424 US Highway 46, Rockaway, NJ (973) 707-3650

We've moved and are offering classes again!

We all had our wetsuits on and were craning our necks over the side of the boat looking for the creatures we were all here to see – the endangered West Indian Manatee that make their home here. We were loaded onto the dive boat cruising along the Crystal River in Central Florida. I was conducting my Divemaster training with American Pro Diving and was helping their staff with the guided manatee tour for a girl scout troop visiting from North Carolina. Even though I was on staff that day, I was just as excited as the girls about being able to get in the water and play with these strange and playful creatures. The captain moved the pontoon boat carefully along the river. Manatees are a common sight in all parts of the river, especially during the winter months when they come in from the ocean to the relatively warm water of the Crystal River. Because it is spring-fed, the river stays a consistent 72 degrees year round.

Earlier, back at the American Pro Diving store we were briefed on what to expect during this trip and watched a video outlining the rules for interacting with the gentle and protected animals. We are allowed to approach them, touch them (they like to be scratched under their chin especially) but not to grab or hold them if they decided they wanted to submerge and end the encounter.

We learned that manatees are amazing creatures. They are mammals that feed off aquatic plants that are found among the many rivers and tributaries in coastal Florida. In fact they eat these plants in huge quantities – up to 100 pounds a day. Manatees have huge lungs that they use to control their buoyancy in the water and allow them to stay underwater for up to 20 minutes. As divers we could learn a thing or two about buoyancy from these creatures. In fact they sleep underwater and surface while sleeping in order to breathe. They have a huge, paddle-shaped tail that they use to propel them forward.

As the boat made its way long the river we were told to look over the port side of the boat where the captain pointed out the tell-tale circles in the water indicating that a manatee was below. We passed that manatee by and several others until we came to an area that seemed to satisfy the captain, and we anchored there. I was first in the water since it was my job to dive down and set the anchor on a firm spot on the bottom. One by one the group got in the water – carefully so as to not splash and scare away any nearby manatees.

At first I could only see signs of one manatee in the distance, but our captain had keener eyes than I, and soon he was pointing out a number of the floating gray animals and encouraging us to approach them. Their wrinkled faces are happy looking and with their whiskers they look like a walrus without the tusks (they are actually most closely related to elephants). As you get near a manatee you can’t help but be happy. Their soft and innocent faces beg for our attention. Their skin is rough and their bodies are soft. They seem weightless in the water, although the adults weigh an average of 1,000 pounds! Some bore the scars of encounters with boat propellers – a common hazard. Most are in no hurry to get away from us as we pet and play with them. We see a mother who proudly shows off her calf to us. We don’t get tired of hearing the words from the captain, “there’s another manatee over here, approach slowly.”

Back on the boat and enjoying some hot chocolate, we talked excitedly about how much fun it was to play with these expressive creatures and how they seemed to enjoy the encounters as much as we did. As the boat pulled to the dock and I helped the passengers with their gear, I began to prepare for my afternoon trip assisting a group of divers on a drift dive down the nearby Rainbow River. Not a bad way to spend the day.

With the Olympic Games recently concluded and with all the excitement and drama fresh in our minds, I thought I’d sprinkle some Olympic themes in a review of our recent dive trip to Turks and Caicos.

This was the first dive trip for Underwater Adventures Dive Center, and there was much anticipation regarding the event. Our opening ceremonies didn’t have nearly the fanfare of those in Beijing, but there was no less excitement by those in our group as we assembled at the gate in Newark Airport. With our checked bags and carry-on luggage stuffed with dive gear and beachwear, we spoke about our plans for the long weekend in paradise. We had two morning dives a day plus a night dive planned on the beautiful reefs surrounding the islands of Turks and Caicos. In addition to the diving, we were plotting how we would spend our afternoons. Should we relax and tell dive stories at the pool or on one of Grace Bay’s famous beaches? Decisions, decisions.

Our group consisted of Paul, Kathy, Alberto, and Kirsten – owners, friends and customers of Underwater Adventures in Short Hills, NJ. We arrived in Providenciales late afternoon on Thursday, with enough time to get oriented to the resort and its grounds. We were staying at the Royal West Indies Resort. Early the next morning, the van from Dive Provo picked us up promptly at 8:00 am. All the staff at Dive Provo were friendly and professional, from the time they picked us up and loaded our gear to when they gave the briefings and offered guided tours underwater. We experienced a number of wonderful sites off of Provo and West Provo, each with a combination of wall diving and shallower reef diving. The cascading plate corals on the dramatic walls were breathtaking, and we saw many exciting things to talk about including: stingrays, flounder, grouper, barracuda, spiny lobster, crabs, nurse sharks, reef sharks, and a huge lemon shark that passed within 20 feet of our group. A blackjack accompanied us on our night dive attempting to hunt by the light of our dive lights. In all, we enjoyed the diving immensely.

Post dive activities were enjoyable as well. We logged our dives poolside while sipping tropical drinks and recounting all we had seen each day. Then at the beach, the 84 degree water and powder white sand gave us the perfect setting for relaxing after our day of diving. At night, after enjoying a meal in town, we found our way to a t.v. to watch Michael Phelps and his unfathomable feats. His performances, and those of the other athletes, inspired us to do our best in our diving. We rose to the occasion.

Gold Medals awarded:

Kirsten: for endurance and perseverance. She not only continued her dives after a bout of seasickness on the first day, but also survived multiple sea wasp stings on the night dive.

Kathy: for overcoming the long odds of making the trip at all due to an injured neck. Not only did she shake off the pain and join the group on Saturday, but took a leadership role in the dives.

Alberto: for advancing in his diving skills. In his first ocean dives, Alberto has already exhibited a relaxed and comfortable style in the water. He also achieved his PADI Advanced Open Water certification while on the trip.

Paul: for successfully navigating back to the boat each dive. OK, given that the boat was usually moored near the wall, it wasn’t that tough a task, but I have to give myself something!

We are already planning what to do on our next trip, to Bonaire in December. We can only hope that we have as many good experiences and laughs as we did in Turks and Caicos.