Tag Archives: Bill Stewart’s Underwater Adventures

Bauan Divers Sanctuary

I first met Lourdes and Mark Lowings at last years DRT Show. Surprisingly they still remembered me when I walked by their booth at this years show! It was September 9th and I’d just returned to the Philippines after being home in the US for two months. DRT happened to be taking place the weekend I flew in.

While at home I’d made only 15 dives and was itching to get back in the water. The first week I was back there was a weather system passing by and conditions not the best. I opted to go spend the week at Subic Bay and Olongapo, where I often hang out in between dive trips. I have many friends in the area and it’s a popular place for expats like myself. I arrived in Olongapo the day after DRT ended as I wrote about in my last blog post.

I emailed Lourdes after arriving and negotiated a rate to visit the resort for a week, checking in on Sunday and leaving Saturday. I’d not really expected to dive that week, but towards the end of the week conditions improved and I decided to get a couple days of diving in Subic Bay. I wrote about the diving there in my previous blog piece.

Sunday morning, September 17th, I caught a trike to Victory Terminal in Olongapo. There I caught a bus to Cubao in Manila. From the Victory Terminal in Cubao, I walked a couple of blocks to the DLTB Terminal where I caught a bus to Lemery. I kept in touch with the resort via text messaging and when I arrived in Lemery, there was a driver there to pick me up. From there we had a short drive to meet a boat which was a short 10 minute ride to the resort.

I was a little blown away by the resort to be honest… much nicer than the places I normally stay! I tend to skimp when it comes to accommodations to save more money for diving. Bauan Divers Sanctuary Resort is a very picturesque place, built into the side of a hill it overlooks Balayan Bay. The resort has a total of 32 rooms. 16 suites that will sleep up to 8 people, 6 standard rooms that will sleep up too 5 people, 6 non-aircon backpacker rooms with a cold shower, 2 spa suites, and 1 instructor suite that will sleep 4. There is also a cottage with 4 showers and comfort rooms that will sleep up to 10 people. The resort is obviously very capable of accommodating large groups. There are two pavilions that are ideal for groups. They are complete with rinse tanks and places to hang gear.

When I arrived it turned out that I was the only guest in the resort! A couple of days later a group arrived from China but until then I had the place to myself. I was shown to one of the standard rooms. An absolutely beautiful room. Marble floors, beautifully decorated, and huge! Two king-size beds and one twin bed. What we call a “bathroom” or “restroom” in the US is called a “comfort room” or “CR” in the Philippines. This one had modern fittings and enclosed shower with hot water! (I stay in fan rooms with no hot water quite often to save money so a nice luxury for me 😉 ) There was also a dressing area with plenty of closet space. The resort has wifi throughout. There was a bench on the porch outside the room where you could sit, relax, and watch the sunset if you liked. A very nice room! I got unpacked and put all my batteries on charge.

The restaurant is located in a very nice pavilion complete with a bar. It appeared to be capable of easily seating a 100 people at one time. A great place to sit and watch the sunset. I was really impressed with the food there. Food was amazing and plenty of it! The first couple of days when I was there by myself I was served at the table. Once more people arrived they put out a really nice buffet. Every afternoon after the 3rd dive they would bring a snack and drink down to me. My only complaint initially when it was just me, was they were providing me with too much food! I felt surely I was gaining weight! 😀

Obviously a lot of thought and planning had gone into the resort. Everything from the multiple rinse tanks and racks for hanging gear to showers, to the swimming pool, to where we entered the water, everything was oriented towards the diver. There are two pavilions that are capable of handling different large groups. There are male and female comfort rooms and individual showers. Towels are provided. They have rental equipment and nitrox available.

Unlike in other resorts in the Philippines I’d dived where the emphasis is on boat diving, the focus at Bauan Divers Sanctuary is on shore entry. I knew before I went that I would be shore diving and I was frankly, quite curious about just how good the diving in the sanctuary would be. It turned out I was not prepared!

I’ve been diving the Philippines since 2007 and have logged almost 400 dives there. I have experienced a lot of great diving there. I have to say that Bauan Divers Sanctuary has the best “house reef” of any resort I’ve dived with! A diverse and healthy fish population and nice corals. There are multiple entry points from the resort and different routes making a number of “different” dives possible. Whether we went straight, left, or right. Sometimes we would come back to the entry point, but more often we would exit at a different spot than where we entered. Water temperatures ran around 84F and visibility averaged 40+ feet.

There are wall’s, caves, an island, an underwater pinnacle, sandy areas, and the opportunity to see something new on every dive, all from shore diving from the resort itself. Anthia’s, groupers, damselfish, pipefish, batfish, moray’s, crabs, shrimps, clams, soldierfish, squirrelfish, numerous nudibranch species, trevally, razorfish, trumpetfish, ribbon eels, butterflyfish, peacock mantis shrimp, sea turtles, filefish, hawkfish, even lobster… all the “usual suspects”! I made 3 dives a day for 3 days and never tired of the diving! On the 4th day I did my only boat dives heading south along the coast and doing boat dives in front of Dive and Trek and at Portulano House Reef. After we returned we did a 3rd dive in the sanctuary. I ended up with 12 dives in 4 dive days.

I really enjoyed the 4 days of diving with Bauan Divers Sanctuary Resort. In all I did 12 dives with them. On Friday, September 22nd I took a break and after talking with Lourdes at dinner that night she offered one of the resorts boats to take me across to Anilao. By boat it was less than 30 minutes versus a boat ride, followed by a trike, followed by a jeepney, transfer to another jeepney, then another trike. I was really appreciative of being able to take the direct route! Next morning as promised, I was taken by boat to Anilao.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let the photos speak about the diving at Bauan Divers Sanctuary 🙂 I will be back!

Next up I’ll cover my 2nd trip to Anilao this year and second time diving with Anilao Scuba Dive Center so stay tuned! I arrived in Anilao on September 23rd and left on September 27th.

I’m in Hawaii now and trying to get caught up so I can start writing about what I’m currently doing. I still have my visits to Anilao and Puerto Galera to write about. I’ll be here in Hawaii for about 2 1/2 months so stay tuned!

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Diving Subic Bay with Arizona Dive Resort

I checked out of my hotel the next morning after DRT on September 11th and caught a cab to the bus station in Cubao. From there I got on a bus to Olongapo where I caught a jeepney to Barretto. I arrived roughly 4 hours later (traffic has been horrible in Manila) still recovering from jet lag with the 13 hour time difference.

One of the nice things about Subic Bay for people who will be traveling there from out of the country, is how easy it is to reach from Manila. Take a cab from the airport (if you’re flying in) to the Victory Terminal in Cubao. Taxi should be around 300 pesos, give or take depending on traffic and route taken. If they want to negotiate a flat rate keep this in mind. It they take the toll road they will want you to pay the toll and that’s fair as it’s saving time. Sometimes taxi drivers in Manila don’t want to use the meter because they feel they aren’t getting adequately compensated because of the amount of time spent sitting in traffic. I’m not totally unsympathetic to this so take into account when negotiating or tipping. I don’t tip on negotiated rates so if the asking price is within the range I would probably tip anyway, then it’s an easy negotiation. If they know that I know what the meter rate would be it’s easier to get them to come down. Expect roughly 350 with tip plus tolls. I sometimes offer “meter plus 50 pesos” and they will pretty much always agree to that. Just some things to keep in mind while negotiating 🙂

In Cubao, hop a bus to Olongapo (205 pesos). From there you can catch a taxi or trike to where you need to go. Going rate for a trike from Victory Terminal in Olongapo to Barretto is a 150 pesos. I almost always take a trike if I have dive gear with me as it’s just too much trouble in a jeepney 🙂 A taxi/van will be around 350 pesos. So to get from the airport in Manila to Arizona would be about $15 dollars US via public transport. A bit over $20 if you take a van instead of a trike from the terminal in Olongapo. A private van to pick you up is more convenient but expect to pay at least 5000 pesos ($100 bucks). If you’re in a group though the difference may make the convenience worth it 🙂

I stayed at The Coffee Shop Restaurant and Rooftop Hotel a Filipino-owned place whom I’ve mentioned previously here in my blog. The Coffee Shop Restaurant is open 24 hours and serves good Filipino food. I’ve eaten there many a night. They’re also known for their tacos which are huge! A standard room in their Rooftop Hotel is 1095 pesos a night (little less than $22 dollars at the current exchange rate). I consider the rooms to be US standard. Rooms are clean and well-maintained. There is free wi-fi included and the rooms have cable television which include HBO and Cinemax as well news channels from the US, Discovery Channel, History Channel, etc.. I go there sometimes just to relax after I’ve been diving somewhere else in the provinces because the amenities are all there at a reasonable price.

Across the street is Arizona International Resort, an Australian-owned operation, which is beachfront on Subic Bay. I’ve spoken with the folks at the Arizona Dive Shop a few times as I have spent a lot of time in the Olongapo area the last couple of years. I eat in the resorts restaurant on a fairly regular basis when I’m in town and would occasionally stop in to chat with the guys in the dive shop. Their Economy Rooms are 1350 pesos a night (cash price) with a Standard Room going for 1550 pesos. About $27 and $31 dollars a night respectively. They do offer package deals if you are diving with them according to their website. If I were coming just to dive I’d look into that. I’ve never stayed at Arizona, as I spend time in Olongapo as much as to relax and catch up on things as to dive. Arizona does have a great reputation, though and my experience with the restaurant, bar operation and dive operations bear that out. I can say it is very convenient to stay at the same place you’re diving speaking from past experience. Since retirement though I try to save money where I can with only the occasional splurge… that leaves more money for diving 🙂

For places to eat and drink I’ve eaten in the Arizona restaurant quite often over the last couple of years when I’ve been in town. Their restaurant is one of the better ones in the area in my opinion. I eat breakfast usually at Arizona are at VFW. VFW is further down the road on the left just across from Crazy Horse Bar and next door to Sit-in-Bull Annex. I usually have dinner at Sit-in-Bull Restaurant on Del Pilar Street which is American-owned and operated and in my opinion the best restaurant in Barretto. If I don’t have dinner at Sit-n-Bull I go to Arizona and occasionally to Shamboli’s, an Italian place also American-owned which is just a few minutes walk from Arizona. For Filipino food Coffee Shop is one of the most popular. For drinks, I like Dynamite Dicks, Two Can, or Sit-n-Bull Annex. Those are the essentially “neighborhood” bars. Score Bar is on the premises at Arizona and has plenty of big screen tv’s. Arizona also has a Floating Bar when it’s not typhoon season and that is a cool place to relax too.

Now about the dive operation…. Arizona is a PADI 5 Star Resort and offers training all the way up to Instructor Development Courses and Specialty Instructor courses. They have a reputation as one of the premier dive operations in the area. I’ve run into people who have dived and taken courses with them over the last couple of years and always heard good things about them. I’d also spoken with Kent Simmonds the dive shop manager a few times. Kent is from Australia and is a very personable guy. Arizona has a strong focus on offering good training. With their great location being on Subic Bay people come from all over for training in Wreck, Deep, and EANx. With such a great reputation I decided I would do a few dives with them myself so I could form my own opinion.

The operation is quite professional with high standards. Their boats all carry oxygen onboard and their boat crews are trained in first aid/CPR and as oxygen providers. They provide hot towels after your dive to wipe your face which is a nice touch and free hot snacks, along with coffee, tea, and water on the boat during surface intervals. They go out twice a day and try to allow guests to choose the dive sites they want to dive on when conditions allow.

I’ve almost always had Filipino dive guides over the years except for a couple of times I dived with the owner of a dive operation which happened I think as much as because they were really busy as anything else. This time my guide was James Sims one of the instructors there. A companionable and down to earth guy who was very knowledgeable about the wrecks and their history. James, who is from England has been an instructor for just a year but has a 100 certifications under his belt already. He calls himself a bit of a “metalhead” and loves diving the wrecks. He did a thorough dive briefing before each dive and was quite familiar with a lot of the history surrounding the wrecks. A lot of the experience for wreck divers I think is the history of the wreck they are diving on so diving with someone who is familiar is a nice plus!

I did 5 dives with Arizona over the course of 2 days September 14th and 15th. Barges, San Quentin, and LST all dives I’ve done multiple times (Barges and San Quentin are two of my favorite dive sites in Subic). They also took me too two dive sites I’d not dived previously, Beer Barrels and the Skyraider wreck which I quite enjoyed.

The first dive on the 14th was Beer Barrels. Beer Barrels is a large structure composed of steel trusses, with large cylinders inside of it. The cylinders reminded someone of beer barrels, hence the name. The structure was alive with life including black and green frogfish, lot’s of scorpionfish, spider crabs, nudibranchs, and even a lobster! There were also the usual suspects, lots of fish life which can always be found around any large underwater structure. It’s a square profile as it sits in approximate 100 feet in open water so we were on 32% nitrox. Our dive started at 3:16 PM and was 38 minutes. My maximum depth was 97 feet. Visibility was maybe 30 feet and water temperature was 83F. This could easily become my new favorite dive site! 🙂 This was my first dive with Arizona and was a great dive! James impressed me with his ability as a spotter also. A really great start 🙂

Giant Frogfish (Antennarius commerson) photographed at Beer Barrels in Subic Bay, Philippines.

In addition to Beer Barrels, on September 14th we also dived the Barges near Grande Island. One of my favorite dive sites in Subic Bay it was a floating dock that eventually sank after it was abandoned. The sections of the dock form a rough “T” and sit on a mainly sandy bottom. There is some separation of the sections. One side drops off from roughly 20 feet to around 60 feet. The other drops to over a 100 feet. The wreckage is a haven for a large variety of marine life. When I think about the photos I’ve taken at this site peacock mantis shrimp, nudibranchs, snapper, lionfish, pufferfish, butterflyfish, cardinalfish, all come to mind. I’m absolutely positive I’ve lost track! This dive was very typical of my previous experiences there. We did a 51 minute dive there. Visibility was typical at about 40-45 feet. Water temperature was 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus) photographed on “The Barges” in Subic Bay, Philippines.

The first dive on the 15th was the LST. LST’s (Landing Ship Tanks) were a very versatile ship designed for transporting tanks and vehicles. Over a 1000 of them were built in the US during WW II. Many were later converted to use as floating repair ships, hospital ships, troop transports, or floating barracks for accommodations.

This one sits upright on a sandy slope on the eastern side of the bay in 90-118 feet of water. Our dive started at 9:40 AM and was 44 minutes diving with 32% nitrox. Maximum depth was 100 feet and water temperature was 84F. Visibility, as is often the case closer in to the shore was less than 30 feet. As always the wreck was alive with fish. We did a limited penetration and then we roamed around the exterior of the wreck looking for subjects for my camera. An enjoyable dive!

Longfin Batfish (Platax teira) photographed on the the LST wreck in Subic Bay, Philippines.

Our second dive on the 15th was the San Quentin, another of my favorites that I’ve written about before. The San Quentin was a Spanish gun boat that was scuttled at the entrance to Subic Bay in 1898 to block the American Navy from entering during the Spanish-American War. Although the ship is largely deteriorated, the stern with it’s rudders, along with the boilers and the bow are all still easily recognizable. It sits in shallow enough water to give good light and the visibility is almost always good. In the past I’ve observed that when other sites within the bay had poor visibility due to weather, San Quentin (along with Barges) was the go too site as it’s almost always good there lying as it does near the entrance to the bay. It’s close by Barges as it’s just to the southeast of Grande Island.

Our dive on San Quentin started at 11:24 AM and lasted for 61 minutes. We were diving 32% nitrox. There was tons of fish swarming around. Quite a few nudibranchs. I spent some time stalking a coral grouper with limited success. I’ve spotted everything from flying gunard’s and blue-spotted ray’s on the sand surrounding the wreck to various species of nudibranchs, and lot’s of sweetlips, jacks, and grunts around the wreck. A very nice dive and as I mentioned one of my favorites in Subic Bay. Water temperature was 85F and visibility was around 40 feet.

Hypselodoris tryoni photographed on the wreck of the San Quentin, Subic Bay, Philippines.

The third dive on the 15th was Skyraider. This was another dive site that Arizona took me to that I had not dived previously. The Douglas A-1 Bomber, known as the Skyraider, was used extensively during the Korean War. It was still being used when this one lost power and crashed just off the end of the runway on 27 April 1964.

Coral grouper near the nose of the Skyraider which is overgrown in places with coral and crinoids.

Another deep dive with a square profile we opted for 28% nitrox. The wreck is intact and sits upright on the bottom in 118 feet of water. The wreck was alive with fish and other marine life. I spotted two different species of grouper, numerous cardinalfish, along with tiny shrimps in the cockpit. Maximum depth was 116 feet and our dive was 27 minutes. Even with nitrox you can only stretch it so long without running into deco 🙂 Water temperature was 83 degrees Fahrenheit and visibility was only about 20 feet.

Instruments still clearly visible inside the cockpit of the Douglas A1 Skyraider.

Back at the shop the crew took care of washing my dive gear and hanging it up to dry. I let it hang and dry and just picked up my gear later when I came in to settle my bill. I met James later that evening at the Score Bar with a couple of guys who’d just completed their Divemaster training with Arizona for a couple of beers. It was an enjoyable experience and I’m sure I’ll be diving with them again!

On Sunday morning, September 17th, after breakfast at Arizona, I packed and checked out of my hotel. Grabbed a trike and started my journey to Bauan Divers Sanctuary who I’ll be writing about in my next blog post.

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Short Update

A short update for those who have wondered where I’ve been the last couple of months since I’ve not published anything since August. I’ll also write a little about things that have been going on that I didn’t cover previously.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I flew home to Texas a few months ago on July 12th. After two months at home it was time to travel somewhere that I could dive on a more regular basis (the last couple of years that has been the Philippines, but stay tuned!)… I did only 15 dives during the 2 months I was home, all of them in a 3 week period between July 29th and August 18th… great dives, but still only 15 dives! It was time to go again. In one sense I travel to dive and I dive to travel… it all fit’s together somehow 🙂 After boarding a flight in Houston on September 8th I arrived back in the Philippines on September 9th. (Yes I know I’m back to being over a month behind again!)

Obviously one of the first things I did after I got home in July was to set an appointment with a cardiologist to see where my recovery from my heart attack was. In March I was cleared to dive by my cardiolgist in the Philippines who put me at 80% then. I had both nuclear and treadmill stress tests in July the week after I arrived home and met with my new doctor there to renew my prescriptions. I had a second meeting with my cardiologist on August 10th to go over the results of my tests. He told me (although I already knew this) that the tests indicated that I’d had a massive heart attack with a significant amount of scarring around the top of my heart. He also said that I was lucky to be alive but I should make a full recovery. The tests indicated that my heart function was almost back to normal! I asked him to sign a PADI Medical Statement giving me clearance to dive and he did so.

A quick synopsis of diving while I was home… I started off with a couple of dives on the Texas Clipper, a very nice wreck dive off South Padre Island in Texas. My first time diving in Texas… Although I was born and raised in Texas somehow I’d never dived there! That was July 29th. On August 10th (right after meeting with my Doctor) I headed out to Florida. On the 11th I did two dives on the Oriskany, an Essex-class aircraft carrier and the worlds largest artificial reef. After arriving back at the marina, I loaded up the car and headed east on I-10 and then south on I-75 and the Florida Turnpike. After a night in a hotel along the way, I arrived in Venice, Florida (The Shark Tooth Capitol of the World) on the 12th. I relaxed on the 13th, and did two dives on the 14th coming up with a few fossils and two sharks teeth for my efforts. From Venice I headed south to the Florida Keys and Key Largo for 2 days of diving there and then north to Palm Beach County and two more days of diving. A very nice trip. I arrived back in Texas on August 21st, taking a few moments to view the eclipse along the way while passing through Alabama.

The first week of September I applied online for my certificate of eligibility from the Veterans Administration for educational benefits. This was in preparation to attend training to become a dive instructor (I got certified over 35 years ago… maybe it’s time!). On September 8th (as I mentioned earlier) I caught an EVA Airlines flight back to the Philippines, landing in Manila on September 9th. I caught a couple of hours of the DRT (Dive, Recreation, Travel) Expo that day and was there all day on the 10th. I ended up doing 33 dives between September 14th and October 1st (good to be back!). I dived in Subic Bay with Arizona Dive Resort, at Bauan Divers Sanctuary north of Anilao, with Anilao Scuba Dive Center in Anilao, and with Frontier Scuba in Puerto Galera. I’ll be writing more on these adventures in the next couple of weeks.

My certificate of eligibility for VA Educational Benefits was received the first week of October. After a fairly thorough search and corresponding with a few different dive operations with IDC’s (Instructor Development Course’s), I decided a trip to Hawaii was in my future! 🙂 I’ll be arriving in Hawaii on October 31st. My IDC starts on November 6th. I’ll be doing my training up through MSDT (Master Scuba Diver Trainer) with Dive Oahu, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center. By the time I complete my training I should be ready to teach PADI courses up through Divemaster along with Emergency First Response and ten specialities. I’m really looking forward to the training and the opportunity to dive in Hawaii!

Finally, on October 10th I was privileged to attend the finals of the Miss Scuba Philippines pageant as a guest of Lourdes and Mark Lowings, the owners of Bauan Divers Sanctuary and one of the pageants sponsors. Congrats to Cindy Madduma, Miss Scuba International 2015 and the pageant director for this years pageant in the Philippines. Putting something like this together take an enormous amount of time, effort, and dedication! Great job and I know everyone enjoyed the show!

I’ve enjoyed my time in the Philippines as I always do, but I’ll be headed back to Texas on the 22nd for another short break before leaving for Hawaii.

Coming up will be posts on DRT, Subic Bay, Bauan, Anilao, and Puerto Galera so stay tuned!

Palm Beach County, Florida-Sharks and Goliath Groupers!

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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Key Largo, Florida-Home of America’s First Underwater Park

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.

Tech divers descend to the Spiegel Grove, one of the premier artificial reefs you can dive while visiting Key Largo, Florida.

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.

US Navy veteran D.J. Hall salutes the flag that is still waving above the USS Spiegel Grove LSD-32, which now serves as an artificial reef 6 miles off-shore of Key Largo, Florida.

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!

The Shark Tooth Capitol of the World!

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.

Dan does a quick class on the geologic history of the area as well as the identification of fossils and how to find 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.

Floats with dive flags are conveniently located near the stern to be handed to divers after they enter the water.

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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Diving the Worlds Largest Artificial Reef

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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El Nido, Philippines

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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