We (Sharon and Daniel) received our scuba Advanced Open Water certifications, with an “Enriched Air” specialty at the end of August. Wanting to use this newly gained training, we decided to take vacation in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Friday, September 1, 2006

We arrived in Tampa late Friday morning, in a more than a little bit of a torrential rainstorm. It was so bad that the shuttle that was taking us to the rental car area drove about 5 mph, and there were some cars pulled off to the side of the road. The very helpful shuttle driver had suggested an alternate route to get to West Palm Beach. Since he seemed so helpful, we looked at a map (not a Florida state map), and the path we had originally planned did seem to be much longer. But, as I told him when we returned, “When I have more than an hour to drive, give me a road with a 70mph posted speed limit any day.”  (The maximum posted speed limit in Florida is 70mph.) The road we took was stop-and-go traffic for about an hour, and my mystical ability to summon red traffic lights was going in full force. The rain let up after about a half hour, and the drive to West Palm Beach took about 4.5 hours, total. But the last 45 minutes or so were in another torrential downpour.

Later in the afternoon, the rain let up, so we decided to see if we could find one of the dive charter places Sharon had found on the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) web site, The Scuba Club. We had heard/read that we should book dives at least a week in advance, to ensure we could secure a spot on the boat. At this time, we had no dives booked, and diving this week was our main goal. Alas, The Scuba Club was closed when we got there.

We headed back toward the hotel, and stopped at a marina where another charter company (Ocean Quest) Sharon had read about online docked. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the slip where their boat (Sandy’s Sunday) was docked. So, we stopped instead at the Tiki bar at the dock and had a couple of cold Yuengling lagers, which aren’t available in Ohio.

When we finished our beers, we didn’t feel like eating there, so headed back to the car. On our way, we saw another boat (I don’t remember her name) with the captain and crew, enjoying beers, and looking like they were resting from a long day at work. The sign out front said Narcosis Dive Charters. (The term “nitrogen narcosis” describes the situation when you dive too deep and absorb nitrogen a little too quickly, and get light-headed and tipsy, sort of like an immediate drunk/high. The name made us a little leery about booking with them, but intrigued at the same time.) They said they were booked for Saturday and Sunday, but had openings on Monday. We said sign us up, and they said to just show up at 930. We mentioned that we needed to rent some equipment, and they said that other than tanks and weights, they only had 2 regulators, and they were on a first-come, first-served basis, and someone else on Monday’s trip had already said they would need a regulator. We also needed buoyancy control devices (BCDs), so we would still have to rent equipment from someone else. We wanted to be sure of availability of the regulator, and needed BCDs anyway, so asked where was a good dive shop around that rented equipment. They mentioned that Force-E rents equipment, and also was having a tent sale this weekend.

Force-E was on our way back to our hotel, so we pulled in and talked with them. Sharon had also seen their name as a place that booked dive charters; as it turned out, they don’t have their own boat, but they do the phone work of calling around to find which boats are going out, and get you signed up, i.e., they are a broker. We bought some gloves and glow sticks (for night diving); they were having a sale, and I needed a wetsuit, so I tried one on, and bought it. We asked about renting BCDs and a regulator, and they said to show up the day we were diving; they open at 630am (Daniel’s kind of place), and most dive boats want you to check in at 830 or 930, depending on their schedule.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

The weather forecast sucked for the week, with Hurricane Ernesto coming through only a week or so before, and everyone here said the visibility was only “so-so”, at 40-50 ft. (In the quarry diving we’ve done up until now, visibility has been 10-20 ft.) But even though all of the weather forecasts predicted rain, the only significant rain we encountered was a storm on Monday afternoon, after we started our second dive (and before we came up) and all day Tuesday.

First thing Saturday morning, we headed back to The Scuba Club. They were friendly, but made it clear (in a very “business like” manner) that we were lucky, because there had been a cancellation (presumably due to the weather forecast), and we got a place on Sunday’s boat. They asked to see our certification cards, and credit card, and signed us up.

Having booked ourselves for Sunday and Monday, we decided to drive around some of the dive shops Sharon had looked up, but we would start at a place that was flying a huge scuba flag that we had seen from the highway, even through the pounding rain, as we drove in from Tampa, Friday evening. It was a place called Diver's Direct.

While we were browsing in the store, a man came up to us, and said that the store was giving a 20% discount on everything, including sale items, to customers who went to the Bloodmobile out front and donated blood. I try to give blood whenever I can (just ask Sharon how I am with kitchen knives), and Sharon hadn't given blood before. So, we both went and bled for the benefit of our fellow human beans. Then, we proceeded to buy BCDs, Crocs (water shoes), a wetsuit for Sharon, and some odds and ends things (another light stick and another safety sausage[1]) for 20% off. We didn’t buy a regulator because we wanted to buy it from the dive shop where we took our lessons in Ohio, Underwater Connections.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Sunday morning, we show up, and it’s a beautiful day, although the forecast is for rain all afternoon. We sign in, and the front desk gives us a ticket to take to the back, where we pick up our Nitrox (enriched air, i.e., air with a higher proportion of oxygen than most dive tanks, which use compressed normal air (which is roughly 21% oxygen, 79%nitrogen)), my regulator, and our weight belts. (Actually, we didn’t use weight belts, because the BCDs we got have “integrated” weight pockets; we just took the weights that would normally go on the belt, and put them in the specially designed pockets.)

I don’t remember the name of the boat, but the captain is named Wayne. The primary dive master was a woman named Suzie (whose personality reminded us both of our niece, Jenny), and the secondary was a man named Chip. He said he used to be full-time, but has graduated to only diving part-time, whenever he wants.

As they explained on the boat (thank goodness they told us sometime before we got in the water!), due to the Gulf Stream, it's all drift diving in the West Palm Beach area, which we weren't prepared for (i.e., we didn't read that section of the advanced manual). They went on to say that when you drift dive, the captain takes the boat to a spot where he knows there’s cool stuff to see, and drops the group in the water. The ocean current pushes you along, so you don’t have to do much swimming to get around, unless you want to stay in one spot. There’s always a dive master, sometimes two, in the water, and he or she carries a float, attached to a line. This lets the boat captain have a rough idea of where the group is. Of course, that assumes that everyone stays with the group. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On our first Sunday dive, I went through my tank EAN36 (36% oxygen, 64% nitrogen) in about 30 minutes. This doesn’t sound like long, and really isn’t, but as I learned on the last day, it’s not an unreasonable time, especially for a relatively new diver—I’ll say more about that later. Sharon still had air in her tank (I wasn’t completely empty, of course, but they said to surface when you’re at 800psi (you start with between 2900 and 3100), so that you’re on the boat with 500psi (it’s a safety thing)). Sharon was going to ascend with me, but fortunately, the trailing dive master "made" Sharon stay down with the group, and took me to the surface, making me do the safety stop[2]. I say fortunately, because 1) that gave Sharon the opportunity to use more of her remaining air, and 2) let her get used to diving without having me in sight, and 3) I didn't have a dive computer, and the analog gauges I’ve used don't seem too accurate at less than 20ft. According to Sharon’s dive computer, our first dive was to maximum depth of 88 feet.

After everyone came up from the first dive, the boat moves to a different site, and folks talk and snack on [provided] soda, fruit and snacks. No one is allowed back in the water for an hour, to make sure that everyone is staying within safety limits. (When you breathe compressed air underwater, your body doesn’t dissipate the nitrogen, and if you get too much, you get “decompression sickness” (aka, “the bends”), which isn’t a good thing. By having everyone stay at the surface for an hour, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be within safety margins. (One of the benefits of using enriched air is that there is less nitrogen to absorb, which allows you to dive longer, with shorter mandatory surface intervals. (Too much oxygen can be a bad thing, too, but that’s a different safety issue.)))

The second dive was to around 60 ft, and I went through my air in about 30 minutes again. On both dives, I went a little deeper than Sharon, but on these dives, I did not have a dive computer, and wasn't checking my depth gauge regularly to know the deepest I went. I didn’t catch the name of the location where we dove first, but the second is called The Breakers. As we learned later, The Breakers is relatively large, and you can see different things, depending on where the dive boat drops you. And, of course, you see different things due to the inhabitants not being made of plastic, i.e., they move around.

Some good news is that my post-dive notes improved over time. I forgot to mention that these were our first ocean dives, as well as our first drift dives. So, a lot of our attention was focused on staying near the dive master and keeping each other also in view, and not getting swept away by the current. Other divers were watching the sea turtles and hunting lobster, and such, but other than seeing them do that, I was mostly focused on making sure I finished the dive breathing when I got back to the boat.

Monday, September 4, 2006

On Monday, we dove with Narcosis Dive Charters. I didn’t catch the boat’s name, but the captain was Ray, and the crew was Susan and Elaine. Susan was the dive master, and Elaine stayed up top to help the captain locate divers, and to help divers get back onto the boat.

Both of our dives were to about 60ft. This time, my EAN36 lasted 48 minutes, at Paul's Reef, which makes this my longest dive to date. Due to bad weather, we had to switch from the planned Casino to The Breakers. Unfortunately (sort of), The Breakers was one of the places we dove the day before, and not much had changed. (Although, we saw sea turtles at both locations Monday, and Sharon was the first in our group to see a beautiful 2-3 ft Blue Parrotfish. I grew up in Florida, and have seen them before, but I didn't even know they grow that large.) We also saw several lobster—some of the divers in the other group were on the hunt. (The dive master divided us into two groups—a bunch of their "regulars" who were mostly diving for lobster, and only kept with the group to the extent that the current forced them, and the "rest of us".) I thought the current was stronger in parts, but Sharon thought it was about the same as the day before.

During the hour-long surface interval, Elaine got in the water and hunted lobster, while the rest of us let our nitrogen escape. She caught three, and said, “I only caught the stupid ones, that were out in the open saying, ‘Pick me!  Pick me!’.”

Text Box:  While we were under, the storm got worse. It was interesting to hear thunder underwater, but I did not see any lightning. Sharon and I learned that we should have opened the safety sausages and figured out how to inflate them before going in the water. We blew and blew and blew, but only got my sausage semi-erect (I hate when that happens). By the time it got inflated to half mast, we were at the surface. Still, the fluorescent orange or yellow tube is more visible than a diver, so it wasn’t a complete waste. When Sharon and I surfaced (seeing a beautiful jellyfish as we were at about 3ft), there were 3-4 boats right around us, and our captain was on the horn, hollering at them, because they weren't paying attention to who was coming up, and how close they were to divers. At least two of them were also dive boats, with divers in the water, also, but I guess their dive master's floats weren't near us, and our captain was more than a little peeved. We surfaced very near (maybe 30ft away) our boat, and he picked us up right away. Still, it was storming out, so I give the other boats the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that's one more of the many reasons that I'm not a boat captain. It was raining hard, and the waves were very rough, and just as Sharon got her fins off to climb the ladder, the boat lurched, and the ladder gave her a wicked knot on her shin. (We applied ice as soon as we got back to our hotel room, and it only barely bruised on the surface, but was still sore, and stayed somewhat sore for the rest of the week.) One person, back on the boat before us, was mightily seasick, and it took more than 30 minutes to get all of the divers out of the water. That’s one of the reasons they want you to have so much air in your tank—in rough weather conditions, it’s safer to breathe the tank air than to try to breathe through a snorkel, even when you’re on the surface! Between the strong current, the storm, and the divers hunting for lobster, the captain was zig-zagging back and forth to get everyone. But, other than the seasick person, and Sharon's knock on the shin, everyone got back to shore none the worse for wear. Most everyone put up a safety sausage when they surfaced (and mine wasn’t the only limp one, thank you for caring), and the boat hands and dive master scolded one of the advanced divers who didn't have one, and who didn't surface with a buddy.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Tuesday is the day most of the dive boats take the day off, to work on their boats, or just pretend they have something better in their life that diving (yeah, right—as if such a thing is possible). So this day, we mostly just stayed in our room, with Sharon doing homework for one of her MBA classes. Even though we didn't call in advance, we haven't had any trouble getting on boats (although we only got on the boat Sunday because they had a cancellation shortly before we walked in to ask about availability). Wednesday, we're diving with Pura Vida, which is a shop within walking distance of where we're staying. We had been booked on Wednesday with Ocean Quest, but Pura Vida didn't have enough people for Thursday or Friday, and weren't making a trip, but they had availability on Wednesday. When we called Ocean Quest, to ask if we could move from Wednesday to Thursday, they sounded relieved, because their Wednesday trip was "light", so it would be better for them if we went Thursday. This made it possible for us to call Pura Vida and get on their Wednesday boat. Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventure (JASA) returned my call, saying they are going out Wed, Thurs, and Fri; I decided to call them back later that evening, or the next day, to confirm/book that we would go with them Friday.

Interestingly, we've only had one place ask to see our Enriched Air C-cards, though everyone has asked if we have them. I'd be willing to bet that most anyone could dive with Nitrox around here if they just answer "yes" confidently when asked. Everyone has asked to see our regular cards, of course. Sharon's ears have been doing really well; she starts to equalize them a little before we even get in the water, and descends with one hand on her BC power inflator (using it to deflate, during the descent) and the other on her nose, and is doing fine. We're not too keen on these drift dives with the current being as strong as it is—when you see something exciting, there's barely time to signal to your buddy before you've drifted past it, or burn up your air swimming against the current. But, drift dives is all they do around here, so we're just hoping that when we get to depth on the next few days, the current will be a little slower. Still, it’s much nicer than the quarry dives, and we both love it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

After Monday’s unfortunate ending with rain and Sharon’s knock on the knee, not to mention a day of working on homework and running around trying to find a boat to take us out, we were ready for some diving.

Pura Vida’s boat is called The Lady Serena, and the captain (and owner of the boat and the dive shop) is Dean. The dive master was Ryan Skillman, and crew was Kevin something. Both Dean and Kevin are former Coast Guard captains, and Kevin is also an EMT. They are all also qualified dive instructors. By the way, “Pura Vida” is Spanish for “Pure Life”.

Today, the current wasn’t so bad. We dove to between 50-60 feet at “Teardrop”. My first dive lasted 51 minutes. I saw a sea turtle, a baby octopus that was less than a foot across (with legs not outstretched), several lobsters, and two small eels (maybe 1.5-3 ft long).

The second dive, which lasted 45 minutes for me, was at “Flower Garden”, and we saw a school of 6-9 squid, each about 8 inches long. We saw more lobster and eels.

School of Squid

Spiny Lobster





I should say that on all of these dives (pretty much, anyway), we saw many, many kinds of fish, most of which we couldn’t identify, but here are some we’re pretty sure of (these are not pictures we took—maybe we will have a camera by next summer):

Queen Triggerfish

Queen Angelfish

Rainbow Parrotfish




Picasso Triggerfish

Blue Parrotfish

Puffer Fish





Spotfin Butterflyfish





There was one incident today. As Kevin was helping a woman get back on the boat, she turned around to sit, but unfortunately, Kevin’s toe was where her tank went. We don’t think it was broken, but it was swollen something fierce, and we didn’t see him Friday when we went out with Pura Vida.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

On Thursday, we went out with Narcosis Dive Charters again. This time, Elaine was the dive master, and Susan stayed on board. Some folks on the boat wanted to see some shipwrecks, so we went to a place called The Corridor, where several wrecks are in a row. This makes it convenient for drift diving. Unfortunately, I had reduced my weights, based on a successful experiment the day before. But, I didn’t take into account that my suit was wet then, but had dried overnight now. In short, I was too buoyant to descend quickly, which was a requirement on this dive, due to the strong current. I ended up actually having to swim downward, head first, instead of making the usual foot-first descent. While doing so, Sharon and I lost sight of Elaine and the rest of the group. We stayed down for a while, and saw a couple of wrecks, but they weren’t very interesting. We tried holding onto the bottom, where the current is weaker, to see if the rest of the group would catch up to us. But we didn’t wait long enough, and the current really wasn’t very much weaker. After a while, I noticed that I had used most of my air already, so we had to ascend, disappointed. For the rest of the dives, I used the full 18lb of weights I had used initially. It made it a little harder to get neutrally buoyant (so I’m neither sinking nor floating up), but at least I know how to do that, even if it takes a little longer at first.

Following Monday’s pattern, during our surface interval, Susan went in the water, while Elaine stayed topside. I don’t remember if Susan was hunting lobster, or just swimming around—probably both.

The second dive was to a place called Juno Ledge. It was, by far, our best dive to date. We saw a sea 4 ft long sea turtle from 3 ft away, a 6-7 ft bright green moray eel undulating its way across the bottom, about 10ft below us, and a 6 ft nurse shark below us. Juno Ledge is a nice place to dive because the depth at the top of the ledge is 60-70 ft, and the depth at the bottom of the ledge is about 90 ft. So, you can hover near the top of the ledge, below the current, and watch over the top of the ledge for interesting things, continually watch the side of the ledge, where many creatures live, and look down to the bottom for more to see. I found several spots on the bottom where the current was practically nonexistent, and I just knelt on the bottom and watched everything else drift by. Well, until Sharon and Elaine drifted by, at which time I ascended some, and tagged along.

Near the end of our dive (as it turned out), we saw three Goliath Grouper swimming near the bottom, and a fourth that was larger than those three, but it chose to remain in a cave/crevice. Goliath Grouper (formerly called Jewfish) can grow to be heavier than 600 pounds. The ones we saw were easily in the 200-300 pound range, and considerably larger than the one in the picture below.

Goliath Grouper

Just before seeing the grouper, I had been ascending somewhat, and the current moved me onto the top of the ledge, and the grouper were over the side, near the bottom. I couldn’t find a good handhold, and the current was too strong for me to swim back over the ledge. I tried valiantly, but ended up using up my air quickly. Since it was just Sharon and Elaine and I, and Elaine was the dive master, Sharon had to ascend with me.

Friday, September 8, 2006

On Friday, we dove with Pura Vida again. They didn’t have any unchangeable plans, and asked folks if they had any preferences. Sharon and I went on about how much fun we had at Juno Ledge the day before. The Pura Vida boat isn’t as big as the Narcosis’ boat, and June Ledge is farther away than they usually go, but I guess we made it sound like fun, so Captain Dean headed out to it. The dive master for the first dive was Jeff Hawes. Ryan was there also; they hadn’t heard from Kevin, or about his toe.

We saw a sea turtle fairly soon after getting to depth (around 60ft), and while following it, we lost sight of Jeff. We were getting good at this being lost thing, and since we had been in this general vicinity, decided to just keep on diving.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

We saw a grouper, but not as huge as the ones from yesterday. This one weighed maybe 100 pounds. We also saw a school of 10 barracuda, but they weren’t very close.

School of Barracuda

While talking with the captain, during the surface interval, he explained the (now obvious) fact that when you dive deeper, you go through your air quicker, simply because it’s more compressed, but your lungs take in the same volume. This means every breath removes more molecules of air from the tank, than would be removed when breathing under lesser pressures. So, on the next dive, we intentionally didn’t go very deep. (We ended up going down to 90 ft again, but didn’t stay at that depth very long.) Ryan Skillman was the dive master this time.

We saw two nurse sharks; Sharon was in front, and saw them first. At one point, she turned her head around to see where I was, and when she faced forward, she was face-to-face with a 4-5 ft barracuda. It swam by her, and between us, maybe 2 ft between it and each of us.


At one point, I saw a small eel, and a spiny sea urchin. A man we were diving with, Jonathan Frank, said there were many, but I only saw the one. He won a trip to Fiji, which is very near Australia, where Sharon and I are going next year. He will be going there in 2008.

Sharon and Ryan and I ascended together. While we made our 15-20 ft 3 minute safety stop, Ryan pointed out a baby crab, which was about ½ inch across, and an even smaller baby jellyfish. While that was going on, there were two small yellow jacks swimming circles around his head. Every now and then, they would make a pass around Sharon or I, but they seemed to like Ryan best. Even as we were getting onto the boat, they were swimming around him.

Spiny Sea Urchin

Adult Yellow Jack


Saturday, September 9, 2006

While diving, breathing compressed air at depths, the body absorbs nitrogen, and then releases it when returned to the surface. Releasing the nitrogen too rapidly can cause what’s called decompression illness. That’s the reason for the safety stop before coming all the way to the surface. That’s also why divers aren’t supposed to fly for 18 hours after diving. Going up in a plane reduces the pressure rapidly, which causes the nitrogen to escape too quickly, leading to decompression illness. That’s a long way of saying that Saturday, we stayed on land, and didn’t do any diving. It’s just as well, since we had to drive to Tampa to catch our plane on Sunday morning.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

We made it through airport security without incident. The scanners at the Tampa International Airport include “puffers”. You step into a small booth, and a mechanical voice says, “Puffers activated”, and then you hear “Poof! Poof! Poof! Poof!” several times as air blasts you from different spots distributed around the interior. After a brief time, the clear doors in front open, and the voice instructs you to “Proceed forward.” The brief time varies, and when it takes a while, it makes you wonder if the machine is going to mistake your mouthwash or shampoo for one of the nefarious compounds it is designed to identify.

We were enjoying waiting at the gate for the plane to arrive, watching the minutes count down with intense anticipation. At one point, we noticed that there wasn’t actually an airplane at the end of the ramp. And yet, the monitors, and the attendant at the desk, said the flight was still scheduled to leave on time. About 2 minutes before departure time, they announced that the plane was having maintenance troubles, and we would have to wait a little longer. We asked if there was time to go get some lunch and a beer (it was nearing lunch time, after all), but the attendant said, “No!”

So, we hungrily sat back down, and waited for the maintenance to be done. After a while, they announced that the maintenance was going to take longer than expected, and they were going to reroute another plane to our gate, and we would take that one back to Ohio. My guess is the maintenance crew was taking their lunch break, even though there wasn’t time for us to grab a bite. We were fed up with not being fed, so we went to the Applebee’s (or whatever franchise it was) and ordered a beer and an appetizer and waited, figuring we’d see the plane pull up. We had plenty of time, and when we were finished, the plane still wasn’t there. Not having anything to do, we went and sat again. While waiting, we met a man who traveled a few times a year, and he said it seems whenever he travels, there are maintenance problems on his flight. So, we joked that it was entirely his fault. No too long later, the plane arrived, and those passengers debarked, and they looked pretty aggravated, and all went to another gate, just down the way. I don’t know why the airline didn’t just send us all to that gate, instead. Eventually, the plane was emptied, and they let us board.

We taxied out, and were next in line for takeoff, and the captain comes on the speaker and says that he can’t get one of the engines to start. I stood up a little, and saw the fellow we had met earlier and caught his eye, and wagged my finger at him, joking again that he was delaying us. He laughed, but I think we were the only ones doing so. The captain said he was going back to a gate, for the engine to be started by hand (okay, he didn’t really say that), but we would not be allowed to leave the plane (he did say that). Fortunately, the repair didn’t take long, and it held, long enough for us to take off, fly to Columbus, and land. I didn’t track what happened after we got off the plane.


We’re home; we both loved scuba diving, and are looking forward to the next trip. I apologize for the anticlimactic conclusion. I think by taking so long to write this, I was still on vacation in my mind.

[1] Safety sausages are inflatable plastic tubes, in sizes ranging of 4, 6, or 10 ft. When inflated, they make it easier for boats to see you on the surface, especially if there are large waves.

[2] A safety stop is a 3-5 minute wait at 15-20 feet below the surface. This gives any accumulated nitrogen time to dissipate somewhat before you ascend all the way to the surface. The actual duration varies, depending on how deep you dive, and for how long, and what air mixture you’re breathing. But 3 minutes at 15 feet is the “standard” duration and depth for recreational diving.