Vacation 2006/12/15 – 2006/12/24

Friday, December 15, 2006

We got up at 330am, and flew until 2pm. Luggage was no problem; getting the rental car took a while, but there was no problem; the only “issue”, if you could call it that is that when we saw that they rented Nissan XTerras, we wanted to upgrade, they were out. They said to call back during the week, so we could get one when someone turned one in.

Planning ahead, we did some Winn-Dixie brand grocery shopping before going to the hotel—this turned out to be strategically sound, but tactically flawed. When we arrived at the hotel, we learned that even though we had put in a request for either of the buildings closest to the waterway, they put us in the one farthest from the waterway. This building is the one nearest the kiddy pool, which is something we have tried to avoid in the past. So, after some lengthy discussions, and searches for available rooms, they found one but it wouldn’t be ready for another 30 minutes or so. So, here we are with a car full of warming groceries (including ice cream), and a 30-minute wait. We sat in the parking lot a while, then decided to drive to Walgreen’s, just over the bridge, to get a couple of items we forgot (water, bottle holders). On our way back, we stopped at the Pura Vida Divers shop, which is on the same side of the bridge as our hotel. We dove with them, back in September, and I had called to them arrange tentative reservations. Since we had the time, we stopped in, and firmed up reservations for Sunday and Tuesday. When we got to the hotel, the room was ready—at least, that’s what the front desk told us. We brought our stuff up, and unpacked. The ocean was calling to me, so after we were mostly settled in, I said I wanted to go down to the water. Sharon didn’t want to, because the airplane trip had aggravated her sinuses. So, I went down on my own. I took my mask and beach shoes (Crocs™). I should have brought fins and a snorkel, because the water was remarkably clear, with probably 60-70 feet of visibility. I swam around some, but the Crocs have air holes, which makes them counteract any swimming/paddling type motions. So, I was swimming with just my arms, and had to bob up to the surface for air. The tide had just started going out a little while before I got there, and that’s when it’s the strongest. After a few strong pushes out, I decided I didn’t feel like visiting England again, so I came ashore. While I was out, Sharon had learned that the room wasn’t completely ready, after all. It seems the previous occupant either spilled a large amount of water, or left a bag of ice to melt (also known as time-released spilling of a large amount of water), or did something along these lines, as the carpet was soaked in two areas (maybe 6 sq ft total). And they didn’t leave coffee filters or a dishrag. So, we called down and let them know that we’d be using several of the beach towels to soak up the carpet and let them know what was missing from the inventory. We saturated three beach towels, and the carpet was still very damp. After a while, they brought up more towels and the missing items, and we could relax a little. After all, we were here, and our vacation was ready to begin. As soon as we woke up in the morning. Well, sort of.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sharon worked on a final exam in her MBA studies. She has about 6 more classes, but this is one less, now, and was a relief. I went down and snorkeled (fins, mask, and snorkel, this time).

This time, we brought a underwater housing for our digital camera. The instructions suggested taking the housing into the water without the camera first, to make sure you installed the seal correctly. It turns out this is a good idea. The housing leaked like a sieve. Well, not like a sieve, because the water didn’t flow through it, just into it. But you get the idea. So, I just did a little swimming.

The surf was a little stronger than the night before, and visibility wasn’t as good. Still, I saw a school of 8-10” fish of some kind (probably some shad or trout1). Due to the dredging of the waterway some years back, there isn’t much to see on the shore bottom—mostly just sand and broken shells. This can only entertain me for so long (about 15 minutes).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

At 8am, we were on the dock, where the helpful crew of the Lady Sirena loaded our gear onto the boat. Sharon and I were the only two divers using Nitrox, other than the dive masters. One of the dive masters, Russ, asked if I knew how to use the Analox oxygen analyzer; I do, and took it and checked our tanks. They ranged from 33.4 to 32.5. For the type of diving Sharon and I are doing, we don’t need to be too particular about the exact mix. Anywhere between the popular 32 and 36 percent O2 is fine with us. The Lady Sirena will accommodate 12 divers, plus 2 crew and the captain, and today, we had 10 divers. Fewer divers makes it somewhat easier to hook up your gear to the tanks and move around.

Captain Dean, owner of Pura Vida Divers, drove us to Teardrop Reef. Sharon and I dove at this location back in September. Kyle was the dive master, and Sharon and I were the first two in the water after him. The boats tend to seat the Nitrox divers in the back of the boat, since we are typically underwater longer than the regular air divers. So, that means when the others come back up to the boat, they don’t have to crawl over us to get to their seat. This isn’t a very deep dive (53ft), as we were dropped on top of the reef, not along its edge.

As we stood to jump in the water, my “finger spool”, attached to my safety sausage, got wedged between the hull and the bench we were sitting on. It snapped, but I didn’t notice it until we were underwater, and I found myself swimming in increasing amounts spaghetti, as the spool began unwinding. Sharon saw it, and helped disconnect it from my BCD, and we stuffed it into my pocket.

As in September, I dove with 16lbs of weight, and had some trouble descending. But because I’m getting used to this, Sharon and I had discussed it previously, and I let her know that if I had troubles, I would turn head down and swim down. (As you descend, your suit fills with water, and also compresses, both of which make you less buoyant.) I did this, and we met up on the bottom. I still need to practice equalizing my ears when I swim down head first. But, I did it enough this time so that when I reached bottom, I wasn’t in any pain, even though I still had to equalize some to get completely comfortable.

We saw a lot of fish: several schools of Atlantic Spadefish, a few Queen Angelfish, puffer fish, cowfish and a turtle. An amazing thing was how little current there was, compared to September. Back then, the current was so strong that if you didn’t see what you wanted as you passed by, you would have to swim hard to stay and look on. Today, the current was very mild, and several times, we were able to turn around and easily swim back to see things others were excited about.

We brought our underwater housing, but since it had leaked the day before in shallow water, we decided to give it a second test “at depth”. I tethered it around my knee, because I didn’t want it interfering with my arms and other gear, just for a test run. This worked out okay, although it slipped down a couple of times during the dive, and I had to pull it back up. But, it didn’t leak. Unfortunately, as I climbed up the ladder, the tether was loose enough and got caught on one of the steps of the ladder. I stepped up, and the tether snapped. Fortunately, I felt it and heard it, and was able to lean down and retrieve the housing before it floated away. Tethers are cheap, and I’d rather it break than the housing, but it was disappointing, because I wanted to try it on my arm on the second dive. It just wasn’t my day for equipment, I guess.

We were the last three (including Kyle) back on the boat, and had been under for 51 minutes. This tied for our longest dive to date; ironically, the tie was with our September dive to the Teardrop Reef, also with Pura Vida Divers. One of the guys on the boat pointed out that I had a slight nose bleed; I’ve never had that happen before, but it wasn’t dripping or gushing, so didn’t worry about it.

While we were under, enjoying the calm current underneath, the wind had picked up, and there were waves of 2-4 feet. This makes it a challenge to get back on the boat, because you have to time your steps, to avoid getting clonked by the ladder. We were in a mandatory 35 minute surface interval, and several people were getting nauseous, and some were even feeding the fish a hot lunch. Sharon and I were okay, but as we got ready for the second dive, it was starting to get to us some. We were glad we were (almost) the first in the water (the guy seated across from us was having more trouble, and he practically rushed off the boat, at least as well as one can rush when wearing fins and scuba gear).

This was a better dive—there was more to see, and Russ (the dive master on the second dive) was very good about rapping the float hook against his tank, to let people know when there was something cool to see. We saw many of the same things as on the earlier dive, but also saw 3 nurse sharks, including one that was “asleep” in a crevice, several sea turtles, a couple of rays (not sure what kind, but not eagle and I don’t think manta); Russ even found a large-looking moray eel, and tried (unsuccessfully) to coax it out of its hold. He also pointed out the home of an octopus. It was a spot between some rocks and coral where there were many clamshells. Apparently, the octopus eats them, and leaves the shells outside, so that divers can easily find them. But, either the octopus wasn’t home, or chose not to com out and greet us. The current was a little stronger than the first dive, but still nothing compared to any of the September dives.

Again, we three were last getting back on the boat (by the way, this felt really good to us, because in September, we were usually among the first back on the boat). This dive lasted 53 minutes, with a maximum depth of 62 feet. On both dives, I was only about 100lbs of air lower than Sharon. Back in September, I was going through my air much quicker than she, which was a little disappointing, as it meant we couldn’t swim together the entire time. When we got back on the boat, another guy pointed out my nose was bleeding, but again, it wasn’t dripping, and I dismissed it.

By this time, the waves were even stronger, and nearly everyone was seasick. Lucky fishes! I guess another benefit of diving longer is that you’re on the surface less, with less time to get nauseous. There were a couple of waves we went over that felt as if we were in freefall, until the boat hit the water. Dean said some of them were easily 6 foot waves, and much rougher than the forecast 2-4 foot waves.

When we got back to the dock, Dean thanked everyone for going back in for the dives, even though the waves were rough. He doesn’t like taking people out, just so they can puke, and was glad everyone got to go diving. When we stopped by the dive shop, on our way back to the hotel, I mentioned the nosebleed to Shana (Captain Dean’s wife, and co-owner of Pura Vida Divers). She said it happens now and then, and wasn’t anything to worry about (unless it got worse, or didn’t stop, of course).

Monday, December 18, 2006

We didn’t go diving today, but we did go to the shore and to the pool at the hotel. We took our boots, fins, masks, and snorkels down to the shore, hoping to float around some. However, the surf was so amazingly strong, and we couldn’t even get in up to our shoulders. Well, technically we were in up to our shoulders when the waves knocked us down and shoved us back onto the beach. We both ended up with lots of tiny shells in our boots, swim clothes, and other uncomfortable places. I later learned that tiny shell pieces had found their way into my snorkel, and it would no longer drain properly. This was educational, and I later disassembled the snorkel drain and purge valve, rinsed the shells out, and reassembled it.

We walked back up to the hotel, and showered off outside, and then went to swim some in the pool. Sharon had wanted to try our her new snorkel, so we both swam around with it. She’s had several in the past and one didn’t work, and the others didn’t fit well; this one was fine. We floated, face down, seeing who could hold their breath longest; I won, holding it for almost a minute and a half, while Sharon held hers for 30-45 seconds. I’m guessing this is mostly due to me having larger lungs, and less brain matter to keep alive.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

We were scheduled to dive with Pura Vida Divers, but were a little concerned with the waves, which were predicted to be 4-6 feet. We almost called, to ask if they were going out, but since the marina is so close, we decided to just pack our gear and head on over. Dean was waiting for us. There was another couple who had planned to go out, but they cancelled, and Dean said he didn’t really want to take folks out in these waves. He had tried to contact us, even dialing our hotel (who said there were no Griffiths registered), but didn’t reach us (we still don’t know why). Anyway, he said he had called Jon Abernathy Scuba Adventures (JASA), to make a tentative reservation for us, in case we still wanted to go out. He said Abernathy was a die-hard, and would take people out, so long as the coast guard allowed. We did want to go, but in these waves, we both wanted to go with a crew we’d been with before.

We asked Dean about the possibility of finding a guide for doing a shore dive under the Blue Heron Bridge. Back in September, several dive masters had mentioned this as a good dive, where we potentially could see all of the same things we could see on the reefs, and sometimes in greater abundance, due to the smaller area. Dean said he would call one of his friends and get back with us, saying that he hadn’t dove the bridge for a while, and would like to come along himself, if he had time. Because of the high current when the tide is changing, it’s only safe to dive around the bridge just before high tide, which meant this would be a night dive. Sharon and I did a night dive as part of our Advanced Open Water checkout dives, and it had been fun, and so we were both excited to be able to go on another.

In the early afternoon, we stopped at his shop, to talk about moving Sharon’s dive computer from its housing to a wrist strap. We discussed a lot of options, finally deciding to buy a new dive computer that was as small as a large wristwatch, instead, and trying to sell her current computer and gauge combination on eBay, or just keep it as a backup. We also asked him to put a new pressure gauge on her regulator thingy. He said he’d do that, and to meet him at the shop around 6pm to go diving. He hadn’t heard back from his friend, so he was going to accompany us himself. Before we left, though, Kyle, who dove with us on Sunday, came in, and Dean asked if he wanted to go. Kyle hesitated for nearly no time at all, and said, “Yeah!” So, we said we’d be back at 6pm.

We got there, and Dean said it was best to get all of the gear ready, including getting into our wetsuits, strapping the BCDs onto the air tanks, and loading them onto his pickup truck, and then drive over to the bridge. This makes sense, since even though the bridge is lighted, there’s traffic and it’s not that lighted, that you can see everything easily. Still, it was a hot day, and wearing a wetsuit while doing anything but diving will get anyone hot and sweaty in no time.

This time, I had put the camera in its housing. Everything I’d read implies that it wouldn’t get good pictures without an external strobe. Nonetheless, the housing was expensive enough, and the camera claimed to have an “underwater scene” mode, so we were going to see how it fared, before investing in a strobe. The main problem underwater is that there is not as much light, and this is more true under a bridge, and even more so at night. But hey, you have to start somewhere, right?

What follows are some of the photographs I took during the night dive. Keep in mind that I’ve never filmed underwater, and don’t use a camera much anyway. I was have trouble controlling my buoyancy in the shallow water, and there was a tide. Many of them came out too dark, but some I have been able to apply digital processing to get a little something to see.

Bridge Pylon, covered with coral/plant growth. It is difficult to tell in the picture on the left (and this is the only one that I could adjust to show anything worthwhile), but one of the interesting things on this dive was the bridge pylons. They were coated with a growth of coral or plant matter, making them look very spiky. The more interesting part, is that there were small lobsters or prawns of some sort nesting between the spines of this growth. The stuff provides the lobsters with camouflage as well as protection.

Spotted Eel. This eel swam away. It was amazing how it could squeeze into tiny cracks along the wall. He popped in and out, trying to find better cover, and we finally lost sight of it.

Octopus. We saw several small octopi, soon after getting in the water. This was when I was having buoyancy troubles, though, so I only got two photographs that really show one of them. Surprisingly, these had some of the best lighting. The octopi inevitably swam away from us and our lights. They were between 2 3 ft across (from center of body to end of tentacles).

Frogfish (I think). The picture on the left is the one I took. The one on the right I found (and used without permission) at I’m not certain the one I saw is a frogfish.

Reticulated Sea Star. In some places, the sea floor was covered with dozens of these very large sea stars. They were easily 10” across. They were all yellow, and I’m not sure where the red in the photo came from. In the picture on the right, you can also see a short-spined sea urchin.

Spider Crab. Dean and Kyle were find many more things than we could keep up with. Here, Dean is letting a spider crab crawl onto his hand, so that I could see it. (Due to the lighting, it was hard to see on the sandy background.)

Ray. This ray was about 10” long, and some air bubbles obscure the view. I don’t know what kind of ray it is. I asked, and it said, “You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or…”

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

While waiting for our night dive, on Tuesday, we looked into what other dive options were available, since neither of us figured the boats would be going out for the rest of the week. We had settled on going to Crystal River, and diving with manatees. But Wednesday morning, we were both moving slowly, and decided to go on Thursday. Then, while surfing the internet, I noticed that “dive with the manatees” actually meant “snorkeling” with the manatees. The site said that scuba diving was done in a different location, because the bubbles from the regulators scare the manatee. So, we’re not sure what we’re doing. In the afternoon, while Sharon was taking a nap, I decided to go pay Dean for Sharon’s new dive computer and our dive from the night before. That is when I discovered that I’ve lost my driver’s license and credit card. At that time, I figured I must have taken it with me last night, and either left it at the dive shop, or Sharon has it in her purse. I’ll find out when she awakes.

Yep, it seems I’ve lost my driver’s license and credit card. We cancelled the credit card immediately, which was pretty easy, other than the customer service representative taking the opportunity to make a hard sell for identity theft protection. This would not have been so bad, except he wouldn’t cancel the card until Sharon told him repeatedly we were not interested, and then he sounded indignant, as if we were making the most stupid decision possible. This, even though she told him we already have identity theft coverage.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I made several phone calls, to the park next to the Blue Heron bridge, the police department on both sides of the bridge, the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA), Continental Airlines, our insurance agent, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). In a few minutes, we’re heading up the police department on this side of the bridge to file a police report. I’m going to have a small challenge getting back on the airplane with no government issued identification. Yeeha.

Again, there was no diving, but Dean called us from the shop, to say that new spools had come in. We went up, and settled our account, using most of our cash. He is so nice—he was willing to let us pay him later, rather than take all of our cash. And, he wasn’t charging us for the night dive, even though we both used Nitrox.

We drove over to Diver’s Direct, where we donated blood in September, but there was no Bloodmobile there. We bought a few little things. I was looking at a couple of books on freediving2, both authored by Terry Maas, but they were $40, and I didn’t want them overweighting our luggage.

We then headed over to Barnes and Nobles Bookseller, and bought a few books, and resisted the urge to have Starbucks coffees.

We stopped at the police station on our way back to the room, and picked up the police report. The office on duty said that he had recently handled a similar situation, and suggested that we contact the Driver’s License bureau, and ask if they would fax my license to the police station, where they would notarize it. That will be my first task, tomorrow morning.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Well, we have to check out today, and I have to call Ohio BMV to see if they will fax my driver’s license.

We drove to Islamorada, Florida, after getting all checked out and such. Not a lot to comment on. It’s always fun, seeing the signs that say, “Crocodile Crossing”.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

We had called Florida Key Divers, and were going to go on a wreck dive. The sea was choppy, but not as bad as West Palm Beach. But, it turned out that most of the other divers were not “Advanced” divers, meaning they’re not certified to dive more than 60ft deep. In fact, a handful of them turned out to be doing their Open Water checkout dives, just so they could get certified to go to 60ft! But, it was all we could find, so we went with them.

Although the waves were better than WPB, they were still noticeable. The boat took us out to a reef called Pickle Barrel. The deepest we could go (without carrying shovels) was 30ft. Even at that depth, we could feel the surge of the ocean. Visibility wasn’t too good (maybe 30ft), but I took the camera. As usual, we saw a bunch of fish, and something called Pillar Coral. It is interesting looking, because it grows in columns. As a bonus, they are sort of purple. Unfortunately, as you will see, I didn’t take any photos of the pillar coral. Let’s hope that rising sea levels caused by man-made increases in global temperature don’t kill the coral (they are very susceptible to changes in temperature, pressure, and light) before I can get back and take more pictures.

Sharon generally swims a little in front of me, and although I kept her in sight, she lost track of me when I paused to take some pictures. I didn’t realize this was irritating her, because I didn’t know she was losing me.

Nonetheless, here are some of the better pictures from this dive. And by the way, I’ve ordered some software which I hope will make it easier to make these dive reports in a more timely manner, and with the pictures better integrated. But, I haven’t gotten it yet, so it might just work well in my imagination. They are generally “too blue/green” because I didn’t know how to set what’s called the “white balance”. (There’s more to it than that—the water actually filters out the reds and oranges and yellows as you go deeper.)

Swimming Before. As I said, Sharon swims in front of me, generally. This makes it pretty east to take pictures of her fins and tank. In the first picture, you can tell I was in a valley, of sorts, and Sharon was probably 5-10 feet above me. This might explain why I was so easy to lose track of. When I’m in a valley, and she swims forward more than another few feet, I wouldn’t be visible if she turned around and looked for me. By the way, the yellow cylinder is a “safety sausage”, that I’ve mentioned otherwhere. (Sorry for the poor framing, especially in the 2nd picture.)

Hungry Fish. I can’t be certain, but I think this is the same type of fish we saw at the surface, shortly after getting back on the boat.

Wrasse. There were many small wrasse. We even saw a “cleaning station”, but I didn’t catch a decent picture of it.

Plenty of Company. In case you think we are only seeing one or two fish at a time, rest assured, we are swimming in the middle of schools. At one point (at West Palm Beach, not Tavernier), we were swimming and there were thousands of fish around us. The ones in these last two pictures are 5-10 inches long. The fish where there were thousands were 7-12 inches long, and much “taller” than the ones shown here.

Nature Smiles

Brain Coral. There are a few pictures of brain coral. They kind of make you think…

Conch. We found a fairly large (8-10”) conch shell, and then were surprised to find it wasn’t just a shell, but the conch itself was still inside! Too bad I scared it into its shell. They are really cool to see crawling along the ocean floor.

Puffer Fish. This is the same fish you see puffed into a ball in cartoons. Although hard to see in this scaled-down image, you may be able to make out some of the spines that give it a porcupine-like appearance when it is frightened or threatened.

Antler Coral. Looks like antlers.

Pillar Coral. Although there were many better examples of pillar coral, this is one I happened to take a picture of. I could smack myself for not getting a picture of the main feature at this dive location. (I “post-processed” the color of this image, which is why it’s less blue.)

Sponge. These sponges were between 4-10 inches tall, and 2-6 inches wide. Often there were small creatures living (or hiding) in them.

Sea Fan. Did you know that sea fans are also coral, not a plant? I didn’t either, until I was looking for the scientific name and learned it was in the class Anthozoa, which I already had used for the brain and pillar coral. Small world! This is perhaps my favorite photo from this vacation. I know that blue fish is common, but I don’t know what it is.

Getting back to the boat turned out to be easier said than done. Although we had sort of figured out our bearings, because we were swimming in circles, we did lose track of the boat. Since we were only 30ft under, at the deepest, we just floated to the surface, looked around to find the boat, and then dove back under. It’s a lot easier to swim underwater than at the surface, especially when there are a lot of waves. All that movement above the water does nothing to propel you. So, we dove back down to about 20ft and swam toward the boat. We were going to stay around 10ft, but the surge was so strong that it felt almost like we were being batted around. We could still feel it at 20ft, but it was tolerable. We had to surface once more, because we thought we should have been there sooner, and wanted to make sure we hadn’t gotten lost again. We were on target, but the waves were slowing us down, or we thought we were closer than we really were. Either way, we dove back down, and swam to the boat.

Due to the low visibility, the surge, and not a whole lot of sea life, this was kind of a boring dive. We were down for just over 40 minutes, and still had 1200psi or more of air in our tanks. At these depths, we could have stayed under safely for more than two hours. Our air easily would have lasted another 30 minutes.

We saw a bunch of fish shortly after getting back on the boat—one of the guys doing his Open Water checkout dive got on the boat, set down his tank, and spewed over the side. There were a lot of fish who were more than happy to help clean up.

There was a 30 minute surface interval. Only a few people were seasick, but more than a few looked to be considering it.

The next dive was a different part of Pickle Barrel. It was just as exciting as the first dive. The bottom was only 22ft below the surface.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

We drove back to the West Palm Beach airport, dropped off the vehicle, and sat around the airport. It was kind of scary how easy it was to get through security with no real identification. I’ve since found out that you actually don’t need identification to get through security. They may choose to do a full cavity search, or make you take off your shoes, or something like that, instead. That seems just as secure to me.

1 Fish identification was done post-dive, primarily using and

2 Freediving is somewhere in between snorkeling and scuba-diving. You don’t use tanks, but you can use a BCD and weights. As for air, well, you’re on your own. Apparently, you can even catch fish that way—tuna and sea bass seem popular.

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