Tag Archives: underwater photography

Diving on New Years Day

When I was living in Japan a few of us in the dive club used to always try to dive December 31st and on New Years Day. Finishing out the old year with diving and starting the New Year with diving… perhaps some people can relate πŸ™‚

I did a couple of training dives on December 31st with Brian Mara, one of the Course Directors at Dive Oahu (See my previous blog post). We were finishing up instructor specialties in Self-Reliant and DPV. Although I’d been in Hawaii for 2 months, it was the first time I’d gotten out on Dive Oahu’s boat, Anger Management. Anger Management is a 46 foot, Newton Dive Special. At 16 feet at the beam and with over 500 square feet of deck space there is plenty of room. It uses an open transom design making it very easy to enter and exit the water. There are plenty of snacks, soda’s, water, and hot cocoa or hot tea available to refuel with between dives.

Since I was doing training I’d left my camera behind that day. After we got back to the dock, I mentioned to Brian I would like to do a couple of dives on New Years Day and he told me no problem he’d get me on the boat. Later in the evening I received an email that I was booked for 7 AM. One of the nice things about doing instructor training with Dive Oahu is that we can go out on the boat whenever there is an opening and there usually is. I’d been so wrapped up getting ready for my instructor exam that I’d not taken advantage of this previously.

On New Years Day I was at the dock about 6:45 AM. I dropped off my equipment at the boat, then went and parked my vehicle. We waited for a few people who were running late (they had called) so the boat didn’t get underway until after 7:30. Once everyone arrived there was a final roll call, followed by the boat brief. As we left the harbor I looked to my left and could see the sun peaking up over Diamond Head. It was looking like a beautiful day with just a few clouds in the sky. We arrived at the first dive site about 15 minutes later.

I ended up with Chris Massie who helped out during my IDC while working on his IDC Staff Instructor certification. There were 4 people in our group. He gave a thorough dive brief as we headed to the dive site which was only about 15 minutes away. I’d neglected to inquire what dive site the day before and realized I had the wrong lens for the first dive. We were diving a wreck and I had setup with a 60 mm macro lens so although I got plenty of shots of life around the wreck, I don’t have any wide-angel shots of the wreck itself (Next time πŸ™‚ ).

After reaching the site, one of the divemasters (almost all the divemasters are actually instructors) went over to secure a line to the mooring buoy and check conditions. As it turned out it was near perfect conditions… no current and visibility was 90 feet+! Chris mentioned that there was often at least some current at this site so we felt pretty lucky!

The wreck we were diving is one of the most popular dive sites in the area. The YO-257 was a Yard Oiler of the United States Navy. She saw service in WW II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The 1390 ton vessel is a 174 feet long and 33 feet at the beam. She could carry 200,000 gallons of fuel. She was sold for scrap in 1982 and after being purchased by Atlantis Submarines Hawaii, was reefed in 1989 off the coast of Oahu near Waikiki. The ship rests upright in a 100 feet of water. She was prepared for diving by having many large access holes cut throughout. Her main deck is at 85 feet. The bow section rise abruptly with a small deck at approximately 75 feet.

There is another wreck, the San Pedro, which is near enough that you can do two wrecks in one dive, but we found so much to keep us occupied that we spent the entire dive on the YO. Dive time started at 7:58 AM. My maximum depth was 99 feet as I went to the sand, but then worked my way back up and along the side just below the level of the main deck. The wreck was alive with fish. We spotted a couple of white tip reef sharks, including one inside the wreck itself. We saw a nice size moray eel too (they’re bigger than the ones I’m used to seeing in the Philippines). We also saw a few spotted eagle rays. Those who went over to the San Pedro saw 3 turtles. Because of the depth and being on air before we knew it our computers were telling us to go up. Dive time was 31 minutes. Water temperature was 71 degrees Fahrenheit.

After everyone was back on the boat and roll was called we untied from the mooring and headed over to the second dive site. From here I could see Point Panic. We again tied up to a mooring. Where we tied up was a site called Mid-Pipe. This is the Kewalo Pipe which enters near Point Panic, only here we were much further out. Kewalo Pipe is an old drain pipe that runs south out to sea. A lot of coral has grown up around it.

Our dive started at 9:12 AM. From where we tied up we kicked over to Secret Reef. Lot’s of fish and a turtle. Boxfish, butterflyfish, soldierfish, hawkfish, a nudibranch (Jorunna funebris), all the “usual suspects” πŸ™‚ After checking out Secret Reef we headed back to the pipe and made our way along it back towards the mooring line. There was another huge moray right at the base of the mooring line. Dive time was 42 minutes, visibility was probably 60-70 feet, water temperature was again 71 degrees, and maximum depth was 46 feet. Another nice dive πŸ™‚

Once everyone was back on the boat, roll was again called we untied from the mooring buoy, and headed in. Back at the dock I helped switch out tanks as the boat got ready for the next group. It had been a great morning πŸ™‚

I ended 2017 with a 147 dives. The first 2 dives of 2018 were in the log book! πŸ™‚ All in all it was a great start to the New Year! I’ve a feeling I will do a lot more dives in 2018 πŸ™‚

I hope everyone enjoys my blog πŸ™‚ If you do, why not take the time to subscribe so you never miss a post? Just hit the button at the top of the page. It will only take a few moments πŸ™‚

Until next time!

On Becoming a Scuba Instructor

When I originally travelled to the Philippines in October 2015 I planned to travel around the country for maybe 6 months and then move on to other parts of Asia for maybe another 6 months. After that I had a tentative plan to move to Guam and use it as a base to dive Micronesia. “Life” as they say, doesn’t always work out as planned πŸ™‚

I ended up spending 18 of the next 24 months in the Philippines. I would complete over 230 dives in those 18 months (at present I’ve made around 400 dives in the Philippines). I visited and dived in Moalboal, Subic Bay, Boracay, Malapascua Island, Puerto Galera, El Nido, Dauin, Apo Island, Panglao Island, Cabilao Island, Bauan, and Anilao. A few of these places I visited multiple times (read about many of them here on my blog). Along the way I made a lot of great memories! πŸ™‚

During my time in the Philippines in addition to the occasional trip home I had the opportunity to travel to one of my dream destinations. In June 2017 I traveled to the world-famous Chuuk Lagoon! (read about it here on my blog) I booked my trip to Chuuk through Micronesia Divers Association, based in Guam. To reach Chuuk, I needed to travel through Guam and it seemed a good time to check things out and find out if moving there was something I still wanted to do.

Initially it looked like maybe Guam was going to be a bit expensive for me. The prices on everything were a bit shocking at first. It makes sense when you consider how almost everything is imported… but still! I thought maybe I could afford to live there, but there wouldn’t be a lot left over to travel as much as I like. I was going to have to think some more.

During the week I was in Chuuk I had several conversations with Jason Cunningham and Greg Snell who both worked as part-time instructors at MDA. I eventually approached Eric McClure, who is the Course Director there, who told me “no problem” if I wanted to contract with them to teach. He understood that I would do my IDC somewhere else as their program wasn’t yet approved by the Veterans Administration so I could use my educational benefits to pay for the course. Eric is retired from the US Air Force and understood that I would want to use the benefits I’d earned from my service to pay for training. By the time I left Guam I certainly had a lot of food for thought!

The truth is that for a whole lot of reasons, I’d always said that I wasn’t that interested in becoming an instructor. I just wanted to dive! I think part of my concern was that I never wanted to reach a point where I would stop enjoying diving. I was worried that if it became a “job”, that some of the fun would go out of it for me.

I let all this percolate in my brain when I went back to the Philippines. In the end I decided that life is what we make of it. As much as I enjoyed scuba diving, why not share that with others? I decided that I could teach part-time and make enough money to live in Guam while still being able to travel and dive regularly. In July I went home to Texas and while there started to do a serious search for a place to do my IDC (Instructor Development Course). I corresponded or spoke to people in Florida, Texas, and Hawaii. In the end I decided on Hawaii πŸ™‚

I flew to the Philippines in September. I had a couple of months to kill while I waited for the IDC to start in November, so why not go diving πŸ™‚ I flew home again the last week of October for a week. Then flew to Hawaii. I arrived in Hawaii on October 31st.Β  My IDC officially started on November 6th.

The IDC I eventually chose was with Dive Oahu which is based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham. Training was primarily with Course Director Scott Wilson with assistance from Course Director Brian Mara and Master Instructor Joshua Childress. Chris Massie who was doing his IDC Staff course was a big help also.Β Unsurprisingly, since I’d done my Divemaster in 2009 and had never worked as a Divemaster I was pretty rusty πŸ™‚ Obviously not when it came to diving, but when it came to “demonstration” quality skills (trust me it’s a LOT different than just doing it) I definitely needed to brush up. I had no problems “doing” any of the skills, but “demonstrating” is much different than “doing” πŸ˜‰ I also was quite rusty on Dive Theory so I spent a lot of time over the next several weeks reviewing that.

One thing I discovered the first night in the pool was in spite of what people might think… it gets COLD in Hawaii! With temperatures in the 70’s in the evening, after 4 hours in the water I discovered I did not have enough exposure protection! For a typical 1 hour dive I would have been fine, but water is a very good conductor of heat and I was shivering long before the end of the first pool session! I’d brought what I normally wear for diving in the tropics/semi-tropics. This gave me the equivalent of 2 1/2 mm from the waist down, my arms, shoulders and upper chest, and 5mm for remainder of my torso. After another 4 hour pool session and an open water training dive that approached 5 hours in the water I decided enough was enough! Less than a week after starting my course I bought a 5mm wetsuit. After the next pool session I was more than happy I did as it proved to be more than adequate πŸ™‚

Over the next 5 1/2 weeks we drilled and practiced in the pool, in open water, and in the classroom. We did classroom work in dive theory which included physics, physiology, dive equipment, decompression theory, diving environment, and dive skills. In the pool we learned not only how to demonstrate and teach, but also how to catch problems and mitigate risks when teaching students underwater.

The focus of the IDC is really on teaching and in every classroom session, pool session, and open water session we would be given assignments to teach. Scott and Brian proved to be tough graders and after every presentation we would receive constructive criticism and feedback on ways to improve. They would always start off with what we did well, but we knew the rest was coming πŸ™‚ The result was constant improvement as we moved through the course. I have to say that it was work. Some of it I enjoyed, but not all it was fun πŸ™‚ In the end though, it would payoff!

Classroom and Pool sessions were held at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham which I could make in 20-25 minutes depending on traffic. If I left too late it could take an hour or more during rush hour! Open water training was conducted either at Kaka’ako Beach Park (known locally as Point Panic) which is near Waikiki, or Kahe Point Beach Park, (locally called Electric Beach because of it’s proximity to a power plant). Since I’m staying in Waikiki Point Panic is quite convenient for me. Electric Beach takes about 35 minutes for me to drive too from Waikiki (early morning no traffic)

The first 3 weeks are actually the PADI Assistant Instructor course. We finished this up on November 26th. In addition to Assistant Instructor we were also certified as Peak Performance Buoyancy Instructors, Project Aware Instructors, and as AWARE Coral Conservation Specialty Instructors.

The Open Water Scuba Instructor portion started on November 27th and was officially over on December 15th. Our Instructor Exam took place over two days, December 16th and 17th. All the hard work paid off in the end. Preparation is key in many things and passing the PADI Instructor Exam is no exception.

The exam was held at a local high school which also had a swimming pool for the pool/confined water portion of the exam. The classroom had a number of tables with two chairs at each. Brian Phillips, one of my classmates in the IDC and I sat together. Scott Wilson our Course Director was there also to assist, along with Course Directors from other dive operations. Course Directors were not directly involved with their own students though. Ross Neil, the examiner from PADI, gave a briefing on how the exam would proceed over the next 2 days. First would be written tests on PADI Standards and Practices. Then another written test on Dive Theory. After finishing the written exams, we would have a break to prepare knowledge presentations. The “classroom” part of teaching. This would be followed by another break while we got ready to teach our confined water/pool assignment. We also had to demonstrate skills. That would be the first day. The second day we would meet at E-Beach where we would teach open water skills and perform rescue skills for grade.

I think one of the things that candidates stress over is that they don’t know what they are going to be required to teach until the day of the exam. You have to literally be prepared to teach anything that your certification qualifies you to teach! Preparation really is key when it comes to passing the exam. When we received our assignments Brian and I looked at each other, chuckled and said “no problem”! In the end all the preparation we’d received from our instructors at Dive Oahu paid off! We all pretty much breezed through the I.E. πŸ™‚

After completing the I.E. we completed Emergency First Response (CPR/First Aid) Instructor (a requirement for OWSI), and Care for Children w/AED Instructor with Brian as the primary instructor with assistance from Scott. Β  PADI approved these along with my OWSI on December 21st.

The week between Christmas and New Years I worked with Brian Mara to complete requirements to be certified as an instructor in PADI specialties Digital Underwater Photographer, Project Aware Dive Against Debris, Self-Reliant Diver, DPV (Dive Propulsion Vehicles), and Equipment Specialist.Β Four of these courses required dives and I completed these over 2 days, December 30th and 31st

Obviously I want to be able to teach underwater photography πŸ™‚ That was a natural specialty for me to choose to teach. There is some controversy about diving solo, but underwater photographers often feel like they’re diving solo anyway! Why not learn to do it safely. Hence, Self-Reliant. Project Aware is an organization that is doing great work in promoting protection of our marine environment. One of their projects is “Dive Against Debris” and it’s a very concrete way that we as divers can help improve our environment. DPV just looked like it would be fun (it was) and there are some practical applications in using them I found.

Here are a few shots taken for my instructor course for Digital Underwater Photography.

I’m currently working on the Master Scuba Diver Trainer Program which will certify me to teach an additional 10 specialties.Β  These include Boat Diver, Deep Diver, Drift Diver, Emergency Oxygen Provider, Enriched Air Diver, Night Diver, Search and Recovery, Shore, Underwater Navigation, and Wreck Diver.Β  We are scheduled to complete this program on January 28th.

I expect to be very busy the remainder of the month, but I will try to sneak a blog post in here and there when I have time πŸ™‚ Next time I plan to write about one of the great wrecks to dive on here in Hawaii, the YO-257.

Until next time πŸ™‚

Short visit to Puerto Galera

I arrived in Puerto Galera on September 27th and stayed until October 2nd.Β  Β I took my gear and dropped it off at Frontier Scuba. I’ve dived with Frontier my last 3 visits to Puerto Galera now.Β  This trip I stayed at AAA Hotel.Condo.Apartment.Β  I had a small studio and the rate was reasonable. I took the 28th off. I decided to just spend a few days in Puerto Galera as I’d just been there 6 months earlier.

I did 2 dives a day on the 29th, 30th, and October 1st. The first day I dived West Escarceo and Monkey Beach. On the 30th I dived Dungon Beach and Sabang Point. Finally on October 1st I dived West Escarceo once again and finished up with Sabang Wrecks.

As with my previous blog post about my last visit to Anilao, I’m going to add photos here and let them do the “talking” πŸ˜‰ For further information about diving in Puerto Galera I will refer y’all to my earlier blog posts from my previous visits there. Just type “Puerto Galera” in the Search box at the upper right hand corner of the page.

On October 2nd, I left Puerto Galera and headed back to Subic, where I often spend time when I’m not diving. I flew home to Texas October 22nd. After a week at home I flew to Hawaii arriving on October 31st. I started my IDC on November 6th. Those of you who follow me on Facebook may already have seen a few photos πŸ™‚ I’ll be writing a bit about the IDC in my next blog post πŸ™‚

Return to Anilao

So to start, even though I visited Anilao back in late September, I got a bit side-tracked.Β  Easy for me to do I know πŸ˜€ Β  I’ve been in Hawaii for over 2 months now.Β  This is really late so I’m going to keep it short… besides it’s photo’s I think everyone wants to see anyway πŸ˜‰

On September 23rd, Bauan Divers Sanctuary very kindly had one of their boats take me across to Anilao. What was a 20 minute boat ride would have likely taken an hour and a half or more. It would have involved a boat ride and a trike ride, followed by a jeepney, shifting to a second jeepney, and finally to another trike to make it to Anilao Scuba Dive Center from Bauan. Β  I was very happy to not have to do that carrying to heavy bags stuffed with electronics, clothes, dive and photo equipment!

I dived with Anilao Scuba Dive Center again. Β  Prices are reasonable and I like the people there.Β  I tend to keep going back when I like a place πŸ™‚

Weather was not the best on the 23rd so I opted to take the day off. Over the next 3 days I completed 9 dives. I started on the 24th with dives at Kirby’s Rock, Coral Garden at Sombrero Island and Matu Rock.Β  On the 25th we dived Secret Garden, Suntree, and El Pinoy.Β  On the 26th Secret Bay, Coral Garden, and Secret Garden again.Β  Water temperature was mid-80’s with visibility averaging 35-40 feet.

Rather than go into detailed descriptions I’m going to publish photo’s instead this time πŸ™‚ Β  I am VERY far behind right now! πŸ™‚ For more information about ASDC and Anilao I’ll refer you to my previous blog posts.Β  Β Anilao Part OneΒ Anilao Part Two

 

On the 27th I departed for Puerto Galera. As I did my last trip to Anilao, I opted for a trike to take myself and my bags to the bus terminal, where I caught a bus for the short trip to the port and a ferry to Puerto Galera.

I’ll try to knock out Puerto Galera quickly so I can write a bit more about Hawaii so please stay tuned πŸ™‚

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 πŸ˜‰ ) 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! πŸ˜€

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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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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? πŸ˜‰ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ I am on vacation after all πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ™‚ 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!

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 πŸ˜‰ ).

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 πŸ™‚

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” πŸ˜‰ 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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Texas Clipper-South Padre Island, Texas, USA

I left the Philippines on July 12th for home in Texas. I travel almost constantly now so it’s nice get home from time to time to visit friends and family!

I also planned to dive while I’m in the US of course. It might surprise some people to know that up until a week and a half ago, I’d never dived in my home state of Texas! I decided during this trip home that I needed to rectify that!

I’d often thought about diving the Texas Clipper since I became aware of it as a dive destination a few years ago. Of course as those of you who follow my blog know, I’ve dived almost exclusively in the Philippines the last few years. Now I decided, was a good time to do some diving here in the US.

The Texas Clipper was originally christened the USS Queens (APA-103). A Windsor class attack transport ship named after the the borough of Queens in New York City. She is 473 feet long and over 7000 tons. She served with the US Navy during WW II. She was built and commissioned in 1944. After the war she was sold to American Export Lines in 1948 and renamed Excambion. For the next 11 years she sailed a regular route from New York to ports in the Mediterranean carrying passengers and cargo. In 1959 she was returned to the Maritime Administration under a trade-in program. Consequently she was laid up as a part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet from 1959 to 1965 when she was loaned to the Texas Maritime Academy as a merchant marine officer training ship. She filled this role for the next 30 years. After that she was returned to the National Defense Reserve Fleet and moored in Beaumont, Texas until 2006 when she was transferred to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reef Program.

The Texas Clipper was docked at the Port of Brownsville, Texas where $4 million dollars was spent in preparing her for sinking. The ship underwent a cleanup of hazardous materials and openings and modifications were made in order to make it safer for divers and wildlife. Masts and kingposts were cut to meet Coast Guard Clearance requirements and secured to the deck. She was sunk in a 136 feet of water on November 17, 2007, approximately 17 miles northeast of South Padre Island. Unfortunately she tipped over on her side when she contacted the bottom. The shallowest part of the wreck is at 70 feet.

The week after I got home I contacted American Diving in South Padre Island about diving her. They run regular trips on the weekends during the summer. A two tank dive trip is $175. I opted for 32% Nitrox as it’s a very square profile. That was $10 dollars per tank.

From where I stay near Houston to South Padre Island is almost 300 miles and a 6-7 hour drive depending on traffic. I could have flown to many top dive destinations in the Caribbean in much less time than it took to drive there! Yes Texas is big! I booked for July 29th. Because it’s 17 miles out, showtime was 6 AM. This meant going down the day before and getting a hotel room. I opted to stay in Port Isabel, which is just across the bridge from South Padre Island. My brother Benny came along for the ride.

We were up early and arrived just a few minutes before the 6 AM showtime. After the usual paperwork and paying, I was directed to where my tanks were waiting near the dock. Once there I was directed to pick a tank and get it setup. They had a meter ready so I could check the oxygen content which was 31.9%. After my tank was set up I went to work on my camera setup. I have a new Nikon D500 with an Ikelite housing and this would be my first dives with the new camera setup. I decided to just shoot with a single light on top of the housing and leave the strobes. I put all the gear that was going with me on the boat in my boat bag and the rest went in the vehicle. My brother went back to the hotel and would meet me later.

Captain Tim O’Leary who is the President of American Diving gave a very thorough dive briefing. He talked a bit about the history of the wreck, procedures on the boat, and do’s and don’t on the wreck. Those of us who were without buddy’s were buddy’d with someone. I was buddy’d with Mark Park, who like me it turned out lived near Houston. We were both diving Nitrox. There was a big drawing of the wreck on the cyclone fence that ran alongside the staging area to the dock with picnic tables set up in front that Captain Tim referred to during his brief. There were numbers along the fence underneath the sign. Everyone was assigned a number and our tanks which we had setup were placed in order near the number on fence. Once everyone had a number and the gear was in order, the crew moved them onto the boat. We grabbed our bags and went aboard.

This is the area near the dock where we met and set up gear. This is looking toward the parking lot. It’s just getting light outside.

We were underway about 7:15 AM. Mark and I initially rode inside. While we were sitting and chatting a crew member passed out breakfast burritos to everyone and they were quite tasty. There was a cooler full of drinks that you could help yourself, but members of the crew circulated around passing out bottles of water. After eating we decided to go up on deck and sat at the bow and chatted while taking in the scenery. There were fishing boats out, both private and commercial and of course there were off-shore oil rigs as well. We arrived on site around 8:45 so about an hour and a half or so.

A divemaster went into the water to check conditions and reported mild current and good visibility! Our tanks and equipment made the ride out strapped on the roof of the crew compartment on the boat. Everything was very organized and we went in numerical order. Theoretically that meant we would get out in numerical order also. When it was our turn we stepped through the rear door of the passenger compartment and descended steps to platform. There we would don our gear with assistance from the crew and then when we were ready just roll forward into the water. There was a trail line running from the stern and a current line from the stern to the mooring line, which we used to descend.

Because there was a bit of current the best way is which ever of the buddy team is ready first, to wait on the trail line, then when both are ready pull yourself hand over hand to the current line and then do the same till reaching the mooring line. Then use the mooring line to pull ourselves down to the wreck. This is the easiest physically and saves energy (and air) for the dive.

My first dive started at 9:11 AM. The water was quite clear. Easily 50-60 feet. Water temperature was a bit cooler than what I’ve been used to in the tropics at 75 degrees Fahrenheit but still no problem since I was wearing a farmer john with a top. The farmer john is a 4th Element Thermocline which is neutrally buoyant. I had just purchased a Sharkskin top which is also neutrally buoyant. They’re each equivalent to about 2.5 mm so I had the equivalent of 5 mm neoprene in the torso area, without the buoyancy. What this means for me is no weight belt! πŸ™‚

We hit the side of the hull at around 70 feet. There were plenty of fish around, spadefish, chub, sergeant-major, grouper, hogfish, schools of jacks, and barracuda as well. Even some tiny damselfish. There is coral growing on the ship. After seeing what the wrecks in Chuuk look like after several decades I can imagine what the Texas Clipper will look like in the future!

There is one area for a limited penetration that used to be the Promenade deck that has many openings out so it’s very safe. Mark and I made our way through and out and made our towards the centerline of the ship, which as mentioned before is laying on it’s side. Maximum depth was 91 feet for this dive. Dive time was 23 minutes. The short dive time wasn’t because of air but because even with Nitrox with such a square profile we run into no-decompression limits. I hit the surface with a 100 bar (roughly 1500 psi). All in all a very nice dive.

At the surface they throw you a line. You remove your fins and they pull you in. Hand your fin’s up, then climb out and they assist you in taking off your gear. They even took my camera and put it in the camera rinse tank for me (yes there is a separate tank and they were very clear during the brief that NOTHING except cameras went in).

After a surface interval it was time for the second dive and the previous procedures just repeated themselves. The second dive started at 10:44 AM. More of the same, except this time we went forward towards the bow of the ship. We had one spearfisherman on the boat with us and he speared a lionfish near the beginning of the dive. For my friends on the SE Asia side of the world, lionfish or a real problem in the Caribbean. They are not native to the this side of the world and they can wipe out native species on a reef very quickly. Many programs have been formulated to try and keep them in check including actively spearing them. Lionfish, it turns out, is actually quite tasty! This was another nice dive. Maximum depth this time was 87 feet and the dive was 24 minutes. I again had half a tank when I hit the surface.

Back at the dock there were rinse tanks set up for us to rinse our gear. We said our goodbyes to new friends and exchanged email addresses. My brother was waiting. We loaded my gear into his vehicle and stopped by the shop to buy a souvenir shirt before heading home. All in all an enjoyable experience. I’m sure I’ll do this dive again!

So surprisingly I’m all caught up now! Tomorrow morning I have a doctors appointment and then I’ll be headed to Florida. On Friday I’ll be diving the USS Oriskany sunk off Pensacola so stay tuned. I’m going to work harder on staying caught up now… I hope!

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