After spending a week aboard the Sea Dancer I still didn't have enough bottom time accumulated, so I took a weekend layover in Miami. Actually, the original plan was to visit Florida to test dive some Halycon dive gear. Between the time I booked my flights and my trip to the Turks & Caicos, I had an opportunity to test dive the Halycon gear. I was so impressed I replaced my Zeagle Ranger with the Halycon backplate and wing.
At this point it was too late to change my return flight without significant penalty, so I figured why fight it -- go diving!
At the recommendation of Dan Volker, editor of South Florida Dive Journal I stayed at the Palm Beach Hawaiian Inn. Its located right on the beach in South Palm Beach. The regular room rate is $95/night (off season), but ask for the diver's price which is $65 + taxes.
Given my dive and travel schedule I didn't spend all that much time at the hotel, so I probably could have saved a few bucks by staying further from the beach. The area around the hotel is pretty nice and feels reasonably secure. The only drawback of the Hawaiian is that the hotel restaurant is pretty popular, which causes some parking problems. The staff provides valet parking when things are congested, so I never worried about parking.
Heading inland from the beach things turn downhill pretty quickly. South Palm is a mishmash of run down strip malls and isolated businesses. I can't say I found a dinning establishment really worth recommending.
With only a single weekend in Florida, I wanted to make the most of it. I was arriving from the Turks & Caicos mid-morning. I knew it would be tight, but booked an afternoon dive charter with Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures. I had a little less than three hours from my arriving flight till dive time. In spite of flat tire on the drive north to Stinger Island, I still managed to grab a bite to eat and meet the dive boat on time.
After a week on a live-aboard, this was going to be a little bit of a shock. With 18 passengers on a 40' dive boat things were pretty crowded. However, Jim and crew run a pretty good ship. The boat and safety briefing was very through, but the dive site briefing was little skimpy. Arriving solo, I was paired with Harvey. All things considered, Harvey was a pretty reasonable dive partner. I wouldn't have guessed from the way he setup his gear (like putting on his booties and weight belt and then realizing he hadn't put on his wetsuit) but his air consumption was very good.
The diving off West Palm Beach is drift diving on a rolling bottom with a continuous reef. The boat was divided into two groups of 9, each with their own divemaster who carried the dive flag. If you ran out of air early, you were supposed to surface and drift with the dive flag.
After the stellar visibility I'd enjoyed in the Caicos, the vis was a little disappointing at 60'. The poor visibility was more than made up for by the rich and varied sea life. The prime attractions were the loggerhead turtles.
When diving my preference is to go nice and slow to both maximize bottom time and to be able to see more critters. I wasn't surprised when I found myself migrating to the back of the group. Just as I'd find something interesting, I'd have to swim quickly to avoid losing the group into the gloom. But when the group found a loggerhead turtle I was a little bummed. By the time I was able to get close to the turtle, the group had spooked the turtle.
As the group swam onwards, I continued to look around. Just to my left, I spotted a loggerhead. Surely the group must have swum right past him. I approached slowly and watched from about five feet away. Mr. Turtle was having a late lunch, slowly munching whatever he was eating. After a few moments, the turtle looked up at me, decided I wasn't very interesting or threatening and returned to his lunch. I would have stayed and watched until my tank had run dry, but alas I had to leave to find the group.
At the end of the dive, the air hogs had long since returned to the boat and it was just four of us plus the divemaster. We stayed down until our computers showed it was time to return to the surface. The diving in West Palm is a perfect match for Nitrox, but I hadn't made arrangements for Nitrox previous to my arrival.
The big difference between diving on a day boat and the Sea Dancer was the surface interval. Since we were the last out of the water, we had a pretty short surface interval (approx 45 min). So there wasn't all that much time for relaxing before hitting the water again.
The visibility on the second dive had dropped down to 30'. I'm not sure why the visibility had changed so rapidly. It was interesting comparing the fish life off Florida with that of the Caicos. New fish for me included: Reef Butterflyfish, Brown Chromis, Barred Hamlet, Spotfin Hogfish, lettuce sea slug.
Jim Abernethy's ran a pretty nice operation, but for a sense of variety I tried Splashdown Divers out of Boyton Beach on Sunday. I would have preferred the morning dive, but it was full. Having some knowledge of the dive profiles, I requested and received Nitrox. Splashdown Divers runs a very different dive operation. The first difference is that both the captain and the mate are women, not something you see in most dive operations. We had 10 divers for the afternoon and were split into four groups. Each group had their own dive flag and dove on their own.
I saw lots of interesting fish life on this dive. Usually you can't find many Spotted Drumfish, but on this dive I found quite a few. And the similar High Hats were all over. Under one ledge I counted 10 High Hats. A new fish for me was the Planehead Filefish, a relative of the Whitespotted and Orangespotted filefish I saw here and in the Turks and Caicos. We found a very large corronet fish (looks like a fat trumpetfish) about 6' long with a posse of 4-5 smaller corronet fish around him. Other highlights included finding a sleeping loggerhead under a ledge. All together, it was a very enjoyable dive; my only complaint was that I cold during the dive (like normal).
During the surface interval the crew noticed I had been cold and offered up an extra shorty wetsuit top. I took them up on the offer and was significantly more comfortable on the second dive. The second dive was also a very enjoyable dive and Two of the highlights included sighting a large green moray and smooth trunkfish. The large green moray exited out of one crevice, swam for a bit and then retreating to another crevice. The smooth trunkfish were more impressive than the moray. Smooth trunkfish are reasonably common throughout the Caribbean, but I'd only ever encountered them in ones or twos. On this dive I encountered several schools, some quite large. Usually I don't count the number of fish in a school, but it was so out of the ordinary (well at least for me) that I did. I encountered a school of 10, two of 20, one of 25 and one containing a whopping 35 smooth trunkfish. I was astounded.
While driving from hotel to dive boat and back again, I head a radio commercial for the Galapagos 3D Imax movie. Not having any definate plans, I headed into Miami to check it out. Wow! I was blow away. Imax movies are always impressive on the huge screen, but adding 3D was totally incredible. As you enter the theatre, you're handed a high tech piece of head gear. We've come a long way from cardboard glasses with red and blue lenses. The headset has two LCD lenses which are synchronized to the display of the movie. The effect is stunning. As if I didn't want to visit the Galapagos before...
I was really impressed by the diving off Florida's Palm Beach area. Fish life was rich and abundant. Plus diving with loggerhead turtles is an awe inspiring site. Would I head back? You betcha!
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