trip report: Florida Keys with Tech Dive Center, January 2016

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As I look outside my window to 10 inches of snow, I can’t help but think back to the 70 degree F weather last weekend in the Florida Keys. It was our first trip of 2016 and it was a different kind of trip as I had no part in planning it. It was a scuba diving trip organized by Tech Dive Center here in Blacksburg.

the decision

As we started to plan for our upcoming trip to Brazil with Kevin, Shannon, Mat, and Vrushai, diving was an activity we wanted to do. However the other divers in the group, Kevin and Mat, haven’t been in the water since our original training dives in the quarry. So the keys over MLK weekend sounded like a cool trip.

logistics

Scott and John at Tech Dive Center organized and planned the trip. The trip involved a full day’s drive to get down there and another full day to return. Tech Dive Center has a dive bus so the ride isn’t as bad a being cramped in a car. Sandwiched in between the traveling days was the 3 day weekend, where 4 charters were planned (1 on Friday, 2 on Saturday, and 1 on Sunday) totaling around 9 dives. While we were in the keys, our base of operation and chartered boats were out of Florida Keys Dive Center. Scott used to work there and Carson was our boat captain.

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The total cost we paid to Tech Dive Center was $850 for each person not including rentals, tips, or meals. As part of our training with them, our rental cost was free on this trip (which would have been another $50). The housing was included in the trip and we stayed at Ocean Point Suits at Key Largo. It was nice 2 bedroom apartments that could slept 6 and had a kitchen. The kitchen was nice as it allowed us to make our own dinner and lunch to save money. The total cost stretched our budget a lot and I’ll have more on that in the final impressions.

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trip report

The drive down to the keys was eventful to say the least. The bearing on one of the trailer’s wheels caught on fire. Some great Mechanical work by Scott, John, and Rick (a fellow diver on the trip) got us back on the road after 6 hours of work. Thank goodness they carry a grinder in the trailer.

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There was a hole in the wall fish market called Baron’s Crab Stop next door that we were able to get some fine fresh fried seafood for dinner. After a long drive into the keys, weather was the next problem we faced. The wind was too strong in 2 of the 3 days, so we only got one day out on the seas. Though we saw some pretty cool things.

dive 1: Florida Key Dive Shop Canal

So day 1 in the keys was petty bad weather wise as I said. The winds were about 30-40 knots and it was rainy. We had breakfast/lunch at Sunrise Cuban Cafe and Market, which had a good cubano sandwich and empanadas. The original plan was for an afternoon charter, but it didn’t clear up so we ended up diving in the channel right by Florida Keys Dive Center just to get in the water. It was a good to get use to the gear configuration and the adjust the weight for buoyancy control.

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The channel was pretty poor in terms of visibility, though it was pretty cool to look under the the mangrove roots.

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Swimming around the docks we also saw plenty of clam growth and barnacles.

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dive 2: Benwood Reef

Saturday came around to be a beautiful morning but the word early on was that visibility was iffy. It was indeed so for our first dive at the Benwood Reef. The Benwood was a ship that was originally stuck and then eventually sunk. My max depth on the dive was 40 feet. The line down goes actually to the sides of the Benwood and you have to swim onto it once at the bottom. There were plenty of reef growing on the Benwood along with different fish.

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Scott even picked up a ray.

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It wasn’t my favorite dive for a few reasons including the visibility that made it very tough to see.

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dive 3: USS Spiegel Grove

Our first deep dive of the day was the Spiegel Grove.

Spiegel Grove

As we got down to the wreck it was very clear with no current, amazing conditions. My max depth for the dive was 98 feet.

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My group descended down the port stern line (1 on the above diagram) and swam forward toward the crain control room.

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We saw several barracudas and several other large fishes.

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After the control room we headed up the line on the crain.

The other group went down the crain line and headed forward where they saw the resident goliath grouper.

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dive 4: USCG Duane

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Our first dive in the afternoon was a different story. The current was very strong as we jumped in the water and we descended stern line. I was the first one the line and it felt like I was in Indiana Jones hand over hand going into the cloudy depth. Then out of the cloud the Duane emerged and I was greeted by a large barracuda.

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It was a strenuous climb down against the current and we were all down to 2000 psi by the time we were down. We swam forward against the strong current and found a large sea turtle chilling.

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As we were all using a lot of air against the current, we swam half the length of the Duane before retreating back to the line. My max depth was 104 feet and it was my first time using a nitrox blend to increase my bottom time.

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dive 5: Pickle Barrel Reef

Pickle Barrel Reef was a shallow dive were my max depth was only 18 feet. There were a lot of fan coral. It was the first dive where we planned our own dives. I saw a small nurse shark quickly swim away from me. John, our divemaster, took the opportunity to try to catch diner (unsuccessfully).

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dive 6: Snapper Ledge Night Dive

Our last dive was a night dive at Snapper Ledge. This time, Kevin, Mat, and myself were on our own again. After jumping in, we followed the ledge and tried for find critters under the ledge. The first was a large nurse shark, which Scott got a picture of later on.

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We also saw a large puffer fish and a lobster under another ledge. Once we reached the humongous brain coral (also from Scott),

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we turned back where we found Scott had a broken glow stick making a cloud of fluorescence. It was pretty cool. Lastly, we saw a moray eel.

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The deepest we got was 24 feet on the dive and it was surprisingly one of the best because of the large number of sea life.

Our last day was also wiped out by high winds, so we slept in a attended a local blue grass festival.

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final impressions

Overall the dives were very enjoyable, especially the wreck dives and the night dives. Here is the link for more pictures on Tech Dive’s Facebook. But the weather really cut the number of dives we expected in half. So it was a lot of travel and money for only one day of diving. The wind not only prevent us from diving, but also doing any kayaking or doing anything specific to the keys.

The total cost for the trip for Meg and I was $1700 and another $200 for food and tips, so about $1900. It’s hard to say I’m not a little disappointed by what that amount got us, which was 1 day of diving. It’s just a difference of what was expected versus what actualized (negative prediction errors, hey something I study). All these circumstance doesn’t reflect the job that Tech Dive does as it was beyond their control. Scott and John did a great job getting us there and back safely.

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