to South Padre Island is almost 300 miles and a 6-7 hour drive depending on traffic. I could have flown to many top dive destinations in the Caribbean in much less time than it took to drive there! Yes Texas is big! I booked for July 29th. Because it’s 17 miles out, showtime was 6 AM. This meant going down the day before and getting a hotel room. I opted to stay in Port Isabel, which is just across the bridge from South Padre Island. My brother Benny came along for the ride.
We were up early and arrived just a few minutes before the 6 AM showtime. After the usual paperwork and paying, I was directed to where my tanks were waiting near the dock. Once there I was directed to pick a tank and get it setup. They had a meter ready so I could check the oxygen content which was 31.9%. After my tank was set up I went to work on my camera setup. I have a new Nikon D500 with an Ikelite housing and this would be my first dives with the new camera setup. I decided to just shoot with a single light on top of the housing and leave the strobes. I put all the gear that was going with me on the boat in my boat bag and the rest went in the vehicle. My brother went back to the hotel and would meet me later.
Captain Tim O’Leary who is the President of American Diving gave a very thorough dive briefing. He talked a bit about the history of the wreck, procedures on the boat, and do’s and don’t on the wreck. Those of us who were without buddy’s were buddy’d with someone. I was buddy’d with Mark Park, who like me it turned out lived near Houston. We were both diving Nitrox. There was a big drawing of the wreck on the cyclone fence that ran alongside the staging area to the dock with picnic tables set up in front that Captain Tim referred to during his brief. There were numbers along the fence underneath the sign. Everyone was assigned a number and our tanks which we had setup were placed in order near the number on fence. Once everyone had a number and the gear was in order, the crew moved them onto the boat. We grabbed our bags and went aboard.
We were underway about 7:15 AM. Mark and I initially rode inside. While we were sitting and chatting a crew member passed out breakfast burritos to everyone and they were quite tasty. There was a cooler full of drinks that you could help yourself, but members of the crew circulated around passing out bottles of water. After eating we decided to go up on deck and sat at the bow and chatted while taking in the scenery. There were fishing boats out, both private and commercial and of course there were off-shore oil rigs as well. We arrived on site around 8:45 so about an hour and a half or so.
A divemaster went into the water to check conditions and reported mild current and good visibility! Our tanks and equipment made the ride out strapped on the roof of the crew compartment on the boat. Everything was very organized and we went in numerical order. Theoretically that meant we would get out in numerical order also. When it was our turn we stepped through the rear door of the passenger compartment and descended steps to platform. There we would don our gear with assistance from the crew and then when we were ready just roll forward into the water. There was a trail line running from the stern and a current line from the stern to the mooring line, which we used to descend.
Because there was a bit of current the best way is which ever of the buddy team is ready first, to wait on the trail line, then when both are ready pull yourself hand over hand to the current line and then do the same till reaching the mooring line. Then use the mooring line to pull ourselves down to the wreck. This is the easiest physically and saves energy (and air) for the dive.
My first dive started at 9:11 AM. The water was quite clear. Easily 50-60 feet. Water temperature was a bit cooler than what I’ve been used to in the tropics at 75 degrees Fahrenheit but still no problem since I was wearing a farmer john with a top. The farmer john is a 4th Element Thermocline which is neutrally buoyant. I had just purchased a Sharkskin top which is also neutrally buoyant. They’re each equivalent to about 2.5 mm so I had the equivalent of 5 mm neoprene in the torso area, without the buoyancy. What this means for me is no weight belt! 🙂
We hit the side of the hull at around 70 feet. There were plenty of fish around, spadefish, chub, sergeant-major, grouper, hogfish, schools of jacks, and barracuda as well. Even some tiny damselfish. There is coral growing on the ship. After seeing what the wrecks in Chuuk look like after several decades I can imagine what the Texas Clipper will look like in the future!
There is one area for a limited penetration that used to be the Promenade deck that has many openings out so it’s very safe. Mark and I made our way through and out and made our towards the centerline of the ship, which as mentioned before is laying on it’s side. Maximum depth was 91 feet for this dive. Dive time was 23 minutes. The short dive time wasn’t because of air but because even with Nitrox with such a square profile we run into no-decompression limits. I hit the surface with a 100 bar (roughly 1500 psi). All in all a very nice dive.
At the surface they throw you a line. You remove your fins and they pull you in. Hand your fin’s up, then climb out and they assist you in taking off your gear. They even took my camera and put it in the camera rinse tank for me (yes there is a separate tank and they were very clear during the brief that NOTHING except cameras went in).
After a surface interval it was time for the second dive and the previous procedures just repeated themselves. The second dive started at 10:44 AM. More of the same, except this time we went forward towards the bow of the ship. We had one spearfisherman on the boat with us and he speared a lionfish near the beginning of the dive. For my friends on the SE Asia side of the world, lionfish or a real problem in the Caribbean. They are not native to the this side of the world and they can wipe out native species on a reef very quickly. Many programs have been formulated to try and keep them in check including actively spearing them. Lionfish, it turns out, is actually quite tasty! This was another nice dive. Maximum depth this time was 87 feet and the dive was 24 minutes. I again had half a tank when I hit the surface.
Back at the dock there were rinse tanks set up for us to rinse our gear. We said our goodbyes to new friends and exchanged email addresses. My brother was waiting. We loaded my gear into his vehicle and stopped by the shop to buy a souvenir shirt before heading home. All in all an enjoyable experience. I’m sure I’ll do this dive again!
So surprisingly I’m all caught up now! Tomorrow morning I have a doctors appointment and then I’ll be headed to Florida. On Friday I’ll be diving the USS Oriskany sunk off Pensacola so stay tuned. I’m going to work harder on staying caught up now… I hope!
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After returning to the Philippines from my trip to Chuuk in Micronesia I started thinking about my next trip. I knew I would be headed back to the US on July 12th so I decided I would pick a destination in the Philippines. I’d been thinking about going to El Nido again ever since my buddy Ron from California had told me what a good time he had there. I had not been there since 2009 so I decided another trip was in order!
After a web search, I emailed three different dive operations to ask about rates. One criteria of course will be price, but I also want to see how responsive they are to email. This can be an indication about the service that I will receive. If I don’t have a personal recommendation then I will just pick and hope for the best. Normally it works out! Oliver Bachmann, one of the owners of Tabanka Divers, got back to me the same afternoon and offered me a great off-season rate! For diving I paid 3000 pesos a day for 3 dives a day, tanks, weights, boat, and a guide, and including lunch! At current exchange rates that’s less than $20 bucks a dive! I was also able to get a fan room in OG’s Pension House, which is above the dive shop. That was 800 pesos a night, which equates to around $16 dollars. I bought tickets for my flight through Cebu Pacific which is usually the cheapest way to fly in the Philippines.
I traveled by bus to Manila and as I normally do, stayed in a hotel overnight in Cubao. The next morning I took a cab to the airport. At 6:30 AM on Wednesday, June 21st the traffic was relatively light for Manila. Checking in online is the only way to go. Although I had my boarding pass on my phone, they still printed a boarding pass for me when I checked my bag.
The flight to Puerto Princesa was routine arriving at 11:45 AM. Transportation from the airport to El Nido was offered by the flight crew during the flight for 600 pesos. I along with other passengers opted to take advantage. We waited just outside the terminal for about 30 minutes before boarding a van to leave the airport. We were then taken to a parking lot just off the airport property where we boarded a different van. From there we went to the transportation terminal. There we waited another half hour for other passengers to join us before finally heading to El Nido shortly after 1 PM. Late June is the beginning of rainy season and we would have rain off and on on the road north to El Nido. We arrived around 7 PM, so about 6 hours for the trip.
It was rainy and already getting dark when the van arrived in El Nido at the transportation terminal where a trike took me too Tabanka Divers. Joy and Chris were waiting. Joy is the secretary and her husband Chris is one of the divemasters and guides. I got my gear unpacked and then checked in to my room upstairs.
After a good nights sleep (it rained off and on) I went downstairs to the shop. I was assigned a mesh gear bag for my gear. Each day the shop would load tanks and everyone’s gear on the boat. I opted to setup and break down my own gear. This was done on the boat. The shop would wash it and hang it up each day. Each day we went out in the morning and did 3 dives, breaking for lunch after the second dive. The boat usually left around 8:30 or so and we were usually making the first dive before 9:30 but it depended on how long it took to get Coast Guard clearance to depart and how far the first dive site was. The first dive of the day was always the deepest dive followed by more moderate depths. Every dive except one though was more than 60 feet deep.
One thing that was a bit annoying was that boats in El Nido are not allowed to go out until they are given clearance by the Coast Guard. Someone actually comes through each day and clears them. They also require all passengers to be in life vests before they can depart (of course the vests came off pretty quickly once we were out). I’ve not run in too this anywhere else in the Philippines! This was relatively minor though in the overall scheme of things.
I stayed for 5 dive days and did 15 dives at 11 different dive sites. Visibility was very good all five days, averaging 50 feet or more.
South Entalula- This was my first dive on Thursday, June 22nd. My dive started at 9:48 AM. This is a flat reef that begins in about 12-13 feet of water and drops to over 90 feet. Corals were in good shape. I spotted schools of fusilier’s, batfish, nudibranchs, angelfish, lionfish, lizardfish, anemonefish, parrotfish, and gobies. My dive time was 50 minutes and maximum depth was 94 feet.
South Miniloc-Lot’s of corals. It’s a flat reef with sloping sides. The top of the reef is around 15 feet. It slopes off to over a 140 feet. I did 2 dives here. The first dive was my second dive on the first day. That dive was 38 minutes (a beginner in the group) and had a maximum depth of 55 feet. Again the corals here were in good shape. I spotted, parrotfish, damselfish, cleaner wrasse, angelfish, blue-ribbon eel’s, bream, and the highlight of the dive was the large schools of snapper. Water temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
This was the third dive on Saturday, June 24th. This dive started at 1:44 PM and lasted 63 minutes. Blue-ribbon eel, butterflyfish, groupers, and moorish idol’s were all spotted during this dive. More of the same from the previous dive including a large school of snapper. There was also a large school of sweepers and small schools of fusiliers on this dive. Trumpetfish, a boxfish, and a few nudibranchs of course! Towards the end of the dive we spotted a turtle and I got some shots along with about a minute of video. Maximum depth was 64 feet and water temperature 84F.
Twin Rocks-This dive site is on the north side of Miniloc. It slopes from about 40 feet to around 70 feet with a sandy bottom. Large number of table corals and sponges. Lot’s of groupers on this dive. This was the third dive on the first day. The dive started at 3:36 PM and lasted 58 minutes. Maximum depth was 63 feet and water temperature was 81F. I spotted a snub-nose grouper near the beginning of the dive. Then a blacktip grouper and a coral grouper. There were schools of fusiliers flitting around. Another blacktip grouper. A variety of bream, and a leopard coral grouper. A small group of 3 nudibranchs, Chromodoris willani. Another coral grouper hiding under a table coral. Two nudibranchs near each other, Chromodoris annae. Damselfish, lionfish, anemonefish, and another nudibranch, Phyllidiella nigra. A Titan triggerfish with two cleaner wrasse working him over, damselfish, and more anemonefish. My maximum depth was 63 feet. Water temperature was 81 Fahrenheit.
Dilumacad Island AKA Helicopter Island-. My first dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 9:40 AM and was 49 minutes with a maximum depth of 97 feet. Water temperature was 83 Fahrenheit. Right at the beginning I saw a school of catfish, a fairly common sight. There was a nice anemone out in the sand with saddleback anemonefish and a porcelain crab. I saw a couple of blue-spotted rays during the dive. Nice corals, including a lot of lettuce corals. Schools of fusiliers that seemed to be everywhere in El Nido. Nudibranchs, whip corals, squirrelfish, blacktip grouper, moorish idol’s, emperor’s, and damselfish were all spotted on this dive.
It also turned out to be my last dive in El Nido as it was the third dive of the day on Monday, June 26th. The dive started at 1:47 PM and lasted 63 minutes. As before there were schools of fusiliers flitting around, anemones with anemonefish, and lot’s of nice hard corals. I spotted a blue-spotted ray, lots of damselfish, a trumpetfish, grouper, and more anemones and anemonefish. There was a snake eel buried in the sand with just it’s head sticking out, wrasse, juvenile sweetlips, and a really nice scorpionfish. Maximum depth was 76 feet and water temperature was 84F.
North Rock-Depths from 40-100 feet. This was my second dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 11:43 AM and lasted 43 minutes. Maximum depth was 85 feet and water temperature was 83F. There are some beautiful table corals here. Lot’s of damselfish, anemonefish, grouper, and schools of yellow-tailed fusilier’s were all spotted on this dive. Also cardinalfish, squirrelfish, and some really nice soft corals. There were nudibranchs, lionfish, decorator crabs, and ambon shrimp. Some nice swim-throughs that were huge rocks set close together and covered in corals. Right at the end a yellow boxfish. I really enjoyed this dive!
NatNat-Sloping reef to a sandy bottom with beautiful corals and plenty of fish. This was my third dive on Friday, June 23rd. The dive started at 1:57 PM and lasted 61 minutes. Right at the beginning we saw a Dendritic Jawfish-Opistognathus dendriticus. Commensal shrimp perched on an anemone followed by a devil scorpionfish. Out on the sand we found a nudibranch Chromodoris geometrica and a number of pipefish. There were grouper and schools of fusiliers. I spotted another nudibranch, Thorunna halourga. Next was a tiny Harlequin crab Lissocarcinus orbicularis on a sea cucumber. More commensal shrimp, this time on soft corals. Then a banded boxer coral shrimp hiding underneath a table coral along with cardinalfish. In a sandy patch I spotted a shrimpgoby with an alpheid shrimp. There were small schools of bream, various anemones with anemonefish, and at the end a trumpetfish. Maximum depth was 74 feet and water temperature was 85F.
It was also my third dive on Sunday, June 25th. The dive started at 1:50 PM and lasted 55 minutes. Damselfish, two nudibranchs, Risbecia tryoni a chocolate grouper, another nudibranch, Phyllidiella pustulosa, a small blue-ribbon eel, lionfish, commensal shrimp, goatfish, and yet another nudibranch, Phyllidia ocellata. Then two more nudibranchs, a Phyllidiella pustulosa and a Hypselodoris bullockii. Filefish, butterlyfish, damselfish, wrasse, and ending with a scorpionfish. A very enjoyable dive! Maximum depth was 67 feet and water temperature was 87F.
Popolcan-Sloping reef from 15 to over a 100 feet. This was my first dive on Saturday, June 24th. My dive started at 9:32 AM for 56 minutes. Nice corals here. Lot’s of wrasse and damselfish. I spotted a toby near the beginning of the dive. Clams here and there, grouper, and a nudibranch, followed by a pufferfish. Snapper, lionfish, and anemonefish. Schools of bream, a filefish, more anemonefish, and near the end of the dive a beautiful nudibranch, Ardeadoris egretta, one of my favorite nudibranchs. White with a yellow edge on the margin of the mantle.
This was the nudibranch I’d pointed at a picture in the shop when I made my first trip to El Nido and said, “I want a photo of that one”! I did spot just one during that trip and was told how lucky I was, as they’re not common. It was the only one I saw on that trip and this turned out to be the only time on this trip that I saw one too, so I feel pretty lucky! 🙂 My maximum depth was 105 feet and water temperature was 85F.
Paglugaban-Sloping reef with rocks. The top of the reef is in about 25 feet of water and slopes to over 95 feet. The corals were in nice shape, as they were everywhere I dived in El Nido. There were damselfish, and I would spot 4 different species of nudibranchs during the dive. Lionfish and pufferfish, all the usual suspects were around! There were some nice swim-throughs as well. This was my second dive on Saturday, June 24th. The dive started at 11:36 AM and lasted 55 minutes. My maximum depth was 69 feet and water temperature was 84F.
Dilumacad Island/Tunnel-The island has a tunnel on the north side at a depth of about 30-40 feet. This was the first dive on Sunday, June 25th. We were in the water at 9:21 AM and had a 54 minute dive. We did a dive on a wall outside the tunnel to a depth of 105 feet first and then worked our way back to shallower depths. There were large rock formations underwater with gave a few mini-walls to explore. Three different species of nudibranchs, Hypselodoris bullockii, Phyllidia elegans, and Chromodoris annae were spotted along with an octopus, a peacock mantis shrimp, and a juvenile sweetlips. We also saw banded pipefish, grouper, and a decorator crab. After exploring the area outside it was time for the tunnel.
The tunnel qualifies as a cavern dive as surface light is not completely lost, but you do need a light! There are openings in the middle that let light in to a fairly large cavern there. Lot’s of fish inside. A school of sweepers. Soldierfish and squirrelfish and even a couple of sweetlips. There was a lionfish loitering around the exit on the other side. Just outside was a cowrie with the mantle extruded and covering the shell. On the way back through we found an electric clam. A nudibranch up on the ceiling, a Chromodoris fidelis near the exit, and crawling along the bottom along the wall was a devil scorpionfish. Just outside another nudibranch, a Halgerda batangas. A very nice dive!
Paradise Beach-Sloping reef 3-70 feet. Some nice corals patches with large sandy areas. This was my second dive on Sunday, June 25th. The dive started at 11:31 AM and lasted 65 minutes. Shrimpgobies with shrimp, with a pair of sea moths to start out. An anemone with ambon shrimp, clams, more gobies, schools of bream, anemone’s with anemonefish, goatfish sifting through the sand, hermit crabs, and juvenile pufferfish. Lot’s of life! Maximum depth was 62 feet and water temperature was 87F.
It was my first dive of the day on Monday, June 26th, the last dive day. Dive started at 9:12 AM and lasted 54 minutes. Similar to the first dive. On this one spotted a mantis shrimp hiding in it’s hole, anemone’s with anemonefish, moorish idols, cardinalfish, and a nice size flounder. Schools of fusliers, and a sea snake on the hunt. A stingray buried in the sand, and a few nice corals. Maximum depth was 69 feet and water temperature was 87F.
Denise Reef-Beautiful coral garden that slopes down to a sandy bottom. This was my second dive on the last day. The dive started at 11:27 AM and lasted for 58 minutes. Lot’s of nice hard corals, damselfish, yellow boxfish, butterflyfish, a nudibranch, Phyllidia varicosa, schools of fusiliers, a toby, and a pufferfish. A pair of nudibranchs, Risbecia tryoni, engaged in mating, another Phyllidia varicosa, anemone’s with anemonefish, and yet another nudibranch, Phyllidiella nigra. Schools of fusiliers, butterflyfish, lionfish, gobies, and flounder out in the sandy area. Another great dive! Maximum depth was 74 feet and water temperature was 83F.
I think 4-5 days is about right for El Nido and will give you the opportunity to dive all the top dive sites there. Three dives a day also seemed like a good pace.
El Nido seemed drastically different to me from the sleepy little town I remember from my last trip there in 2009. There has been a lot of construction. In 2009 I only remember 3 dive ops. Now there are well over a dozen. Tourism is big business here with lots of tours (island hopping, snorkeling, etc…), souvenir shops, and some really great restaurants.
There were 3 restaurants that stand out in my memory… one because it was so bad and two because they were so good. I ate at Squido’s the first night I was in El Nido. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but the service was terrible and so was the food. I won’t eat there again.
The second night Joy recommended Artcafe which turned out to be really good. Artcafe is really in to locally grown and produced food I had the El Nido Salad which is a combination of fresh greens, mango, and nuts with a homemade dressing. Very tasty! They also have live music in the evening and a great 2nd floor balcony you can sit on. I also had breakfast my last morning. Great omelette and really nice, locally grown, coffee. Also very good.
The other restaurant that stands out is Pinche’s. This is a Mexican restaurant that is right on the beach. The food was so good there that I had dinner there twice while I was in El Nido. Great homemade chips and salsa, excellent fish tacos, and amazing chicken enchilada’s! The service was really good too. It was so good I asked to speak to the manager (turned out to be the owner) the first time I went in. Turned out the owner was from El Paso, Texas which explained everything to me! He was using his grandmother’s recipe’s which also explained the great taste. I’ve been going to the Philippines for 10 years and this is the absolute best Mexican food I’ve had there! I’m from Texas and I know good Mexican food when I taste it. Great food, great service, and great location on the beach!
After breakfast on the 27th I grabbed some cash from the ATM and settled my bill at Tabanka Divers. Then a trike to the transportation terminal, followed by a long (almost 6 hour) ride back to Puerto Princesa. I stayed at Grandma’s Home Bed and Breakfast for 2 nights. Because of the rainy weather my gear wasn’t quite dried out so I hung it on the balcony there. The place was gated and had security cameras and someone awake to watch over everything 24 hours a day so it was a very secure place to stay. Made the trip to the famous Underground River on the 28th and flew back to Manila on the 29th. A very nice trip!
So now I am just over a week behind… amazing I know! 🙂 Next I’ll be writing about my trip to South Padre Island where I dived the Texas Clipper on July 29th. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to head to Florida where I will be diving the worlds largest artificial reef, the USS Oriskany CV-34 on Friday, August 11th. Stay tuned!
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Chuuk has been on my list (as it probably has for many scuba divers) for a long time! On May 30th (yes I know I’m 2 months behind now 🙂 ) I was very close to going on a trip to Malaysia. I was just waiting for a response from a resort there when I happened to notice a post on Micronesia Divers Association’s Facebook page. It was for 5 nights and 5 days of diving aboard SS Thorfinn in Chuuk for only $1997, including airfare from Guam and free nitrox!
It sounded to good to be true! I fired off an email and had a response from Matt at MDA less than an hour later. I immediately decided to book. It was just too good a deal to pass up! On June 3rd I flew to Guam from Manila.
Anyone traveling to Chuuk from the US will almost certainly fly through Guam and a few days there to recover from jet lag is not necessarily a bad idea! I’ll talk a bit about Guam then to start off. I’ll describe the trip there and I’m also going to give some historical background on Chuuk. There will be information on Operation Hailstone, the military operation launched by the United States during WW II that essentially removed Chuuk as a military threat for the remainder of the war. I’ll give you a rundown on Thorfinn and then background on the wrecks that I dived that week. Then the return to the Philippines. I hope you will enjoy 🙂
On Saturday after I arrived and checked into my hotel, I went by MDA (Micronesia Dive Association). They’re located in Piti on Marine Corp Drive. The staff were very friendly and let me use a computer and printer to print out my itinerary and voucher for the trip. I’d not done that before leaving the Philippines as I don’t have a printer there. Everything had happened so fast that I hadn’t had time to go somewhere to do it. They also recommended Mosa’s for dinner which turned out to be a great place!
It was Saturday night and Mosa’s was packed when I got there! I think that in itself says something about the popularity of the place! Mosa’s is in Hagatna (one of the villages in Guam) on a street that parallels Marine Corps Drive (the “main” drag in Guam). It would be easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. The staff were friendly. Food was great and they had craft beer which was really good too. A bit more than I’m used to paying, but I found that was true of a lot of places in Guam during my visit. After all Guam is an island in the Pacific and a lot of things are brought in from outside.
On Sunday morning I had breakfast at the Kracked Egg in Tumon which is the main tourist area. The food was great but unfortunately I can’t say the same for the service. I wasn’t greeted when I came in. I got a table and a menu and sat down. A couple of waitresses walked by but no one offered to take my order or expressed they would be with me. There were empty tables and most of the people already seemed to have their food so I don’t get why no one approached me. Finally I got up and went to the counter and asked if I were supposed to order there and was told no and a waitress finally came and took my order. When I was ready for a refill on my coffee I had to go and get it myself. Same when I was ready to check out. The food was decent. I had the corned beef brisket and eggs and the coffee was also excellent, but $11.95 for breakfast and $2.75 for coffee seems a bit steep even in a tourist area. Coupled with the terrible service I don’t think I’ll be going back! To add insult to injury they tacked on a “service” charge!
Later I went by GMI Scuba Wholesale. There I met Jim Pinson who it turned out I had mutual friends with (small world). Jim is the Dive Rite dealer on Guam which is what brought me into his shop when I saw the sign. I had been thinking about upgrading to the deluxe harness on my Dive Rite aluminum backplate (I’d already upgraded the harness for my stainless steel plate). After some thought I ended up deciding to do that. I also needed hose clip retainers and bought 4 so I’d have a few extra. They work really well and were impossible to find in the Philippines. Jim is a really friendly guy and we spent some time talking about Guam and other dive destinations in Micronesia.
The rest of the day I cruised around in my rental car getting a feel for the place. I found that prices were a bit higher than what I normally pay back home and significantly higher than what I’ve paid during my stay in the Philippines! I drove to the Navy Base, stopping at Navy Federal Credit Union and used the ATM before going in. I walked around the exchange (a department store on base for all the civilians reading this) and checked out prices. Very similar to the US. I filled my gas tank before leaving the base as fuel on base is close to a dollar a gallon cheaper! Still significantly higher than on the mainland but every little bit helps! I opted for McDonalds for dinner.
I was up early on Monday morning, the 5th of June. I had installed the new harness on my back plate the night before and re-packed everything. Of course my batteries were all fully charged in preparation of diving that day! I was checked out by 6 AM. I stopped at McDonalds again for breakfast, although in hindsight I should have just eaten at the airport. Check in was a quick process as I dropped my bag since I’d already checked in online. I had my boarding pass on my smart phone. A bit of a line getting through security but it went relatively quickly.
I’d been sent an email by Matt telling me that Eric McClure would be leading the trip. It wasn’t hard to figure out who he was as he was wearing an MDA shirt with his name on it! I picked the group out of the crowd just based on how they were interacting as they obviously all knew each other. Eric and Greg Snell who I would meet later were walking together hand carrying their cameras in the housing. After passing through security I walked up behind them and as they were getting ready to turn in to the United Lounge, jokingly said, “Nice rig’s, but to high dollar for me”! They both laughed and said they’d managed to get a deal on used equipment. I laughed too as I completely understood! It helped that it was a short flight too! I continued on to the gate. I could have introduced myself at that point, but I decided it might be funny to wait until later 🙂
I had wondered if we would all be sitting together but this turned out not to be the case. We were spread out on the plane. The plane started boarding at 7:40 AM and we took off around 8:20 arriving in Chuuk around 10:10 AM… just under 2 hours. Immigration was pretty routine. I got my passport stamped and then moved on to claim my luggage. Everything was done by hand… to small for a carousel! The bags were unloaded on the other side of a curtain and pushed through. When my bag showed up I grabbed it and made my way through the crowd. My claim ticket was checked to insure I had my own bag and I was waved through.
Chuuk is located only 7 degrees above the equator a 1000 miles northeast of New Guinea and 3300 miles southwest of Hawaii. Chuuk is made up of dozens of islands, but only seven of them have any significant population. The larger islands possess volcanic peaks, the tallest being nearly 1500 feet. The barrier reef is roughly triangular in shape and a 140 miles around. Within that is a huge deep water lagoon more than 800 square miles in area. Sitting just above the equator with lots of sunshine and rainfall, the average year round temperature is 81 degrees Fahrenheit making it green and lush. Water temperatures during our week there were in the low to mid 80’s. Visibility in the lagoon is normally 50 feet or better and can be much more. Even without the wrecks, Chuuk would be a divers paradise!
On the sidewalk outside the terminal I saw a local holding a sign with “Thorfinn” on it. I walked up and said hi and introduced myself. This turned out to be the driver who’s name was Tun. It started raining about this point. We waited a few minutes and when the rain slowed he walked out to get the vehicle. By the time he pulled it around it had stopped raining. He took my bags and I piled into the van to wait for the rest of the group who all showed up after me.
We introduced ourselves all around. Eric, who I mentioned earlier, is retired US Air Force and the Instructor Coordinator and PADI Course Director at MDA. Then there was Greg Snell who is a radiographer working with non-destructive testing on aircraft in Guam. When he saw me he exclaimed, “Oh you’re with us”! He’s also part-time PADI MSDT. I’d seen him earlier with Eric. He and Eric were the ones walking together. I don’t blame them for hand carrying their camera rigs. Expensive gear like that I can understand wanting to keep under your exclusive control, not to mention keeping it from adding to your baggage allowance! Jason Cunningham, is a US Navy Warrant Officer stationed on the Navy Base in Guam. Jason too, is a part time PADI MSDT. He’s also a NAUI instructor who had extensive experience in the Pacific Northwest before transferring to Guam. Last and certainly not least was Marcin Czerniakow who told us to just call him “C”. After finding out his last name I understand why! He’s a doctor at Guam Memorial and also it turned out, a dive instructor, though not actively teaching.
We were driven to Blue Lagoon Resort to meet the boat that would take us out to the SS Thorfinn. We were there a little after 11 AM. Along the way Eric, who has made many trips to Chuuk over the years kept up a running commentary on what we were passing and the history of Chuuk over the years that he had been coming there. At the resort we met Kjartan “KJ” Ohmsen, a PADI Instructor and Photographer from Denmark, and Alessandro “Alex” Barlettani, who is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor from Italy. A boat was waiting and we were whisked out to the SS Thorfinn. It was a bit overcast and looked like rain, but things like that have never bothered me. “It doesn’t rain underwater” I like to say and plenty of people have heard me say it over the years!
When we arrived on the Thorfinn we were met by Captain Lance Higgs. Having been there since the 70’s he has seen it all. The SS Thorfinn pioneered the liveaboard industry in Chuuk! Obviously he has plenty of stories to tell!
We all met in the lounge and Lance gave a fascinating talk on the history surrounding Operation Hailstone, the American attack on Chuuk that some called “payback for Pearl Harbor”. During WW I Japan invaded and occupied the Caroline Islands (which Chuuk is a part of geographically). At that time they were administered by Germany who had purchased the Caroline and Marshall Islands from the United States who had acquired them at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. In 1920 after the war ended, Japan received a mandate from the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) over the Caroline and Marshall Islands. Prior to and during WW II, Japan built Chuuk into a formidable base. Although their agreement with the League of Nations stipulated that there was to be no military buildup there, they ignored that. They also settled Japanese colonists throughout their holdings in Micronesia. By the time the war started there were over a 100,000 Japanese in Chuuk with only 50,000 native islanders. Chuuk had become a major logistical and operations base and the home port for the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Combined Fleet.
The islands surrounding Chuuk Lagoon were heavily fortified with a Japanese garrison consisting of 27,856 Imperial Japanese Navy sailors and 16,737 Imperial Japanese Army troops at the time of Operation Hailstone. The Allied Forces called Chuuk the “Gibraltar of the Pacific”. The Japanese had built roads, trenches, and bunkers. They had fortified caves and mounted coastal defense guns and mortar emplacements. They had also built five airstrips, seaplane bases, a radar station and a communications center. Additionally they built a torpedo boat station and submarine repair shops. Chuuk performed the same function for the Imperial Japanese Navy that Pearl Harbor had done for the United States Navy.
Operation Hailstone took place over two days, February 16-17, 1944. After the fall of the Marshall Islands, the Japanese had begun moving their warships, with carriers and battleships going to Palau only the week before Operation Hailstone. There were still plenty of targets left though! By the time the attack was over 3 Japanese light cruisers, 3 auxiliary cruisers, 4 destroyers, 2 submarine chasers and a aircraft transport ship had been sunk, along with a large number of merchant ships. All were sunk either within the lagoon or while trying to escape. On the first day American Hellcat fighter pilots had shot a 124 Japanese planes out of the sky and a similar number had been destroyed on the ground. Many of these ships were fully loaded with supplies and troops to support and reinforce garrisons around the Central Pacific. Officially 47 Japanese ships were sunk, 270 aircraft destroyed, and over 4500 killed. On the US side there was a loss of 25 aircraft and 40 killed. The Japanese later relocated a 100 aircraft from Rabaul to Chuuk. US Navy carrier forces carried out a second attack April 29-30, 1944 destroying most of those aircraft. At the time of that attack they found no shipping in Chuuk Lagoon. This would be the last major attack on Chuuk of the war, although later B-29’s would bomb Chuuk as practice before launching raids on Tokyo from the Marianas.
Today, Chuuk Lagoon has the largest concentration of wrecks in the world! Which is why so many divers, including me, dream about diving there. Now my dream was about to be realized. I was ready!
Safety is important. As part of the brief Lance also talked about additional safety stops. He touched on some of the research that has been done about deep stops. Policy on the Thorfinn was a 2 minute stop at 60 feet, 3 minutes at 30 feet and 10 minutes at 15 feet plus any additional deco (Unlikely). This was for safety reasons as many of the wrecks are quite deep. 3 of the 21 dives I would make during the week were beyond recreational depths of 130 feet. 10 of the 21 were over a 100 feet so lot’s of deep diving! With a schedule that gave us 5 dives a day on 3 of those days, a little “extra” seemed a reasonable precaution. There is a decompression chamber in Chuuk, but who wants to use it if they don’t have too?
We were allowed to do our own dive but no solo penetrations was the rule. With the exception of the morning dive which was usually the deep dive and would be on air, we were all diving nitrox. The guides were always on air so they might come up before the other members of the group.
Captain Higgs has been coming to Chuuk since the 70’s. He has an incredible depth of knowledge about not just the history of Operation Hailstone, but the history of the individual ships that were sunk there. Each of the dive briefs would take at least 15 minutes. He would give the history of the ship, what it’s purpose was and how it came to be in Chuuk. He would talk about the crew and cargo and how the ship was sunk and how it was lying on the bottom. He would tell us about interesting things to look for and if a penetration was advisable or not. Some penetrations are no longer safe due to deterioration of the wrecks. Being a history buff I found his dive briefs to be fascinating. I said to him several times during the week we were there that he should write a book!
Let me talk a bit about the ship. The SS Thorfinn was built in 1954 and was originally a Norwegian whaling ship operating through the 50’s and 60’s. After that it was utilized as a tug boat. In 1977 it was converted to a Utility/Charter cruiser. It has a capacity for 20 guests. She’s a 170 feet long, 30 feet on the beam, and a draft of 17 feet. She has a cruising range of 9000 nautical miles at 11 knots with a top speed of 16 knots.
The Thorfinn is an older ship and it’s been 12 years since the last time it was renovated so adjust your expectations. If luxury is what you’re looking for, then the Thorfinn is not for you. That would be the Odyssey… but you will pay for that of course! The Thorfinn is very much about the diving (and isn’t that what we go there for?). I doubt any other operation in Chuuk can give you the sheer variety of diving that the Thorfinn can. In our case we dived 16 different wrecks in just 4 1/2 dive days with 2 aircraft wrecks thrown in! Now that’s what I’m talking about! The rooms are comfortable enough and the truth is you spend very little time in them.
Every morning about 6:30 AM some type of pastry or sweet would be put out in the lounge and the coffee pot was always ready! At 7 we would go for breakfast where we would order from a menu. Lunch and dinner was always set but the variety was good. Chuuk is very isolated so again that is something to remember. I really enjoyed the food while I was there. When we would come back after the afternoon dive (dive #3) there would always be a snack for us (really good spring rolls!)
Given the overall expense of diving there (from the US you can easily spend $2K on airfare) they may or not be at full capacity. During the time we were onboard there were only the 5 of us plus one more! (I think a combination of luck and timing) The other guest was Trevor who was taking a break before starting law school. He was there for a month! He was doing his Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, Deep, Wreck, and Nitrox specialties. Talk about a “working” vacation!
The Thorfinn having been built for Arctic (and Antarctic) conditions is a tank! After Typhoon Maysak plowed through in 2015, only the Thorfinn was still fully operational (although it did sustain some damage of course). Both the Odyssey and the Siren were driven up on the reef while the Thorfinn rode it out.
Once he finished his general brief of the ship, safety rules, and history he asked us about what wrecks we wanted to dive. The Captain of course had final say based on conditions, but he was very open to us diving wherever we wanted. Eric had been to Chuuk many times and the rest of the group deferred to his advice and the Captains.
In five dive days I would end up with 21 dives. I dived the following wrecks below. Unless otherwise stated, they were all sunk during Operation Hailstone.
Heian Maru-Launched in 1930. Former ocean liner on the Yokohama to Seattle run. On her maiden voyage she set a trans-Pacific speed record. Requisitioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and converted to a auxiliary submarine tender. The largest wreck in Chuuk Lagoon she lies on her port side in a 110 feet of water. The shallow side of the wreck is only 40 feet. I went 70 feet during this dive which was the first dive on the first day.
Fujikawa Maru-We dived this wreck 3 times, 2 day dives and a night dive. Cargo ship built in 1938. Requisitioned in 1940 by the IJN and converted to an armed aircraft transport. One of the coolest wrecks we dived and considered by some to be one of the best wreck dives in the world. There are 4 disassembled Mitsubishi aircraft in one of the forward holds and a 6 inch bow gun. She sits on an even keel in 110 feet of water. The deck is at 60 feet and the superstructure is only 30 feet beneath the surface. I went to 91 feet on my first dive there (2nd dive of the trip) and 76 feet that same night during a night dive. I really enjoyed this dive. The ship has lots of coral, anemones, and marine life. Very nice! When deciding where to dive on our last dive day we chose to dive this wreck a third time! Coincidentally I also went 91 feet on the last dive also.
Nippo Maru-A passenger/cargo ship, she was launched in 1936. She was requisitioned in 1941 and fitted out with water tanks. The Nippo Maru was used to haul water and munitions. It’s holds were packed with munitions, weapons, gas masks, trucks, and a tank on deck! One of the deeper dives I made. It sits in a 155 feet of water. The superstructure is reached at 90 feet and the deck at a 120 feet. I went a 139 feet on this dive. The Nippo was our morning “deep” dive on the second day we were there. We did a blue-water descent with the superstructure not coming into view until we were about 40 feet. Something we did more than once during our 5 days of diving.
Yamagiri Maru-Passenger/cargo carrier launched in 1939. Requisitioned by the IJN and converted into a military transport ship. In hold number 5 are armor-piercing shells, that were destined for the battleships Yamato and Musashi. Their 18″ guns were the largest ever made (American battleships had 16″ guns). The ship is sitting in a 120 feet of water with parts of it at 60 feet. I went a 105 feet during this dive. This was the second dive on the second day.
Kikukawa Maru-Launched in December 1938. It was used as a passenger/cargo ship prior to the war. This ship was not sunk due to Operation Hailstone. On 7 October 1943 it was being unloaded when a fire broke out. The cargo in the rear hold was primarily munitions and there may have been fuel drums as well. Other ships came alongside to help fight the fire and were pouring water into the holds when an explosion tore off the rear third of the ship. It basically evaporated along with the Ojima which was there to help fight the fire. The remainder of the ship immediately sunk! It’s on a sloping bottom from 70-125 feet and is upside down. The forward holds contained airplane parts and more fuel drums. I hit a depth of a 117 feet here. It was the third dive on the second day.
IJN Futagami-The Futagami is a Imperial Japanese Navy salvage tug launched in 1939. The Futagami actually made it through the war but was abandoned, left anchored with no crew on board. It eventually sank. The stern is in 30 feet of water and the bow in a 100 feet lying with a 45 degree list to port. The engine room and bridge were both in great shape and we were able to do a penetration. I went 67 feet on this dive. This was the fourth dive on the second day.
Kiyosumi Maru-We did this wreck twice, a day and a night dive. It was our fifth dive on the second day (night dive) and then we would dive it again as the second dive on the 4th day. It was built in in 1934 with very luxurious passenger accommodations. As in many other ships of the day, it carried freight as well as passengers. It performed passenger service from the Orient to New York City The IJN took control of it in 1941 and it was converted into an armed, merchant raider. It’s on a slope resting on it’s port side with the bow in 70 feet of water. The deep end is at a 120 feet. The deck starts at 40 feet and slopes down. I went 75 feet on the first dive I made there and 102 feet on the second one.
San Francisco Maru-One of the most famous wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon. It is on many top 10 lists along with Fujikawa Maru for best shipwrecks in the world to dive on! It was built in 1919 and was originally coal powered, but was later converted to an oil fueled ship in 1922. Before being requisitioned by the IJN it was used in trade throughout the Pacific. During the war it was used to transport equipment and ammunition. It was sunk after being struck by six 500 lb bombs from aircraft from USS Essex. She’s sitting on an even keel in 210 feet of water. The deck is at a 165 feet and the superstructure at a 140 feet. This was our deepest dive of the trip. Another blue-water descent with the superstructure not coming into view until we were at 80 or 90 feet. Due to the depth I only got 12 minutes on this wreck, spending more time in deco than I did on the wreck, but it was worth it! I focused on the forward area of the ship visiting the bow gun and then getting some shots of a truck and a tank sitting on the deck. I briefly dropped over the side to take a photo of a damselfish and coral (2 shots that didn’t come out) and then went back up. My maximum depth was 173 feet. A personal record that is probably going to stand for a while! When I get the chance to go back I’d like to take a look in the cargo holds that are crammed with war materials. Everything from mines and torpedo body’s, to aircraft bombs, airplane engines, artillery shells. This was our first dive of the day on the third day.
Kansho Maru-Launched in 1938 and utilized for cargo and passengers before the IJN requisitioned her. She initially was put to work transporting supplies from Japan to the Marshall Islands. She was later retrofitted with a deck gun and gun crew and also had a medical staff added to help transport wounded. Great engine room and machine ship to explore. The floors on the bridge have given way and radio equipment has tumbled through into the Captains quarters below. Other than that the bridge is relatively intact. She rests at a 105 feet. My maximum depth was a 105 feet. It was the second dive on the third day.
Sankisan Maru-Prior to the war the ship was used to transport cargo (mainly rice). It was requisitioned by the Japanese Army to transport military personnel and supplies at the beginning of the war. The ship was blow apart with the midship superstructure being obliterated! The stern section ended up in deeper water about 200 feet away where it sits at 160 feet. The rest of the ship lies on an even keel in 90 feet of water. The deck is at 50 feet. There are trucks, ammunition, and aircraft parts in the cargo holds. This wreck is covered in really nice soft corals with plenty of fish life. My maximum depth on this dive was 73 feet. It was our third dive on the third day.
Shinkoku Maru-A tanker built in 1940, it was initially utilized in transporting oil from the United States (back when we were the largest exporter of oil in the world). She was requisitioned by the IJN and immediately put to work. She was part of the strike force that attacked Pearl Harbor. She rests on an even keel in 130 feet. The superstructure is at 40 feet and the deck at 70 feet. It’s covered in corals, both soft and hard, sponges, anemones, and schools of fish. It has a nice bridge with 3 telegraphs, and also an operating table in the superstructure with a number of artifacts (including human bones) that were placed there by other divers. A very nice dive. This was our fourth dive on the third day. My maximum depth was 87 feet.
Aikoko Maru-Designed to carry passengers and cargo, she was part of a secret mobilization plan and was immediately acquired by the IJN upon her completion August 31, 1941. She and her sister ships served as heavily armed raiders attacking shipping between Australia and South America. Later she joined German raiders in the Indian Ocean around Java in the same mission. She arrived at Chuuk shortly before Operation Hailstone transporting part of the Japanese Army’s First Amphibious Brigade. Reportedly 730 members of this brigade along with 11 ships crew were killed when she was sank. She rests on an even keel in 210 feet of water. The superstructure is at a 130 feet and the deck at a 160 feet. This was the second deepest dive of the week for me at 160 feet. Anti-aircraft guns are installed on top of the aft deckhouse. The stern gun is still pointed upwards. This was the first dive on our fourth day.
Unkai Maru-Was built in 1905 in Great Britain and is the oldest ship sunk in the lagoon. She was bought in 1911 by Nakamura Gumi Ltd. Her original name was “Venus”. She was requisitioned very late in the war in January 1944 and arrived in Chuuk the end of the month. She’s sitting upright on an even keel at a 130 feet. The deck is at 100 feet and the superstructure reaches up to 80 feet. Another wreck that is initially a blue-water descent. There is a bow gun, heavily encrusted with coral. There is also an engine room that is interesting as it is an older design. I went 114 feet on this dive going into the forward hold where there were old gas masks, china, bottles, and drinking flasks. This was the third dive on the fourth day. The second dive I talked about earlier was the Kiyosumi Maru which we also did on the second day.
Gosei Maru-Built in 1937 it was part of a class of coastal freighters designed for maximum cargo capacity. She’s lying on a steep slope on her port side, with her bow at 10 feet and her stern in 120 feet of water. The cargo was made up of torpedo body’s, shell’s and fuel drums. There was a period when it was not really safe to dive because of deteriorating explosives. Explosions have been reported by local’s going back to 1976-77. The most recent was almost 20 years ago in 1998. I went 76 feet on this dive. This was the fourth dive on the fourth day.
Hoki Maru-A captured New Zealand freighter built in 1921 in Scotland. Her original name was M/V Hauraki. Her engines were the latest 8 cylinder, 4 stroke diesels. She was the first of her kind to be driven by power instead of steam and had twin screws. She was used for trans-Pacific trade, mainly between New Zealand and Australia. She was requisitioned by the British Ministry of War Transport in 1940, but continued her regular route. She was captured in 1942. Her New Zealander crew sabotaged the engines and threw overboard all tools, spare parts, and blueprints of her unique engines. In January of 1944 after 18 months in Singapore having the engines overhauled she was re-commissioned as the Hoki Maru and sent to Chuuk. She arrived just in time to be sunk! She is the only captured ship that was sunk there. She’s sitting with a slight list to port on an even keel in a 168 feet of water (most references say 165 feet, but I touched the bottom ;)). The deck is at a 120 feet and the superstructure at 80 feet so yes, another blue-water descent. Lot’s of interesting cargo including, bulldozers, trucks, munitions, and bombs. This was our first dive of the day on our fifth and last day of diving.
“Jill” Bomber-In remarkable shape sitting in 84 feet of water like it had just come in for a landing! The history of this particular plane is unknown but we can narrow it down a bit. The Nakajima B6N Tenzan (designated “Jill” by Allied forces) was a torpedo bomber that could land and take off from aircraft carriers. They were the latest design and began reaching front-line units in August 1943. They were intended to eventually replace all the B5N aircraft that were operating from the carriers of the 3rd Fleet based in Chuuk. Maximum depth was 84 feet. This was the 3rd dive on our fifth day of diving. (second dive was Fujikawa Maru).
Zero-Interesting but I’m not sure it should be classified as a dive! The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was introduced at the beginning of the war it was considered the most capable long range fighter in the world! It’s maneuverability was legendary and early in the war it achieved a 12:1 kill ratio! This was quickly overcome though by a combination of advances in aircraft and tactics and by mid-1942 it was more or less even. The Zero was in very shallow water, flipped upside down and almost completely encrusted in coral! We stopped here on the way back after our 3rd dive and myself and Greg, who is an aircraft buff jumped in to take some photo’s. Maximum depth was 29 feet and we were climbing back on the boat after a 12 minute underwater… I suppose “technically” it’s a dive, but I doubt I’ve ever done one that short! It was still interesting nonetheless!
Rio de Janeiro Maru-When built in 1930 the Rio de Janeiro Maru was a passenger liner with 8 decks. It could carry 1,140 passengers along with a crew of 150. She was requisitioned in 1940 by the IJN and converted to a sub-tender. In 1943 she was re-converted into a transport ship, moving military supplies and personnel. The ship is resting on it’s starboard side in a 110 feet of water. The superstructure is between 40 and 80 feet down. She has a large stern gun and large propellers (the group posed for a photo with the propeller taken by KJ). There was were many crates of beer. There is an engine room and long passageways that can be penetrated. At the bow you can see where internal explosions took place as it’s blown out in several places. My maximum depth was a 110 feet. This was the last dive on our last dive day.
I ended up diving on sixteen different shipwrecks and two airplane wrecks in 4 1/2 days of diving. Does it get any better?!?! This is one of the advantages of the Thorfinn. Since the ship anchors in a strategic location and then dives from small boats there is the opportunity to dive a greater variety of wrecks. We could, and did, dive on five different wrecks in a single day!
After the last dive on Friday, June 7th we washed our gear and sat it out to dry. I started pulling my things together in preparation to leave. That night we had a barbecue on deck. It was a good time as we decompressed and talked about the week. A couple of the girls from the staff who took care of us all week put on a show with some native costumes and dance. The food was good, the company was great, and we had native girls dancing for us… what more could one ask? 🙂 The party was over early. Nothing like diving 4-5 times a day to make you sleep well!
The next morning I slept in a bit, not getting up until 7 AM. I’d been getting up at 6:30 all week. After breakfast I checked on my gear. We had plenty of time as the flight wasn’t until 4:20 PM. My gear was still drying, although diving in a synthetic (4th Element Thermocline) farmer john with a rash guard, does cut down on not just weight, but drying time too! I finished packing my dive bag just before lunch. After lunch the crew loaded our bags in the boat and we were taken back to Weno where a van picked us up and took us to the airport.
KJ went along for the ride and we chatted a bit. He was very interested in the Philippines and thought it might be a place he’d like to check out. I got his information and we’re friends on Facebook now and have been in touch since.
Check-in with United Airlines went smoothly. I paid my departure tax ($20 bucks) and got my passport stamped. Then it was just waiting for the flight. Once the flight arrived we boarded and were back in Guam before 6 PM. We said our goodbyes at baggage claim. After getting through customs, I picked up my rental car and checked in to the hotel. Sunday I drove around and visited a couple of apartment complexes (I’ve been giving some thought to re-locating to Guam for a bit) and on Monday I checked out and caught my flight back to the Philippines in the evening.
Am amazing trip! I will visit again I’m sure!
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My next blog piece I’m planning to write about El Nido in the Philippines. I spent 5 days diving there in June after returning from Micronesia. After that I’ll write about my trip to South Padre Island here in Texas where I dived the famous Texas Clipper last weekend. Next week I’ll be headed to Florida. First stop will be Pensacola, “The Crade of Naval Aviation” and home to the worlds largest artificial reef… the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany CV-34! Stay tuned!