Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Chikuzen


One of the best dive sites in the BVI is the Chikuzen, a 300 foot Korean refrigerator ship that sunk while being towed out to deep water in the 1980's. Unfortunately we don't have the opportunity to dive it much more than a few times a year, mostly due to (1) the fact that it is basically half way to Anegada and the weather conditions have to be just right to make the long boat trip out there and (2) the right group of diver's who have the right skill and interest to do the dives.

Luckily enough however, we get to make this dive tomorrow and I'm super pumped about it. We're taking 5 really good divers with us in the morning, 3 of which are from my hometown in Baton Rouge (small world, eh?) and they have a sweet hi def video camera for us to record the action!

The dive is truly amazing! The only reason this wreck isn't ranked higher than even the Rhone is just because it's a logistically tough one to get to and find out in the open sea! It's very rare NOT to see Reef Sharks, Cobia, large green sea turtles, eagle rays, etc on this site so obviously we're very excited about the chance to take some divers out to experience it with us.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sailing in Venezuela


When I got a friendly call from Colin 2 weeks ago, just seeing how things were going, he asked if I knew anyone interested in helping him make a sail from Margarita Island in Venezuela back to the BVI. "Well, that's easy, of course I do," I thought, referring to myself. I immediately volunteered and found myself on a plane from New Orleans to Miami and finally Caracas only a week later.

Margarita Island (Isla de Margarita) is the largest island of the Veneuzuela, situated off the northeastern coast of the country. It's actually quite a large island, with several hundred thousand residents. While we had much work to do on the boat to make it seaworthy, we also spent our time sampling the fantastic South American cuisine and enjoying the culture. Although I've never been anywhere in South America, Colin lived in Margarita for three years captaining yacht charters and delivering sailboats. In fact, the very boat we sailed, newly name "Color Cafe," used to belong to Colin, and he and Andrea lived on it for quite a while in the BVI and sailed it over 20,000 miles. With Colin and Shayl (Colin's friend on the island whom we lived with), I had more than enough experienced guides showing me a good time on the island.

When the boat was finally ready and deemed worthy enough to make the 450 mile passage to Jost van Dyke, and the tropical wave of weather that concerned us so much earlier in the week had passed, we set sail on the afternoon of Friday, June 11th, and didn't look back. Also along on the adventure was Ricardo, Colin's nephew from Venezuela.

Three remarkably handsome sailors from a variety of backgrounds and hometowns sailed the Caribbean Sea in only 4 days, making great time despite a few major boat issues and enjoying the nearly perfect weather and open ocean. Colin provided the expertise and quick training course for Ricardo and I, and banged out the 2-hour watch shifts all day and night until after the third day we could see St. Croix in the horizon. We fished behind the boat for most of the trip, unfortunately only catching a small barracuda near St. Croix and a rare Long-tailed Tropicbird, which we were able to release unharmed. My favorite part about the sail, however, were enjoying the night shifts. It's very rewarding to be alone on the ocean, no sounds but the ocean churning, wind in the sails, and occasionally my ipod jamming, and to be able to navigate by the stars and literally see every star in the sky burn like bright torches, unimpaired by city lights or clouds or anything.

I'll leave you with a few pictures from the sail to have a look for yourself now.

Friday, May 7, 2010

New shop= new places and new friends!


This week we opened our new location at Marina Cay: a little island, really little island, located off Trellis Bay, on the north east side of Beef Island, Tortola. We have our boat Mustard Seed there, a rental closet, compressor shed, an outside kiosk for meeting and greeting, and a retail section inside the Pusser’s Store retail shop. Getting there is super easy if you are staying in Tortola, as there is a free ferry that runs from Trellis Bay to Marina Cay, and any cab can take you if you are not driving. You should read more about the interesting story of this little island! This is an excerpt from the website www.bareboatsbvi.com:
“This tiny island is the subject of author Robb White's novel, "Two on the Isle". White and his wife Rodie bought Marina Cay in 1937 and proceeded to build their home perched atop the peak, an idyllic setting to be sure. Through many struggles, they managed to complete their task ... which was no mean feat in those days. A set of unfortunate circumstances, World War II and an uncooperative BVI government brought their dream to a disappointing end.
Two on the isle is a good read which I highly recommend for anyone who loves the British Virgin Islands or may be considering building a life here. Today, Robb & Rodie's original home serves as a reading lounge/book swap for Pusser's hotel & villa guests. I'm sure Robb White himself would approve!
Charles Tobias, owner of Pusser's, purchased Marina Cay then set about building a very small and intimate resort, gift shop and another Pusser's Restaurant on this charming, 8 acre island.”
So we moved in on Sunday, and before the end of the day we booked our first trip: two Discover Scuba Divers. Next day, Glenn and Erika joined their instructor Vivian (me!) for their confined water session inside the calm and shallow bay by the restaurant beach. We then headed out to a shallow reef known as Diamond Reef for our open water dive. Maximum depth at this dive site was about 35 feet (a little over 10 meters) and we were accompanied by schools of yellow tail snappers and sergeant majors from descent to ascent. The reef was filled with lots of juvenile fish life and the usual critters like hermits and arrow crabs, and flamingo tongues. As a matter of fact, Glenn and Erika had so much fun, that two days later, they booked another trip. The second time around we visited Dip N Scrub, a reef on the south side of Scrub Island. I was surprised by the diversity of the marine life at this site: we saw a juvenile trunkfish, tiny, tiny, then a big adult one just swimming by and puffing at the sand. Trumpet fish of different sizes, different types of parrot fish and some of the biggest sea fans I’ve ever seen. This dive site was interesting because you could choose to stay very shallow at about 20 feet, or if you keep going south you kept getting deeper, 40 feet and over. We also took diving a group of very seasoned divers from Spain: Jose, Daniel and Piedad. We picked them up from Daniel’s beautiful sailboat, "Planeta Azul", which means Blue Planet. (Daniel has been sailing and diving around the world for about 10 years, what a life!). They had their dream dives in mind, so we had to make them happen, as much as possible. They wanted to dive The Chimney and Coral Gardens (aka the Plane Wreck), at Great Dog. The Dogs are a group of islands north east of Scrub Island. They were named after the barking sounds of a resident population of seals (now extinct) used to make. The Dogs are knows for their picturesque underwater scenery. The Chimney is characterized by two huge rocks touching at the top, creating a long and high tunnel-like swim, getting slimmer and slimmer until the end. The end of the chimney is wide enough for one diver at a time, I am small and I felt that I was shoulder to shoulder with each side, so I guess bigger divers do a little bit of a sideways dance! No worries, if you don’t want to swim through the chimney hole, you can also swim on top of the rock formation to the other side. That was a very cool dive, considering the fact that neither me nor Marc, who was driving the boat that day, have been there before. So it was a great discovery experience for us and a phenomenal dive for our guests of Planeta Azul.
In short, I think our first week at Marina Cay was a successful one and can’t wait to keep discovering all the dive sites on this part of the British Virgin Islands. If Marina Cay is part of your trip, don’t forget to stop by and say hi: we can take you diving, or teach you diving, we also have diving and snorkeling gear for rent, and we can fill up your air tanks too!

Photos borrowed from: http://www.pussers.com/ and http://www.bviscuba.org/

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What an amazing month of diving!


Diving in the British Virgin Islands is all about having your eyes open. That’s it. Get in the water and look all around you. The lava tubes, the rock formations, the schooling fish, and the usual suspects, like spotted eels, eagle rays, turtles and sharks, create a panorama that surrounds you with breathtaking sights. Last week, our dive sites in Jost Van Dyke were teeming with life, and divers almost had to say “excuse me, but may I swim by” to the dense concentration of schooling fish around. Sites like Twin Towers and Playground had clouds of silversides playing on the reefs edge, while schools of yellow tail snappers and bar jacks ran in and out of them trying to catch a delightful meal. It was a treat being able to witness so much life in constant motion. Aside from the prolific population of small fish, divers had a chance to spot (pun totally intended) a spotted eagle ray and a hawks bill turtle. Suddenly, a big shadow blocked the sun, and turning around, the divers discovered a group of giant tarpon. What else can you ask for? Well, funny you ask! Last week we had a very motivated group of divers from California, the Byrne family. Mr. Dale Byrne and his older son were already certified, so the two younger ones did their Open Water class with us. They were actually on a sailing vacation, and decided to land-lock themselves for two days at Long Bay Beach Resort, to take advantage of the pool, and our in-house shop and instructor. After they were certified as Open Water Divers, they decided that it was not enough diving and did the smart move of enrolling in the PADI Advanced Open Water course. There was only one condition: Dad had to take the class, and all of them were doing it. It turned out to be so much fun that now we have two new divers hooked for life. They were staying on their sailboat in Norman Island, so their instructor Oswaldo picked them up and off they went to continue their education. Wow! When they were doing their FISH ID Adventure dive, they ran out of spaces on their slates to list all the marine life they saw: a black tip shark, a turtle, a southern sting ray, lobsters and more. The shark got curious and circled the group a few times to check them all out. Next day, on their deep dive, they had the opportunity to dive the world famous wreck of the Rhone. Visibility was beautiful, and the dive exceeded their expectation for their first wreck dive ever. At the end of the day, their smiles were the inspiration that keep many dive instructors going. They understood that it was not only about earning a certification, but also about having the opportunity to share something together, creating a memory that last longer than any photograph taken. At the end of the day, my last though, for Dale, Wes, Geoffrey and Jenny, was: “The family that dives together stays together”.

Open mike at a night dive!


It is amazing how the underwater world can continuously surprise you! Sometimes it is not so much about the dive site, but about the dive itself. Recently, we had a father and son buddy team from the US, John and Taylor Wilcox, join us for a night dive. Oswaldo decided that the night looked perfect do to a dive at The Cathedral (west end of Jost van Dyke). Joined by one of our intern instructors, August, the adventurous group of four headed to the depths in a starry night to see what their torches could find. Well, the highlight of the dive was not so much what they found, but the musical accompaniment they had. As described by one of the divers: “I just closed my eyes and sat there feeling the vibrations and hearing the whales sing”. It turns out that they were hearing the musical cadence of a nearby pod of humpback whales. Water is an excellent conductor of sound vibrations, therefore, making sound travel about four times faster underwater than at the surface. So our divers “felt” in addition, to simply “hear”, the ongoing sounds produced by the humpback whales. How they knew there were humpback whales? Because it is toward the end of the migration season, and this area is part of the grounds they cover to come and go between their breeding and feeding grounds. According to what I have read about humpback whales and information found in the internet, only male humpback whales are known to sing and their song have been acclaimed by many scientists to be one of the most complex in the animal kingdom. It is part of the sexual selection process, and also they have been instances were the songs were identified as being used for territorial designation or feeding calls. Since they do not have vocal chords, the exact mechanism that produces the sounds that result in the whale songs, is unknown. The most recent studies point to the fact that since whales have an outstanding lung capacity, these songs are produced by moving the air internally, through the larynx and the cranial sinuses.
Night dives usually showcase the secret of the marine underworld, giving us a chance to see what’s hiding during the day: the bright colored polyps on the corals are opened, basket stars extend to feed from the passing current, octopi and eels roam the reef looking for food, and much more. On this dive our divers were treated with a unique sensory experience that went beyond their expectations. Lesson learned: never pass on a night dive again; you don’t know what you will miss!
Note: The humpback whale picture was not taken during the dive. We really (really, really) wish that we would have had the amazing luck to take it, but no. We borrowed it from the internet.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Night diving at the RMS Rhone

Scuba diving opens a totally new perspective on how we view ourselves in relation to our surroundings, so it would seem to be a natural direction to explore the water as the sun says its goodbye and as the moon really starts to glow. Actually, I would prefer to go on a night dive rather than a day dive. Why? Because at night, the sea is totally transformed and there are things underwater that you can only see at night. It's like seeing Times Square on New Year's Eve in NYC for the first time at night after walking around it during the daytime in the summer.
video

A few days ago we had the chance to dive the world famous RMS Rhone, a mail-carrying steamer that sunk in 1867. This wreck is consistently ranked among the top wrecks to dive in the world and easily in the top 3 of the Caribbean. Colin and I made the dive on a clear Friday night with a great group of divers from Mississippi, whom we'd dove with several times over the years. Colin gave a great briefing as the sun set behind Salt Island, including the history and events leading up to the ship's eventual fate under the ocean, and we finally entered the water around 8pm.

The dive was absolutely fantastic. As we explored the outline of the wreck, we ran into several huge pufferfish, saw a lot of reef fish and their behaviors at night, and countless other really cool animals. The behavior of the fish on the wreck changes as the sun goes down, too! For example, a s toplight parrot fish will actually secrete a slime-like substance from it's mouth and coat itself in a thick layer of it, then lay on its side sleeping during the night. Also, the lobster and various crabs that are usually in hiding during the day can be seen curiously combing the top of the wreck for food using the cover of darkness to protect them. I actually had a huge hawksbill turtle completely sneak up on me while I was looking over the bright red and purple corals coating the Rhone's structure. I briefly looked down and his watermelon sized head was a few feet below my weightbelt buckle! A really fun thing to do, if the moon and tides are right for it, is to completely turn out everyone's lights for a minute or two. Let your eyes dilate and adjust to the darkness, and then flail your arms and legs wildly and watch them illuminate with the biofluorescent creatures surrounding you in the water. Everybody appears to have a surreal blue glow surrounding their bodies! You will also see all kinds of blinking and shining creatures floating around in the ocean around you, and it almost looks like stars in the night if you look out away from the group.

If you get the opportunity to make a night dive anywhere, but especially the Rhone with Captain Colin, seize it. A fe w things to remember: 1. Orient yourself with the dive site and pay attention to your briefing; 2. Pay particular attention to your dive buddy at night; 3. Carry a good dive light, then carry one more for backup. After that, enjoy your experience and keep your head on a swivel because you never know what you will see!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Protect Our Reefs

Coral reef ecosystems, around the world but particularly those around the BVI, deserve special attention and effort to protect our natural heritage. They play an important role in sustaining biological diversity, global biogeochemical cycles, and the economies of many countries, as well as incredible potential for new pharmaceuticals. Our business depends on taking our guests to pristine coral gardens covered by tropical fish, turtles, rays, etc! Despite these values, many coral reefs around the world are being rapidly degraded.

We've had quite a "rum front" in the BVI this weekend, so I'm taking a break from all our diving and adventures. This blog post is dedicated to tips for keeping the reef healthy, and any single one of these that you can practice can make a difference in keeping our reefs pristine for future generations.

1. Support reef-friendly businesses. Ask what your dive shop, boating store, tour operators, hotel and other coastal businesses are doing to save the coral reefs. This is especially important in coastal areas with reefs. Let them know you are an informed consumer and care about reefs.

2. Don’t use chemically enhanced pesticides and fertilizers. Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products end up in the watershed and may ultimately impact the waters that support coral.

3. Volunteer for a reef cleanup. You don’t live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the world’s treasures while helping to preserve it for future generations.

4. Learn more about coral reefs. How many different species live in reefs? What new medicines have been discovered in reef organisms. Participate in training or educational programs that focus on reef ecology. When you further your own education, you can help others understand the fragility and value of the world’s coral reefs.

5. Become a member of your local aquarium or zoo. Ask what they are doing and what your donation can do toward saving the world’s coral reefs. The answer may pleasantly surprise you.

6. When you visit a coral reef, help keep it healthy by respecting all local guidelines, recommendations, regulations, and customs. Ask local authorities or your dive shop hot to protect the reef.

7. Support conservation organizations. Many of them have coral reef programs, and your much-needed monetary support will make a big difference.

8. Spread the word. Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet’s coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Sharing this excitement gets everyone you speak with involved.

9. Be an informed consumer. Consider carefully the coral objects that you buy for your coffee table. Ask the store owner or manager from what country the coral is taken and whether or not that country has a management plan to insure that the harvest was legal and sustainable over time.

10. Don’t pollute. Never put garbage or human waste in the water. Don’t leave trash on the beach.

11. Recycle. This is the first step each of us can take to make a change. Recycle anything and everything. If your community doesn’t have a program, do it anyway, and get one started.

12. Conserve water. The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater that eventually finds its way back into our oceans.

13. Report dumping or other illegal activities. Environmental enforcement cannot be everywhere, and your involvement can make a big difference.

14. Keep it clean. You may be in the habit of picking up your own trash. You may even participate in an organized cleanup. But have you considered carrying away the trash that others have left behind?

15. Only buy marine aquarium fish if you know they have been collected in an ecologically sound manner. In some areas, marine fish harvested for the pet trade, are stunned with sodium cyanide so that capturing them is easier.

16. Surf the net! Many different addresses exist to link you to information about coral reefs and what you can do to become involved. A good starting point is at http://www.noaa.gov/public-affairs/coral-reef.html

17. Don’t start a liverock aquarium. Although this living rock is still harvested legally in some places, its collection is devastating to the reef organisms habitat.

18. Hire local guides when visiting coral reef ecosystems. Not only do you learn about the local resources, but you will be protecting the future of the reef by supporting a non-consumptive economy around that reef.

19. Don’t anchor on the reef. If you go boating near a coral reef, use mooring buoy systems when they are available.

20. If you dive, don’t touch! Take only pictures and leave only bubbles! Keep your fins’ gear, and hands away from the coral, as this contact can hurt you and will damage the delicate coral animals. Stay off the bottom because stirred-up sediment can settle on coral and smother it.

21. Participate in the Great American Fish Count. What better way to enjoy your vacation time than snorkeling or diving in America’s coral reefs and helping scientists better understand reef fish populations?

22. Volunteer. Volunteer and community coral reef monitoring programs are very important. If you do not live near a coast, get involved in your local save the river (bay, lake, or other estuarine environment) program. Remember, all watersheds affect the oceans and eventually the coral reefs.

23. Support the creation and maintenance of marine parks and reserves. Encourage your friends to get involved with projects to protect special areas.

24. Be a wastewater crusader! Make sure that sewage from your boat, from others’ boats, and from land is correctly treated. The nutrients from sewage feed growing algae that can smother and kill corals.

25. Inform yourself. Find out about existing and proposed laws, programs, and projects that could affect the world’s coral reefs.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Needle in a Hay Stack

Last Sunday, I experienced one of the most rewarding diving experiences of my life, and it didn't come on one of the many spectacular reefs or shipwrecks around the BVI either. It happened on an 11 minute dive in 25 feet of water on a sandy, uninteresting bottom just outside of Trellis Bay. I recovered a diamond wedding ring that was lost off the back of a chartered catamaran the night before!

A couple contacted BVI Scuba Co. about the lost ring and asked us to try to recover it. Although we have plenty of experience on search and recovery jobs (and I personally love doing them myself), we explained that the typical lost object is a pair of nice sunglasses or a larger boat part and that the chances of finding a small, quickly sinking object such as a ring are remote at best, but we were definitely willing to give it our best effort and search for it until the sun goes down.

The reason the ring is so special is not because of its monetary worth (although it was a very nice ring), but because of the sentimental value attached to it. The stones in the wedding ring originally belonged to Kathy's grandmother, the were reset by Kathy's father into another ring with a clasp so that her grandmother could still remove it and put it on depsite her problems with arthritis. The ring was passed down through the generations and eventually landed on Kathy's finger as her own wedding band.

I arrived at the coffee shop in Trellis Bay to meet Bruce, who then drove me out to the catamaran in the dinghy with all my dive gear and tanks to start the search. I could already tell the loss was a big deal when every boat we passed asked us if they had found the ring yet and wished us all luck. I was definitely feeling the pressure at this point! After the whole party gave their best recollection of exactly where the ring might be, and I judged the wind speed, current, and how the boat's position may have changed since the previous evening, I dove to the bottom and quickly realized the chance of finding the ring is optimistically 1 in 1,000,000! There was a decent current on the bottom, the sandy bottom was very uniform and indistinguishable, and the initial search area was at least going to be about a 50 foot square.

I spent the majority of the dive making the most accurate grid possible with my compass and rubbish I found on the bottom (broom handles, snorkels, beer bottles, etc.), and was prepared to spend an hour or two sifting through the sand and employing making my best effort to find the ring. Suprisingly (or luckily you could say), within 2 kicks of from my northwest corner of the grid, I noticed no more than 1/2 inch of the rings clasp barely poking out of the sand. "No way this is it!" I thought. I pulled it out, it matched Kathy's description perfectly, and it sparkled in the sunlight coming down through the water. I was so excited that I literally laughed hysterically underwater. I knew Kathy would be absolutely elated too.

I casually made it to the ladder to the boat and started removing my fins and gear as I told Kathy and Bruce about the bottom appearance and my difficulty navigating with the current. Kathy's hand were around her mouth as Bruce asked me what my plan do next was. I waited til I boarded the boat to reply then said, "Well I'm not sure, it's going to be tough to find anything down there, but I did come up this pretty nice ring..."

The two families were sailing the BVI for a week, all close friends in Ohio and together because the two fathers were college roommates. Most of them were over in the dinghy at a dock near Marina Cay about 100 yards away, and rushed back saying they could hear the screams and laughter all the way over there! So after only 11 minutes in the water, we spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating and taking pictures and leaping off the boat, and I met some great new friends and a great story. It's such an amazing feeling to be able to recover something so valuable and sentimental for someone when the chances of finding it are like finding a needle in a hay stack.