Sea Dancer Trip ReportMay 13-20, 2000
Last November I spent a week aboard the Cayman Aggressor IV and was totally hooked on live-aboard diving. My brother, Eric, was pretty jealous when he heard that I was going on the trip; he was even more jealous when I came back from the trip. We figured the best solution was to sign up for another trip ASAP!
As much as I loved the Aggressor, Peter Hughes has great offer -- $500 off your first charter and free nitrox (2000 only). After reading lots of trip reports on RSD's Diver-to-Diver we settled on the Turks and Caicos.
By accident, we've created a small tradition of planning dive trips coinciding with birthdays. This trip was no exception, with Eric's birthday falling in the middle of the week. As an added bonus, two other RSD Diver-to-Diver members, Ellen (aka Sleeveless Beauty) and Beverly would be aboard.
A few days before our trip I got a distressing email message from the Peter Hughes staff. The primary generator aboard the Sea Dancer had died and could not be repaired. A replacement had been ordered but would not arrive in time for our trip (guess it was too big for FedEx). As a result, they were not sure the secondary generator would produce enough power to create nitrox with. Ack! A week of diving without Nitrox?
Eric has horrible Airline Karma and I was concerned since we both only had about an hour to change terminals and make our Miami to Providenciales connection. American Airlines runs two 727's per day from Miami to Providenciales. If either of us missed the plane, we'd be swimming to catch the boat since the next plane wouldn't leave until the next morning. Plus we were on the last flight of the day into Providenciales. But who was waiting for me in Miami? My brother, with luggage, no less. Looking around the airport lobby, we picked out a few obvious divers... and the over zealous mother bringing 32 people with her for her daughter's wedding.
Ok, so where are the Turks & Caicos? They're at the south-eastern end of the Bahamas chain.
Upon arriving in Providenciales, we were greeted by two members of the Peter Hughes crew. About half of the passengers were on our flight, with the remainder having come in on the other flight. After clearing the perfunctory customs and immigrations, we pilled ourselves and our gear into a van for the short trip to the Sea Dancer.
At the Sea Dancer, we met the rest of the crew. We were there during a crew overlap period, with two of the crew getting ready to leave and their replacements aboard for training. The overlap meant that we had eight crew instead of the standard six (soon to be seven) on the Sea Dancer. Ian (British) had recently been promoted to captain. Previously, Ian had been the 1st Mate/Engineer aboard both the Sea Dancer and the Turks & Caicos Aggressor. Dave (South African) was the photo pro and was training Hew (British). Jill (South African) was the hostess and was training her replacement, Flo (American). First Mate/Engineer Paul (South African), stewardess Iris (Dominican) and chef Stan (Turks Islander) rounded out the crew. Stan has worked aboard the Sea Dancer an amazing 13 years!
A cold beer made for a nice start to the trip. After meeting our fellow passengers, dinner was served. Stan the chef can cook! All of our meals were first rate. Being the growing boy that I am, I was asking for seconds from the first meal onward. At first I got a strange look, but by the end of the week everyone got used to me putting away extra portions of food.
After dinner, Ian gave a general briefing. The primary issue was the availability of nitrox. A quick survey indicated that 13 out of 18 passengers were interested in nitrox, plus a few who wanted to take the class. Initially, Ian said they wouldn't be able to produce enough nitrox and only the students would have access to nitrox. Everyone suddenly became pretty quiet at this point.
After dinner, Ian presented a slide show covering the ship and her systems was given. After hearing reports on RSD's Diver-to-Diver about the Bay Islands Aggressor, Ian's briefing was particuarly welcome. While the systems briefing was perhaps more appealing to the techie side, I thought the briefing was pretty useful. They also covered safety and emergency procedures at this time. While the slide show was being given, Ian and Paul must have held an emergency discussion. After the briefing, Ian indicated that they would attempt to provide nitrox. The first two dives of the day would be on air, then nitrox would be available for the afternoon and evening dives.
The issue was that the secondary generator was smaller (50kw vs 75kw) than the primary. The secondary was large enough to power the ship's systems, but not all of the systems at once. The generator was able to power the compressor, but couldn't simultaneously run the nitrox membrane system while powering the rest of the ship's systems. In the end, we had nitrox for all but the first dive so the crisis was adverted. The sacrifice was no A/C during the day (go diving instead ;-) and no ice in the ice maker. But the beer was in a refrigerator so we didn't have any major sacrifices.
The Turks & Caicos Aggressor shares the same dock as the Sea Dancer. In general, the two liveaboards follow the same route. Both boats went to the same general region, but were never on the same site at a given location. We were always close to the Aggressor, but never in earshot or saw their divers in the water.
The channel into and out of Turtle Cove is incredibly tight. I'm glad I wasn't at the helm! But it does mean entering and leaving on a high tide. Wake up call Sunday morning was the sound of the big diesels firing up. At first I tried to sleep through the sound of it, but that was pretty pointless.
The first day, we missed a morning dive since we were traveling to North West Point. We would later learn that the Aggressor which left about 30-45 minutes before us got in a full five dives that day.
By the end of the week, we were all responding just like Pavlov's dogs to the ringing of the bell. The crew announces dive times, lunch and dinner with a bell. If only my home life could be so nice ;-)
Peter Hughes has several levels of cabins. Unfortunately there's only one "cheap" cabin and it was booked for the weeks that would fit our schedules. Our room on the Dolphin deck had a double bed and a twin bed above. Both had poor head room. I had the upper bunk (being nice to the birthday boy) and you didn't want to wake up suddenly! The bottom bunk wasn't much better, either. To avoid getting stepped on in the middle of the night (there isn't a ladder) you want to sleep on the portion of the double bed that's under the twin bed. Storage in the room was limited at best. A small private bathroom rounded out the accomodations.
I'm not sure why the cabin with two twin beds is priced differently since there isn't any difference in usable space. The twin cabin has a window, but ours did not.
Sea Dancer Diving
Diving on a live-aboard is about as easy as it gets. Its just a short walk from your station, down a few stairs to the swim platform. On the swim platform a crew member is there to hand you your fins and then a nice giant stride off the swim platform. If you're bringing a camera, a crew member hands you the camera once you are in the water. After an excellent dive, a rigid deco bar at 15' provides an easy place for your safety stop if conditions are calm. If there's a bit more of a swell topside, the deco bar moves around too much for my taste. Up either one of the great ladders and the same crew member is there to take your fins. After removing your gear, there are two rinse tubs for gear (and a third for cameras). After a quick rinse in the 100-degree deck shower, a crew member wraps a warm towel around you. Now this is primo service. The few times when I scampered from the shower and grabbed a towel myself, the crew looked almost crestfallen that they hadn't gotten there before me.
At the beginning of the week, you pick a station. You rig your gear once when you arrive and then leave your gear on the same tank for the week. Under your station is a bin for storing gear. The Sea Dancer bins are open, which provides more ventilation and keeps your wet gear from getting musty. The camera table was huge and with nearly every group having a camera, this worked well.
The dive briefings were thorough and Jill made a point of indicating what special fish life we might expect at each site. During the briefings, Jill would pass around a fish id book so we could get a preview of the next target. If she mentioned say, diamond blennies, sure enough I'd spot a diamond blenny.
Diving rules were pretty simple and we were treated as adults to dive our own profiles. Role call was informal by counting the number of fins on the back deck.
Bottom line: the diving was excellent. The attraction here is wall diving, with very little shallow diving. Typically Sea Dancer was moored in 40-50' of water. On one dive we reached the bottom at 39' and I held up three fingers to Eric and he instantly understood.
We started and ended the week along North West Point. The diving along NW Point was good, with visibility a bit over 100'. After our warmup dive at NW Point, we moved to West Caicos. Visibility, fish and coral life were all substantially better here. Visibility was in the 120-150' range. There were many different varieties of fish, but with the exception of schools of blue chromis and creol wrasses, not many schools of fish. The highpoint of the week was the diving from French Cay. French Cay is a small island south of West Caicos. French Cay provides little protection from the elements; Ian indicated that they normally only make it to French Cay six to eight times a year. French Cay is too far for most of the day boats and too exposed in all but the best conditions. West Caicos doesn't get many day boats, I think we saw one perhaps two while we were diving West Caicos. Our only companion in French Cay was the Aggressor. The diving in French Cay was very pristine.
Ok, you can call me a wimp, but I got COLD! Water temperatures were usually 78F, but one night dive we recorded 76F. From the first dive on I wore a full 3mm plus a 5/7mm hooded vest. My brother wore a 7 mm suit and a hood. Two divers dove drysuits at various points duirng the week. Halfway through the week I started getting cold and cut a few dives short. One the last two night dives I borrowed a shorty that I wore over my suit. Why? Well 1) I don't carry any extra natural insulation, even when having seconds at nearly every meal, 2) Eric and I like to swim slowly to see more stuff, 3) we dove 5 dives a day, a big difference from spending the afternoon on a beach, 4) most of our dive times were close to an hour. Before my next live-aboard (and I'm sure there will be more) I'm getting a thicker suit.
|Sharks were a regular feature of our dives (Caribbean Reef Sharks or
Nurse Sharks, although one hammerhead was reported). Sharks are interesting,
but honestly don't excite me all that much... although, there was one exception.
I was still adjusting my mask when another diver was jumping the gun and
coming down the ladder while I was still on the swim platform. I quickly
got myself together and strode in. In mid stride, I looked down and could
see a shark cruise by right below me. Great, I'm going to land on the shark
I thought. Didn't end up as shark bait.
On several dives, we saw a few Spotted Eagle Rays, which are always incredible to see. The Eagle Rays tended to be swimming along the rim of the wall. Normally, we only saw the Eagle Rays when we were the furthest divers out to either side. We only saw one turtle, but we did see several octopus on two of the night dives. I think octopi are the coolest critters. Twice, we watched for several minutes while the octopus cruised around the reef. Watched a nassau grouper just blast across the reef in a flurry of fins. I wasn't sure if he'd caught his dinner until I saw the tail fin of some morsel sticking out of his mouth. I finally had a Pederson cleaning shrimp come out and "clean" my fingers (as Paul Human talks about in his Reef ID book). You just have to be patient and approach them slowly. Found a large green moray covered in cleaning blennies. Among the more unusual critters we regularly saw during the week were arrow blennies, golden phase conies, blue and yellow phase trumpet fish, yellow headed jawfish, quite a few butterfly fish of various types with isopods attached to their gill covers, and spotted drum.
On several dives, we had to deal with thimble jellyfish. I didn't get stung, but several fellow divers did. Of course I was wearing a hood and a full suit anyway, so I'm sure that helped. On one dive the jellies created a cloud extending down nearly 20'. Didn't hang around on the surface when the jellies were around.
After my introduction to U/W photography on the Aggressor, I had big hopes for this week. But Murphy had gotten to the cameras before I did. I asked Dave the photo pro about renting a camera for the week. On Sunday, the camera wasn't setup and took some prompting the next morning to get a camera. On the second to last frame of the first roll I realized that I had been using the meters scale instead of the foot scale. (On a Nikonos V you have to estimate the distance and set the focus appropriately). Doh! After changing the roll of film between dives, they forgot to put on the 20mm viewfinder. And I forgot to verify it, so I jumped in and dove without it. After finishing the second roll of film, they had trouble rewinding the roll (and I would later find film bits on my slides) so they switched cameras. After some advice from Hew, I was psyched to see the results of the next roll. Eric had been a very cooperative dive model and I was looking forward to seeing the results. Dave came to me and asked if I'd banged the camera into anything (and I hadn't, I'm extremely careful not to hit anything, especially when I have a camera). Why did he ask? The camera was flooded. As a result not only was the camera DOA, but my film had expanded and couldn't be processed. Argh!
While I'd been playing with the camera, my brother had been taking part in REEF fish survey. So when the camera died, I decided to give it a try. Having a slate with all the fish names helps trigger my memory and on one dive I was able to ID 50 varieties of fish. Fifty species was about the norm for our T&C dives, there were several species that we saw on other dives, but not during our REEF dives.
All the dive sites were great, but my favorite was G-Spot off French Cay. And with a name like that why wouldn't it be? The black coral at the top of the wall was exceptional. Too bad the shots didn't turn out.
On both live-aboards, I've had one night dive where my partner chose to sit out the dive. My brother sat out a dive with a sore knee and I paired up with a diver (Ben), who had been a third partner on several dives. I'm learning that either I need to totally control the navigation or sit out these dives. I knew we were in trouble when it took 25 minutes rather than 5 minutes to reach the wall. Obviously the current was stronger now. At the wall, we found a very cool octopus, making it worth the swim. After hanging with the octopus for a while, I gave the signal to turn back. When we got to an area that was shoaling I knew we had missed the boat (and by now was expecting that to happen). So I surfaced and we were way far away from the Sea Dancer. We took a bearing and were able to return without assistance. But we were definately the talk of the evening. Got lots of good natured ribbing, but the crew had been pretty concerned. They had gotten out the hand held VHF radios and were very close to going out in the dingy for us.
Just before the trip I'd gotten a new BC and octopus. I replaced my Zeagle Ranger with a Halycon backplate and wing system. Dove the long hose, but didn't get any funny glances. I was really impressed with the system and totally love it.
I can't say enough about the crew. Not only did they perform their jobs with a constant smile on their face, but they spent time with the passengers and seemed to really enjoy swapping stories. I'm sure we got the benefit of having additional crew since they had more time not on duty.
Crew duties seemed to be fairly shared by all, but still permitted the crew to have a few moments to relax. All the crew except Stan and Iris dove. Usually one or two crew would dive with us. If interested, they would gladly show you around the dive site. During dinner one crew member would assist Iris serve dinner.
Paul gave a tour of the engine room. The tour was suitably brief since its pretty loud. I think six of us followed Paul through the labryinth. Funny, only the guys wanted to see the engine room.
The only disadvantage of a live-aboard is that you don't get a good chance to experience the island life unless you add on to your stay. On a dive vacation, I travel to commune with the fish, so this isn't a big issue for me. On the last day, we only had a chance for one dive. Some of this was a desire to have 24 hours before flying, the other stated concern was to hit the tides in the harbor. I suspect the real reason this week was because Ian and Paul were going to need as much time as they could get to put in the new generator. The similar draft Aggressor was able to do two dives on Friday. When we left the Sea Dancer, the deck was opened up like a sardine can to allow the new generator to be replaced.
Eric, Ellen and I took a taxi ride out to the Conch Farm. Pretty laid back place, but I guess so if the product takes 4 years to reach maturity. Others from our group gave themselves the tour and can't say I don't blame them. Our tour guide gave a pretty unenthusiastic tour.
I thought I'd read that dinner on Friday night was not included or that I was assuming from my Aggressor experience. But a meal would be served if we were interested. Since everyone else (including the crew) had put their name down for eating ashore, we decided not to stick dinner duty on the crew that night. Plus Stan made it pretty clear he was going home Friday night!
Guess the passengers had enough of each other, since we split into several groups for dinner. Seven of us headed out for a few rounds of drinks at the Tiki Bar, then dinner at Sharkbites and back for music at the Banana Boat. Sharkbites was my favorite place since it was the hangout for the the dive masters and others working on the island. All three are within easy walking (stumbling) distance of the pier. A good time was had by all.
Eric and I were on the 8AM flight which resulted in a very early wake up call. We were on our way to the air port by 6AM. No line for us since we were ahead of the Club Dred (Club Med) crew. I still had a nitrogen craving, so I stayed on in Florida for a few more days of diving.
Its only natural to want to compare my two live-aboard trips, especially since they were with different operators. (The first trip was aboard the Cayman Aggressor IV in November 99). On Friday a few of us stopped by the Turks & Caicos Aggressor for a tour of the competition. Most of my comments are from my Cayman Aggressor trip.
After reading my comments/nitpicks, you might get the impression that I had a horrible time. Couldn't be further from the truth. I dove all 25 dives that were available and totally love each and every one. Reached the 100 dive milestone. My dives are now NDL and temperature limited rather than air consumption limited.
I'd like to thank the crew, Captain Ian, Engineer Paul, short timers Dave and Jill, new comers, Hew and Flo, old hands Iris and Stan. Plus I'd like to thank my fellow passengers: fellow RSD Diver-to-divers Beverly and Ellen (aka Sleeveless Beauty), Alyssa & Chris from Whistler BC, Ivan from Hawaii, Erwin from Mexico, Krista & Rich the rebreather man from Atlanta, Christina & Jim from Atlanta, Alice & Darrell from Boston and Pam & Ed from Colorado, Stephanie & Ben from Florida.
Photos (click on thumbnail for larger view or see the slide show)
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