Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Wreck of Lemon

Dive trips reports

Key West April 2013

diving in Florida Keys

We had this idea to check out diving operations in Florida Keys for quite some time. So when opportunity arrived and we were able to carve out a couple of days away from teaching classes and working we jumped on it.

Whenever one has to travel long distance to dive a question comes up - to rent scuba equipment at the destination or bring your own scuba gear. I've decided long time ago not to trust my life to some cheap, poorly maintained, rental gear and bring at least my own regulators and BC. And that decision has been reaffirmed by hearing many horror stories from our customers about BCs that kept self inflating or leaking air and regulators that wouldn't stop free-flowing or delivered as much water as they would air. When you spend a lot of money on flying, hotels, boats, last thing you want is to have a miserable dive fighting your equipment.

One of the challenges we faced was that neither one of us owned a set of single-cylinder open water diving equipment, so we had to come up with a solution very quickly. Regulators were not a problem, switching from regulators configured to be used for doubles only took a few minutes. DIN-to-Yoke adapter came in very handy since most dive operations still use old yoke-style valves and to further reduce the weight we replaced our SPGs/hoses with radio transmitters that send gas pressure information to our dive computers wirelessly. Short technical diving rubber fins were easy to pack but it came with the price, single fin weighted as much as a pair of plastic fins.

Mares Isotherm

Airline luggage restrictions spawned a whole family of very light and compact travel BCs. A buoyancy compensator weighting under 2lb is not uncommon these days. However these new travel BCs all share a few problems. The lighter materials used in construction of travel BCs don't seem to be strong enough to withstand abuse and jury is out on how long will travel BC last, they haven't been on the market more than a couple of years. To reduce the weight, thinner straps, plastic buckles and small weight pockets are used as well. Those pockets provide enough room for 10lb of lead which may be enough for most shallow tropical diving where you would use a thinner and less buoyant wetsuit. We were planning on diving in 72F water and also going to the depth 100' while diving the wreck of Vandenberg. Wetsuits compress a lot with depth and provide less insulation on deeper dives. We opted to use thick Mares Isotherm semi-dry suits that proved to be perfect for April weather in the Keys and multi-dive days when you don't have much time to regain core body temperature. We stayed very comfortable in the water and never felt overheated while on deck of the boats. A couple of our friends were diving at Key Largo at the same time and reported that they were too cold in 3mm suits they used.

Zeagle Express Tech

There is one exception. Express Tech BC by Zeagle. We added the "comfort kit" consisting of a back and shoulder pads with d-rings, a crotch strap to keep BC from riding up and decided to use weight belts instead of integrated weight system with which we could've have upgraded Express Tech to save weight. The BC is built very tough and uses 2" nylon webbing similar to the one used on a regular weight belt. Express Tech provided plenty of attachment points to add a dive tool (knife) and a line cutter (z-knife) in case we run into any fishing lines and we were able to configure them exactly like our regular technical diving equipment. It is always a good idea to keep things the same as what you are used to so in the emergency you don't waste time trying to locate the necessary equipment.

The biggest diving attraction in Key West is undoubtly the wreck of Vandenberg. We scheduled four dive trips with four different dive operators Southpoint Divers, Seaduction, Captain's Corner and a private charter in Marathon. This would amount to ten dives in two days with four of them being on Vandenberg, one night dive and five more reef dives.

Day One

diving Vandenberg

The first trip was with Southpoint Divers. On arriving at the boat we were told that we have to report our ending air pressure, dive time and maximum depth to the crew member and we would be prohibited to do the second dive if we violated any of the limits that were set for us. I guess it made sense from the crew point of view to ensure safety of an average new diver. It didn't make any sense at all considering that the same limits were given to divers diving on air and divers diving nitrox. And if your air consumption is better than average or your dive computer told you that you still have a lot of time left before reaching your non-decompression limits it really didn't make any difference either - you have to obey time limits set by the crew. Everyone had to get into the water about the same time which also created a bit of a congestion on the deck and the mooring line. The diving itlsef was great. Key West is not known for 100' visibility but 50', a bit below average for the area, was still good enough for us used to diving in Utah lakes and California and we didn't complain. Vandenberg was spectacular. It was sunk perfectly straight and the wreck sits on it's keel on the bottom. This really makes the wreck easy to navigate. The wreck is a lot of fun to dive, multiple large openings allow for easy peneteratin and the only thing I wished was to have more air to spend more time down. The captain and the crew were extremely helpful and attentive, diving platform was close to water, the boat was very well set up with convinient cylinder racks and if you don't mind being told what to do all the time it is a really nice boat. We have no problem recomending this dive operator, especially to newer divers that need a bit more guidance.

The afternoon dives were scheduled with Seaduction. This was the only dive operator that we could find at the time that was offering three dives with the last dive being a night dive. The boat was scheduled to leave at 4pm which would have given us plenty of time for lunch and to get ready for next dives. The first sign of trouble was when we called the shop and, apparently, a new employee couldn't find our reservations. Then after we were able to confirm that everything was in order we relaxed and went to have our lunch. About an hour later we got a phone call from Seaduction informing us that due to the "boat problems" the dives were canceled. We had a suspicion that "boat problems" had something to do with only four spots out of available twenty were sold. This suspicion got later confirmed by one of the Seaduction instructors we run into the following day. It was after 3pm and all other dive boats left port around 2pm so we ended being stuck on land with no obvious options for diving. Seaduction people were not very helpful in suggesting alternatives either. Book your trips with this dive operator at your own risk. I know I will not be wasting my time with them again.

Schooner Conch Pearl

Desperate, we started to call every dive shop in the area until we found a private charter that would take us out on two reef dives for only a litlle more than it would cost us on a regular boat. We had nothing to loose, alternative was to not dive that evening, so we decided to give it a try. That was an amazing stroke of luck. What started as a disaster ended up in the most enjoyable and relaxing dive trip I've ever done. Husband and wife team operated the schooner, took us to a very beautiful reef. Conch Pearl provided a perfect escape from crowds and usual "cattle" boats... On the way back we were treated to a nice plate of fruit and cheese.

Day Two

diving Vandenberg

The second day plan was to go back to Vandenberg for two more dives and shoot a few pictures. Vandenberg dives were scheduled with Captain's Corner Sea Eagle dive boat used in the James Bond film "License to Kill". We were able to reserve bigger, 100cf cylinders, to give us a little bit more time on the wreck. The atmosphere on the boat was a lot more relaxed than a day before with Southpoint Divers. Once we arrived at the dive site we were informed about the time the boat was supposed to head back and we were left alone to decide how long our dives will be and when we get in and out of the water. We could do two shorter dives or one long dive. So if we had rebreathers with us or were diving doubles we could have done a nice long dive and deco. This boat will definetely be my first choice for future Key West trips.

By the time we got back to port the weather got a bit windy and we found out that small boat we chartered in Marathon wouldn't be able to leave port. Immediately we went back to Sea Eagle and booked another trip. The crew was kind enough to wait a few extra minutes to allow us to get some sandwiches and we left the port.

diving Vandenberg

We are planning on making Florida Keys trip an annual event and now we have a pretty good idea who will we use to provide the best service for our customers. For complete gallery of images from our Key West trip follow this link.

Some advice

Balanzza digital luggage scale

All diving resorts or charters will provide you with scuba cylinders and most will also provide you with weights at no additional cost. It is always wise to confirm the availability of weights. The most common cylinder type at the US destinations or resorts frequent by US divers is aluminum 80cf cylinder with the yoke valve. If you regulators are DIN, make sure to pack a DIN to yoke adapter or if you dive with a rebreather and require some specific cylinder size, make sure that your destination caters to rebreather divers or you may have to bring your own cylinders. Check your airline regulations on how to transport scuba cylinders. In most cases cylinders have to be empty with valves removed.

Your gear, wetsuit etc may remain wet even after a night in an air-conditioned hotel room, so expect your bags to weigh more on the flight back and plan accordingly. It is a good idea to bring a portable scale with you to avoid unpleasant and expensive surprises at the airport.

Tides, currents and ugly faces - Puget Sound, Hood canal, June 2013

Since this was going to be our first introduction to Pacific Northwest diving, we decided to explore as many geographically remote from each other diving locations as we could cover in three days and also experience both boat and shore diving in the area. Thus we picked the area north of Seattle, in Edmonds, then in Hood Canal to the west and finally south in Tacoma. This took care of deciding where to dive, now we needed to actually plan the trip. As Confucius said - "Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure".

Dive Planning

When you travel to dive as part of a dive store trip all logistics and diving details are usually taken care of for you by whoever is organizing the trip and all you need to worry about is following the provided itinerary. When you travel on your own, you´ve got quite a bit of homework to do.

Getting there

There are several websites dedicated to the topic of driving vs flying and even providing tools to calculate the cost of each. For this trip we decided to fly, which is what most of our customers would do, saving on travel time, and to bring all of our diving equipment renting only what we couldn´t take with us on the plane - cylinders.

Where to dive

All boat charters we could find in Puget Sound and Hood Canal areas would only go out once a day, for a two dive excursion and return around 3 PM. That left us plenty of time to fill our cylinders and do one or two shore dives in the afternoon.

Puget Sound is famous for its tides and currents and careful timing of your dives is a must. We managed to pick a weekend with the highest, 12.5´, tidal exchange in the year, so getting into the water at the wrong time meant having to fight very strong, up to 4.5 knots, currents and suffering poor visibility. We highly recommend "Shore Diving Near Seattle" book by Alexander, Maxwell and Kent Wallner for a great explanation of tides and tidal currents and how to read tidal guides as well as description of various shore dive sites in the area. You can also find a list of websites we used to decide where to dive at the end of this write up. Don´t be shy to ask local dive operators about their recommendations or for help in figuring out the tides either. After consulting with a tidal guide we realized that we are limited to only one dive in the afternoon before the dives shops, where we´d need to get fills for the following day, close.

Lodging

To minimize travel time in the morning and risk of being late to the boat because of traffic, we decided to stay in the hotels closest to the following day´s dive or, if we had to get fills in the morning, closest to the dive shop. Hotels fill up quickly around weekends and many resorts around Hood Canal in the summer require two nights minimum stay. Make sure to call in advance to book your room.

Diving Logistics

Shore diving can be made a lot simpler by the right choice of a vehicle. Compacts save money but add to frustration at the dive site. Rent an SUV or a minivan for the most flexibility in dealing with your dive gear. Some dive sites lack any facilities, so pick up a gallon of water at the gas station for rinsing your gear after the dive and a large towel for changing. Bring a ziploc or a waterproof case for rental car keys and credit cards/drivers license or ask for a car with a keypad for key-less entry.

Emergency Planning

Often overlooked part of dive planning is the emergency plan. Accidents happen and you do not want to waste valuable time when they do. You can find a couple of links to good examples of Emergency Assistance Plan templates below, we would suggest to add information about and directions to the closest hyperbaric chamber, hours of operation, after hours phone number and the name of the attending physician. If you get your information on internet from another dive site, it can be outdated and it would be a good idea to verify it yourself.

When diving in the remote areas, help may not be readily available. Having a first aid kit with you is a good idea. You may be your dive buddy´s first or only rescuer. In SDI Rescue Diver course you will learn skills such as how to perform self rescues, buddy rescues, recognize and calm potential panic divers, administer proper first aid to divers that have experienced dive related injuries, conduct effective search patterns and manage accident scenes. Rescue Diver course is also a required prerequisite to Master Diver course and all professional courses, such as dive master, assistant instructor and instructor.

Day One

Edmonds Underwater Park

Edmonds Ferry

We chose our first dive of the trip to be an easy shore dive in a very popular Edmonds Underwater Park. This dive site is only about 35´ feet deep with an easy access, restrooms with changing rooms and showers. The site is located very close to several dive shops so we could get our cylinders refilled after the dive and also in case we have some equipment malfunction or discover that we forgot to pack something. There are a lot of huge, 5´ long, lingcod, cabezons, large variety of crabs, anemones and nudibranchs. Park has marked trails placed in a grid to aid with navigation. Underwater Sports, right next to the park, sells laminated maps and we highly recommend it to purchase one and bring it with you to the dive.

Fish are accustomed to divers and let you approach really close. Great dive site to see really big fish up close, get used to colder water diving and to make sure all of your equipment is functioning properly. Make sure to stay away from the ferry.

We had an enjoyable one hour long dive, and got out right when the currents were starting to pick up. The ferry near the dive site is a good way to get across the Puget Sound to the Hood Canal where we had our afternoon dives planned.

Octopus Hole, Hood Canal

Octopus Hole

The main reason of us coming to Washington was to see the Giant Pacific Octopus aka GPO. The dive site with that kind of a name looked like a perfect spot for it and all reports indicated frequent octopus sightings. There are no facilities at the dive site and the access requires parking along the side of a road, climbing over a short railing and scrambling down the hill to the water. We would recommend packing a light tarp to stand on while changing to keep your wetsuit or drysuit clean.

A little tip on what to do when looking for an octopus. Look for signs of it´s activity, a pile of broken crab shells is right next to the opening to the octopus den. The water was very clear up to about 10´ feet of depth and the bottom was covered with oysters. Visibility deteriorated very quickly with depth and approached the pea soup at around 30´ feet and it opened up to around 10-15´ at about 50´ of depth. It gets very dark with depth and it is pretty much a night dive below 35´ feet, so make sure to bring a light with you. We found an empty octopus den but we did not find any octopus. We were quite surprised to discover something resembling a halocline. We learned later that there is a lot of fresh water flowing into the Canal from different rivers which would explain what we saw.

One advantage of diving in Hood Canal is that it is not subjected to the same tidal currents as Puget Sound and your diving schedule is a lot more flexible. Because we ended up driving around the south end of Puget Sound to get to Hood Canal instead of taking a ferry our dive started a bit late and we had to make sure that we would be able to get our cylinders filled in the morning before boarding the boat.

Day Two

Hoodsport

We stayed in a little Bed & Breakfast near Hoodsport. The town had a dive shop, a few restaurants and a convenience store where we restocked our supply of TV dinners, snacks and water.

After a quick TV-dinner breakfast and getting our cylinders filled we headed north to Brinnon where our next dive was starting.

Pulali Point (West Wall) and The Pinnacle

Lingcod

The morning dives were on boat dives with Pacific Adventure. Great boat, great crew, great diving! Captain´s dive site directions were very accurate and easy to follow and we were able to find everything he described. We saw a lot of crabs, rock fish, large lingcod at the West Wall. Still did not find any octopus. At the Pinnacle there were two mating pairs of wolf eels and one solitary male and we found them. Amazing fish, about 5´ long with faces that only mother could love. Both dive sites were within about 5 miles from the marina, weather was great and the water was glass. I believe they consider one foot waves "rough" waters in the Hood Canal. There were three creatures that we really wanted to see - GPO, Wolf Eel and Ratfish and we now could scratch one of them from the list.

Sund Rock

We returned to Hoodsport, got our cylinders filled, asked the staff about our next planned dive site, paid $15 access fee and headed off to Sund Rock. The dive site is located about 2 miles north up the road and if you pay the access fee you can park your car right next to the water and convenient benches to set up your gear. There is a portable toilet near the parking lot but no changing rooms. Alternatively you could park down the road and swim about 200 yards to get to the site.

Wolf Eel

Almost right away we found a large wolf eel peeking his head from inside the hole. We continued down the wall looking for octopus signs. This is when we saw them. Not one but three octopuses! The last one was so big we thought it was two different creatures, we could see its tentacle about 10´ away from the body through a different hole, the suction cups where around 2" in diameter. The guy was huge, ˜100lb. Unfortunately he was sitting deep in his den and though we could see him fine with our lights, the silt caused the backscatter from the camera strobes and made it impossible to take any pictures. Too bad we did not have any crabs around to bribe the octopus to come out. Now the primary objective was completed and even if last day dives were not any good we were returning home happy!

We had plenty of time left after our dive at Sund Rock to get our cylinders filled for the next day. Then we headed back to Tacoma, since our next dives would be on a boat in Puget Sound.

Day Three

We scheduled our third day boat dives with Bandito Charters that operates several dive boats in the Puget Sound. Our group ended up on a 35´ Ocean Quest.

Barges at Mauri Island and KVI Tower

Ratfish

When we arrived at the dive site at Mauri Island, it looked horrible. The surface of the water was covered by brown dead plankton and visibility was zero. Reassured by the captain that visibility may get better as we descend, we jumped in the water. We were told that ratfish are quite common in this area and the crew were surprised by my desire to see one. Apparently they are looked down upon and considered ugly. To each his own, I found these graceful, translucent fish to be a very beautiful sight.

A bunch of wooden pillars covered by giant barnacles marked the dive site. Several wooden barges laid in about 40-50´ of water. There were huge, 3´ diameter, sunflower stars in various colors, numerous crabs and large white and orange anemones.

The KVI Tower dive site is an artificial reef with concrete pillars, slabs and large boulders. We saw more rock fish, ratfish, a few empty octopus dens but unfortunately no octopuses.

Les Davis Marine Park

Les Davis Marine Park

The afternoon dive was planned at the Les Davis Marine Park. Galloping Gerdy Bridge remains form an artificial reef just off the shore. We could only see about a foot under the water from the surface but based on our previous experience at Barges and the fact that we flew over 1000 miles to dive here, we decided to give it a try. As we were gearing up, a couple of freedivers emerged from the water complaining about ripping currents and poor viz. According to the tides and currents guide, the current would subside in about 40 min giving us plenty of time to get ready for a dive. There is a fishing dock to the east of the dive site to keep away from. The visibility opened up to about 20´ once we got a little deeper and away from the shore.

A couple of minutes into the dive we found a wolf eel hiding in the opening of an old concrete slab. There was large variety of fish, hermit crabs and we spent over an hour looking for nudibranchs and taking pictures. It ended up being a great dive!

Water Jelly

Puget Sound and Hood Canal offer a very large variety of diving opportunities and shore diving is fantastic.

For your surface interval before the flight you could spend some time at the Waterfront Park. Stop by The Crab Pot Restaurant & Bar and Seattle Aquarium while there.

Additional information

Examples of Emergency Assistance Plans