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February 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Chinchorro Banks, Alor, Belize, Roatan

and how cut-rate trips leave early birds steaming

from the February, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

From time to time, we publish select comments from our readers' travel reports to call attention to specific destinations or discuss larger issues. Our first order of the day?

A Royal Blunder. In January, we posted a photo of the King and Queen of Netherlands taking a giant stride into the waters of Saba without their masks in place. Vicky Gabriel, an instructor with Sea Saba, was on that dive and took offense at our snarky comments. She says she personally attended to the Queen and her mask, even ensuring there was no hair caught in the skirt, but that the royal couple decided to take their masks off for the leap into the water because it made "a nicer shot." Vicky says, "How about you try to tell a king and queen what to do? Plus we were very happy with them promoting our island and the importance of marine preserves." Lynn Costanero, her boss, added that hurricanes only affected Saba because of the resulting poor flight access from other Caribbean islands. www.seasaba.com However, Buddy Dive Dominica tells us they've lost all three dive boats and their dive shop to hurricane Maria and of consequence will be closed throughout 2018.

Chinchorro Bank is the best Mexico reef diving I have done, surprisingly healthy compared to most others in the Caribbean.

The Chinchorro Banks, Mexico. It's been nearly two decades since I reviewed diving the Chinchorro Banks, off the southern Yucatan peninsula, and I had hoped for another feature, but it didn't happen. But, we've got the next best thing, since a good friend of mine, Jeffery Zankel (Sebastopol, CA), who has dived the world, traveled there in late October with his dive club to visit the Banks with Amigos del Mar dive shop and posts this report:

"Mahahual, four-and-a-half hours south of Cancun, two hours from Chetumal, is a typical Quintana Roo beach town built on tourism, with a cruise ship pier and a big promenade, the Malecon, with the ocean on one side and hotels, restaurants and shops cluttered on the land side. My room at the Nacional Beach Club, a mid-range eco-touriststyle hotel, like most of the rooms, was a standalone stone structure simply furnished, comfortable and clean, with a front porch for watching the passing promenade. I could look out to see when La Chula, our powerful 33-foot (10m) dive panga built by owner Heiko Goetze, a German expat, was loading up and slip on my wetsuit.

Offering but 45 minute dives to people who have flown hours and put out thousands of bucks is unconscionable.

"The Chinchorro Bank Biosphere Reserve is a 20-nautical-mile (37 Km)-long reef system about 20 miles (35 km) offshore. Although La Chula can make over 30 knots with her twin 140s, rough seas stretched the trip to more than an hour. On the calm leeward side, I descended to the Gran Muro site in a mild current and at 55 feet (17m) was surprised by a variety of healthy brain, elliptical, mountainous star coral and more. Barrel sponges were everywhere, and conch littered the seabed. Mature yellowtails were abundant, and a friendly nurse shark tried to kiss me. Then, off to the choppier windward side, where the wreck of the SS Ginger Scout, an 1895 steamboat, consists mostly of hundreds of coral-encrusted copper tubes. Schools of yellowtail, black grunts, and blue tangs abound, especially in the bow and boilers.

"The next day the harbormaster closed the port due to stormy weather, and there was nothing to do but visit the NBC bar and watch the seas from their veranda (great Mexcal). Latea the next day, the harbormaster opened the port for near shore sites only, so it was off to the humdrum Escalones. To dive the Biosphere (Heiko has permits), divers must descend and ascend in a group. Needy divers gave us a slow start and then an early ascent. In a mixed group, you need multiple DMs to make this work or the more experienced divers come up short. At 40 Canyones, I drifted across deep canyons with fingers and saw healthy brain and staghorn corals, as well as large barrel sponges. Although the adult fish were not as plentiful or large as on the Bank, there were juvenile tangs and damsels and a spotted drum, as well as eagle rays, angels, permit, black durgon, even a huge green turtle. Puerto Angel, about 11 miles (20km) south of Mahahual, was a healthy reef with abundant coral, sponges and fans, as well as medium-sized snappers, grunts, and a few barracuda, but mainly juveniles. We made no night dives because Amigos claimed the sharks had gotten too aggressive on their recent night dives.

"After Huevos Rancheros at NBC, a water view restaurant that boasts a good cook and excellent service, I boarded La Chula and headed 20 miles (35km) south. By the time all 13 divers got into the water, Heiko aborted the dive. We had drifted so far on the surface that we missed the reef. At Chinchoritto, a long series of patch reefs were home to adult chub and snappers, with lots of sand between for eagle ray sightings. We divers just drifted in the current, parallel to the Malecon, until we came to the cruise ships right in front of us.

"My last day the weather broke, and we made it to the Bank in an hour. The first dive was at Gran Muro, where we drifted with schools of hunting horse-eye jacks, chub and Nassau grouper, as well as barracuda, parrotfish and schools of baitfish. Fabulous diving. We motored over to snorkel a shallow reef, interrupted only by the Mexican Navy looking for poachers, which is why these protected reefs are so rich. On our way to Baliza reef, we were stopped by the Park Patrol; another reason why this Bank is such good diving. Baliza was almost as good as Gran Muro, with the addition of green and hawksbill turtles, tiger, black, and Nassau groupers and many bait fish. We stopped for lunch at the fishermen's over-the-water pole houses, just off the impressive mangrove swamp. These fishermen have permits to catch lobster and their own food, but nothing else. Saltwater crocodiles were everywhere around the fishing huts, splashing happily in the shallows.

The guide would race from one reef/coral head to another, tap me to follow him when I was taking photos.

"Chinchorro Bank is the best Mexico reef diving I have done, surprisingly healthy compared to most others in the Caribbean." www.nacionalbeachclub.com www.amigosdelmar.net

Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Susan Bartley (Ripley, ON) went to Puerto Aventuras, south of Cancun, in November and says she had a great time. "We have been diving with Aquanauts since 2008 and still love it. It's an eight-minute walk from Dreams Puerto Aventuras, our hotel . . . The reefs are just a 5 to 10-minute ride. Going south from the marina gets you deeper, with more dramatic canyons. Unfortunately, the death of the coral in the shallower areas is heartbreaking. The fish are few and far between. Going north gets you multilevel dives and shallow finger formations. The fish are more, but we have noticed the populations decreasing. Sport fishing is not catch-and-release, just catch as much as you can and sell the rest. Fish populations are the best just outside the marina, where the boats do not fish. The dive shop will let you dive your air. No coming up because someone blew through their air, or only a 45-minute dive and everyone up. When the Dream Resort dive shop found out we were diving, they asked why we didn't dive with them. Could do a 70 to 75-minute dive. No, she says, maybe 60 minutes. Well, if I have to pay the same amount of money for diving ... I am going to take the longer dive." www.aquanautsdiveshop.com

Photography in Yucatan Cenotes. In our January issue, our undercover travel writer reported that their group had been told that cameras were not allowed in many cenotes.  That raised an eyebrow of underwater photographer Fletcher Forbes who said that cameras are disallowed in only one cenote, at Chac Mool and that seems to be correct.  Regardless, check first with the dive business when you book, to be sure it permits photography.

Badladz Divers, Philippines. Sixty-minute dives are often the norm at land-based dive operations, which I suppose we divers have come to live with, but Robert L. Short (Colorado Springs, CO) wasn't happy, and reasonably so, when he was limited to 45 minutes. His problem began, he said, when he waited until the last minute to book a return trip to Puerto Galera (last year he only got in one dive before being blown out of the water by a typhoon) and found the resort options were limited. He chanced Badladz Dive Resort which looked OK and was "very reasonable (cheap)." The rooms turned out to be a nightmare -- no water, toilets that didn't flush -- and the weather was lousy. On his first dive day, with only one other diver onboard, the guide said the "dive time was 45 minutes;" the other diver and I looked at each other like -- really? Yep, about 40 minutes into the dive, the guide signaled to go up for our safety stop -- I still had 1,400 psi (96bar). This occurred for all six dives. Good thing the dives were cheap -- I paid about $26/dive because I would have been walking if I paid more for only 45-minute dives. One short deep dive on a wreck in front of Sabang down to 98 feet was only 35 minutes -- came up with 1,000 psi (70bar)." www.badladz.com/badladz-dive-resort

Offering but 45-minute dives to people who have flown hours and put out thousands of bucks is unconscionable. It really tells us that if one is going to pick an unknown resort, ask about the dive times ahead of time. Hopefully, they'll tell you the truth.

The Aggressor in Alor, Indonesia. While our lead story marvels at the diving in Alor and elsewhere, not everyone has the same experience, as David Marchese (Hummelstown, PA) points out about his November Aggressor trip. "The diving in Wakatobi was just OK. The reefs seemed stressed, the fish density was low, and there were few colors. We spent about three days diving Wakatobi, and all guests were bored, so we asked to move to Alor, where the Boardroom was one of the most beautiful, healthy reefs I've ever seen. Fish density was fantastic, and the main color of the reef was purple. Unfortunately, the next dive was a muck dive (Mucky Mosque), where we saw mostly garbage. Most guests complained, and we were told that the currents were too strong to dive the nice reefs. We dove Mucky Mosque five times when once was enough. Overall, this trip was a letdown. Based on all I've read about Wakatobi and Alor, I can only speculate that the crew just didn't know the area well enough (or understand the currents) to take us to the best sites."

A question comes to mind. In our lead story, our writer talks about the need to be highly experienced to handle these currents. Did the Aggressor dodge the currents because of the divers' skills, or did they avoid them for other reasons? One would hope that divers who come to areas known for currents are experienced enough to handle them. If not, they spoil the trip for those in the know. We do know that liveaboards don't vet divers' experience, unfortunately, so you can end up with people who just can't handle the conditions. www.aggressor.com

The Damai in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. While the Damai liveaboards get good reviews, one of our readers' experiences raised a question for all the pricey liveaboards in Raja Ampat and elsewhere. When a customer is paying $6200 for a dive trip, as did Regina Roberts (Alameda, CA), the liveaboard must be obligated to resolve easily resolvable problems. Roberts, who has made more than 1000 dives, raved about the boat and the diving, but not her guide. He "would race from one reef/coral head to another, tap me to follow him when I was taking photos and left me to surface alone in a heavy boat traffic area while he explored a reef on his own. I asked the cruise director, Silven, not to assign him to me anymore. He agreed after condensendingly talking about how Adri was his best guide, [but I found that] the other guides were wonderful. I thought the issue was settled until the last dayand- a-half, when they again assigned him to me. To make a long story short, I contacted the owner, Alberto, who was worse in his response than the cruise director." www.dive-damai.com

These kinds of guides have always annoyed me, even at inexpensive places, and surely the need is to understand that the guide's role is to please his customers, not himself, while keeping them out of harm's way. Could it be that he got reassigned to her because everyone else objected as well? She speculates that the male customers might not have been treated similarly. And we've seen plenty evidence of that in the scuba industry.

Roatan Aggressor, Honduras. We reported in November that a lot of divers like this boat, but Gail M. King (Port Orange, FL), aboard in August, points out that "The cabins were small ... two of us shared one drawer and small cabinet. The top bunk was a small single and too close to the ceiling ... uncomfortable even for a small person. The cabin is really suited to one person only. Glad our trip was at an introductory, greatly reduced price." https://www.aggressor.com/roatandivesites.php

Palau Aggressor, Micronesia. And, speaking of reduced rates, the Aggressor offers all sorts of deals on their website, but those who sign up early and pay the full ride aren't always placated. Bobby Munno (NYC) was aboard the Palau Aggressor in December and said it was the best of the three Aggressor trips he has taken, though "the boat is showing its age." He does, however, raise an interesting issue about pricing. The Aggressor Fleet aggressively offers deals on boats that aren't filling up, so people who book far in advance are usually the highest-paying passengers on the boat, as Munno found out. "Trip costs varied greatly among passengers, and I felt penalized by booking early. I received special offers ($500 off) from Aggressor after booking, which I was denied when requested to have applied, only serving to alienate. Nitrox at $100 per week, per diver, seemed onerous after initial high cost of the trip."

As departure dates approach, the Aggressor Fleet offers a lot of deals on their website to entice late bookers, who find they can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Yes, would be nice if the Fleet adjusted the fare discrepancy between the advance planners and the late arrivals, but it's not going to happen, just as it won't happen for airlines, cruise ships, or Broadway plays. Planning well in advance may mean one will pay more than last-minute bookers, but early bookers can tie down their flights and side trips and then relax. If price is important and you're traveling on the Aggressor, wait as long as you can for the bargains. But, recognize that while you watch the prices, that trip just might fill before you pay (you can stay in touch with them to find how many slots remain). Furthermore, making flight reservations late in the game may cost you more and you may end up with an inconvenient itinerary requiring more stops and layovers. Since we really can't fault a provider for charging less to attract more customers -- even Uber has variable pricing based on demand -- keep in mind what my mother said. "You can't win for losing." www.aggressor.com

-- Ben Davison

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