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July 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Belize, Bonaire, Florida, Philippines . . .

and a Cozumel dive shop with a great refund policy

from the July, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Baja California Liveaboards. To counter our reviewer's experience aboard the Nautilus Explorer in April, let us note that Barry Levenson (Bellingham, WA) boarded the boat in May and had no issues. "We were a little surprised at the guest-to-staff ratio of 25 to 9. Captain Shawn and his crew worked like a well-oiled machine and made it seem easy, even though we knew it wasn't. We had manta sightings on almost half the dives. We had pods of dolphins interact with us on four of 27 dives. Other creatures were sailfish, eels, huge lobsters, hundreds of crosshatch triggers, guitarfish, tuna, white-tip reef sharks, a few Galapagos sharks and some silkies. The dive deck was small but sufficient. Almost all dives were from a Zodiac. Loading was athletic and only one Zodiac had a ladder, so if you were overweight or unable to pull yourself up over the side, you had to wait for the boat with the ladder. The crew would help pull us up onto the other Zodiac, which worked fine and made for some comic relief."

Another option is the Solmar V. Thomas Smith (Columbia, MO), who has logged more than 1,000 dives, was aboard in May. "It's an older boat that has been doing the islands for many years. It's clean and well maintained, if smaller than newer liveaboards, with a great crew and OK food. The diving was spectacular. I did four dives at El Canon from the big boat, where we saw mantas and white-tip sharks, with a Galapagos shark passing well below. Brisk current on a couple dives, water about 78 degrees. At Roca Partida, we did three dives for two days from Zodiacs. The schooling hammerheads were deeper than we were. Saw a few silvertips, some Galapagos sharks, tons of white-tips and silkies on our safety stops. The biggest thrills were frequent dolphins. Last day at the Boiler was the perfect end, with mantas on every dive, and a whopping seven mantas on the fourth. One of my best days diving in 25 years." ( www.solmarv.com )

Blackbird Caye, Belize. It's a nice little resort on Belize's Turneffe atoll, which we fully reviewed positively some time ago. Jill Rain (Lopez Island, WA) has visited two years in a row and says, "The resort and setting are wonderful. A quiet private island, 18 bungalows, a duplex and a triplex right on the beach, with sea breezes. Excellent food." However, while it has some of Belize's best reef diving, the resort's dive operation has changed so much from her visit a year ago, she isn't happy. "Often divers were overcrowded on one boat, rather than running two boats. Theoretically, there were eight divers to a divemaster, operating in shifts, but sometimes we had 10 divers in a group, so there was confusion in tracking people, gear, etc., and groups had a wide range of experience. The resort appears to have become a PADI certification mill. There were classes going on constantly, pulling divemasters away for that. Many of our dives had students learning/testing skills with the divemaster while the rest of us milled around waiting. More often than not, our dives were short, including those at Lighthouse Reef, perhaps to keep us on a schedule. The only dives an hour long during our 10 days were those led by the veteran divemaster, with no classes going on. We paid extra for the Blue Hole trip, but were informed we couldn't take it because we weren't certified for advanced openwater -- even though we did that dive the year before with Blackbird. The manager said we could buy an advanced course (some openwater divers did that, but their description of the skills tests sounded perfunctory). Since we couldn't dive the Blue Hole, we lost one dive of our prepaid package, since no replacement dive was available. Some divemasters handled critters and fed fish from a squeeze bottle, even though the resort portrays itself as ecofriendly." (Note from Ben: That they require experienced divers who dived the Blue Hole just last year with them to pony up for Advanced Open Water to repeat it is ridiculous.)

That they require experienced divers who dived the Blue Hole last year with them to take an Advanced Open Water course to repeat it is ridiculous

Bad News from Bonaire. In a thoughtful article in the June 22 issue of the Bonaire Reporter ( www.bonairereporter.com ), resident Adnan Hassan described an April-May bait ball of mas bango (a small silverside fish eaten locally) off Bachelor's Beach. Divers, snorkelers and locals thrilled to the spectacle of diving seabirds and swirling fish. However, after a couple weeks had passed, local fishermen descended with a massive net set out by boats (not the hand-cast net permitted by the marine park), scooping up the entire bait ball while calls to the marine park authorities and the government went unheeded for 20 hours. The remains of the net trapped fish like queen angelfish, and because a net can kill a turtle in 20 minutes, there may have been turtle deaths as well. Marine park law was flouted and authorities did nothing.

And a word to the wise for Bonaire travelers: United Airlines' Saturday flight to Bonaire from Newark has a lot of unhappy divers. Luggage checked in at Newark has had a tendency to go missing, reader Mel McCombie (New Haven, CT) reports, some taking several days to arrive. For divers on oneweek trips, this is a nightmare.

Two Good Florida Dive Operators. The Atlantic coast of Florida always gets high marks, and longtime Undercurrent correspondent Craig Wood (Radnor PA) likes Starfish Dive Charter in Boynton Beach, 56 miles north of Miami. "I have extensive dive experience in Boynton Beach and Delray, and this area offers among the best diving in Florida. Starfish's owner, Captain Craig, handles the business expertly, and Captain Doug makes great drops and pickups for drift dives covering the extensive, healthy and lush reef system. You will see nearly all the tropical reef fish you would expect. Highlights of this latest trip included a manta off the east side of the Boynton reef and a bull shark off Delray. Several reef sharks, many nurse sharks, numerous Goliath grouper, and loggerhead and hawksbill turtles rounded out the big stuff. We did one dive on the wreck of the Castor, visited the large resident Goliath grouper population and watched baitfish being hotly pursued by the hunters. In late August/September, don't miss the Goliath grouper aggregation on the Castor, an amazing experience." ( www.idivestarfish.com )

Thirty miles farther north, in West Palm Beach, Craig has made about 60 dives with Jupiter Dive Center. "Efficient, well-run operation. Two-tank dives with three-tank dives on Friday and Sunday. Three-tankers have generally more experienced divers. I did three two-tank dives the first week of February. The first dive of each day was at Area 29, with lemon sharks during the entire dive. It was difficult to estimate the number as they often circled and came around for numerous passes. By the end of the dive, I could recognize some of the sharks by markings, scars or a hook in the mouth. Nurse sharks, Goliath grouper and turtles joined us. The dives on Area 29 were at 90 feet. Water was around 73 degrees and visibility 50 to 60 feet. The opportunity to dive with lemon sharks in their natural state, without feeding, was priceless. Southern rays, morays and the usual reef fish suspects also marked second dives." ( www.jupiterdivecenter.com )

A Dive Operator that's Hassle-Free about Refunds. Too often, we hear about traveling divers who have to change plans after paying in full and are out a bundle, thanks to those "nonrefundable" and "nontransferable" clauses. So we have to give credit to Cozumel's Deep Exposure Dive Center, who honored reader Marc Pinto's (Castle Rock, CO) desire to return to dive with them after he liked his first trip with them so much. He paid $5,500 in advance for a 10-day private charter in February. Their written policy was clear: no refunds within 14 days. "On February 1, I broke my leg skiing, so I had no choice but to cancel the trip," Pinto says. "I was expecting to lose my total prepayment, but Deep Exposure let me reschedule within 2015 (at a non-holiday time), allowing me to apply my full payment. No fees, no surcharges." That, fellow divers, is true regard for a customer. Kudos to Deep Exposure. ( www.deepexposuredivecenter.com )

S/Y Philippine Siren. Michael Wood (Edmonds, WA), who has logged more than 1,000 dives, says the Tubbataha itinerary was "among the top five dive itineraries I've been on in the past 25 years. It's comparable to Raja Ampat in terms of healthy hard corals (not nearly as many soft corals as Raja), mantas, whale sharks, tropicals, white-tips and muck diving for two days on the way back to Cebu. The food was very good. My twin cabin, #7, was spacious, with tons of storage. Davide, my dive guide, was good, especially given the experienced divers and photographers he had to herd. One-hour dive times, sometimes 75 minutes. This is a 'crossing' 13-day tour at the end of the Tubbataha season. We had dead calm seas, mild currents and good viz. Camera handling by crew was very good. Safe dinghy drivers, helpful dive staff." That said, he had some big issues with the boat. "It's a defective layout. The dive deck has narrow outside passages between where you sit to put on your gear and the railing. Consequently, people going ahead of you to the dinghies have to squeeze by, bumping into riggings and your knees. Gear is not kept on the dinghies, so you have to schlep down a ladder onto the Zodiac with all your gear -- accidents waiting to happen. The salon's ceiling is five feet, eight inches at best, so I couldn't stand up straight. Worse, two of the three air conditioners didn't work, so it was hot and stuffy -- not the relief you needed on a sunny, 95-degree day with no breeze. Two of the eight cabins' AC didn't work at all or consistently, making for very unhappy passengers. The shower floors were horribly slippery, and two guests fell; one couldn't dive for three days. Simple rubber bath mats would solve this. The front two cabins had inconvenient storage, no room on one side of the bed to get out, noisy anchor chains in the mornings, showers that leaked onto the cabin floor. The divemasters' quarters were so full of mold that they slept in the salon, they told us. Maintenance seems to be a real problem. The camera stations are few and small, with no dedicated camera room. The eating area is a U-shaped booth, which people had to climb over or ask others to slide out to get in for dinner and lunch; not good for older divers. Most of the Tubbataha season has only seven-night cruises, which is not enough to justify traveling 40 hours." The Siren's owner contacted Wood through Undercurrent, saying there were indeed shower mats on board, but if so, Wood said, they weren't distributed during his trip. ( http://sirenfleet.com/liveaboards/philippines.html )

PS: We wrote a piece last September noting that perhaps the biggest danger to divers is falling down narrow stairs, or falling on the deck with heavy gear on. Obviously, this unfortunate experience aboard the Siren proves the point. Be careful.

- - Ben Davison

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