kenjacobs - Bluewater Dive Travel



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In September 2013, we spent a week in Aruba. The island is a bit like a low-key Maui. Surprisingly good top-side restaurants and accommodations, though shopping was limited (and finding a good bottle of wine very difficult!). We rented a car, though taxis are generally available. We stayed at the Bucuti, which was quite lovely. Nice rooms and a great beach. We didn't eat dinner there, but the breakfast buffet was excellent. Can't say the same about the beach bar ... do avoid the hamburgers unless they've improved them!

The weather was HOT-HOT-HOT! We were there in low season, and I guess I can tell why. Just too hot most of the time. Nevertheless, we did manage to take a horseback ride over the island to the beach, and that was quite nice. Those who are brave might try wind-surfing, for which Aruba is well-known. Aruba is a bit touristy, with all sorts activities including casinos and locals bingo, great beaches and fishing, sunset dinner cruises, nightlife and ATV tours. Do beware the sand fleas if you happen to try dinner at one of the restaurants that sets tables on the beach. Generally everyone on the island is quite friendly and tourist-friendly.

As for diving, we went with JADS, a great little operation. The boat we were on is small, and only holds about 6 divers plus crew. The dive sites aren't far from either of the places where the boat docks, and they make sure to take you to different sites each day. The crew is very pleasant and excellent at spotting small critters underwater.

The water is warm, but because of the generally windy conditions (the reason Aruba is known for wind-surfing), the seas can be a bit choppy and the visibility can be somewhat limited, though it was never a problem. We dove the famous Antilla WW2 wreck, one of the most impressive wreck dives I've ever done. As I recall, we dove on a site with a couple of wrecked airplanes. Always fun to see unusual things underwater!

The reefs are in generally good condition, and there certainly are enough fish and smaller critters to see. You could say that you'll encounter all your standard Caribbean animals, but not any larger animals. I've heard people say that the diving at Bonnaire or Curacao, the other two A-B-C islands, is better overall than Aruba (though the accommodations are said not to be as good or varied as on Aruba). Maybe we'll try one of those islands next time we venture to that part of the Caribbean.

By the way, did I mention that Aruba was VERY HOT and WINDY in early September?!

Visited on 09/2013 - Submitted on 02/20/2014

Belize Aggressor III


In June, I enjoyed diving in Belize for a week on the Aggressor III. I was without my favorite dive buddy (my wife), so I had a cabin to myself. I went to attend an on-board photo workshop, because I had new u/w camera equipment, and I wanted to learn how to take better photos.

As to the boat, I'd say that in some respects this boat and crew exceeded the traditional Aggressor standards and in some other ways lagged behind a bit. The food was varied and flavorful, almost always nicely well-spiced. The tasty meals, served buffet style for breakfast and lunch, made it hard to not eat too much! And, surprisingly there was complementary Aggressor-labelled wine and local beer, both of which were actually quite good. The cabins were, well, "adequate". I think the boat is in need of a tune-up or redecorating. It may be a small complaint, but the towels (both in the cabin and on-deck) were pretty thin, and should be replaced with newer more fluffy ones. There was plenty of hot water, so no complaints there. The dining area, in the bow of the boat, was comfortable enough, but at times was a bit claustrophobic.

The dive deck and dive operations were excellent. The crew were friendly, knowledgable and helpful with any equipment issues anyone had. They also always had towels ready to use when we returned from the dive. Easy on / easy off, no limits, no babying of the divers, and all diving was from the back of the boat. We put on our gear at our stations, and walk to the dive deck with our tanks and weights on, down a few steps. But after that it was easy. Perhaps they should have had a more explicit system for tracking who was on or off the boat, and getting our depths and times, but maybe they were doing so silently.

The diving was far better than I had remembered for Belize from a trip 20 years ago. Lots of animals, in number and variety, and some new creatures I had never seen before. We saw an excellent range of creatures, including sharks and a wide variety of reef fish, along with morays, eagle rays, turtles, etc., plus a tremendous range of nudibranchs, crabs, squid, octopus, etc. I really enjoyed the night dives too. The reef was in excellent shape, and the water was generally very calm with little or no current. The visibility was good though not often excellent. (The crossing to and from Lighthouse Reef was a bit rough, however.) The entire week was the perfect opportunity to work with my new camera gear, for both macro and wide angle shots.

The photo workshop with Mike Mesgleski of the Jim Church School of UW Photography was just what I needed. Mike is very talented and helpful (and often very funny). I had forgotten my battery charger (doh!) and he jerry-rigged something that saved my trip. His instruction both above and below the water were really excellent, and greatly helped me improve my uw photography. For once I had several pictures I wanted to show people!

One of the nice things about a photo workshop is that almost all of us were there to take photos, not to see how far we could go underwater. Often, on other trips, my experience is that the dive guides/masters will take a group on an underwater race course to see how much of the reef you could visit. Not this time. We could spend as long as we wanted right under the boat, if that was sufficiently interesting. As I said at the time, I flew a lot of miles to get to Belize ... it didn't make sense to go any further underwater than I needed to go to find something worth photographing. It really was a wonderful way to see the reef, spending time with the animals I wanted to see, and taking photographs, rather than swimming along and occasionally taking a snapshot.

A word about my camera equipment (though it's not actually a review of the trip). After a lot of research, I acquired an Olympus OMD-EM1, the latest "micro-four-thirds" mirrorless camera. It's a lot smaller than the traditional SLRs, but a lot more capable than the compact camera I had before. It has no shutter lag (this is a BIG deal under water), very fast focusing and lots of other great features that are useful above land. I was very glad to have the new Nauticam housing for the OMD-EM1. It's easy to use, and performed perfectly. Mark Strickland and Kelli Dickinson of Bluewater Photo were very helpful in getting me the housing and related accessories in a timely way. They patiently answered all my numerous questions, and gave me excellent advice. I still have a lot to learn (and I hope many opportunities to do so!), but at least now I know I won't be lacking the proper equipment (or any excuse) as a reason I didn't take excellent uw pictures.

By the way, don't expect much from the local Belize restaurants or the airport. We went to one restaurant for our final dinner, and while the food was "okay" (not as good as the boat, actually), the service was incredibly slow! And the airport ... well, remember Belize IS a third-world country. No lounge, no real restaurants, and no air conditioning. It was a LONG wait to check in and go through security. Ah well, such is the life of a traveling scuba diver!

All in all, this was a trip I'd recommend.

Visited on 06/2014 - Submitted on 07/30/2014
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Four Seasons Maldives, land resort and Explorer Liveaboard


October 2013: Maldives Four Seasons (2 land resorts plus the liveabord Explorer). It was a heck of a trek to get there from San Francisco (10-hour nonstop to London Heathrow, then overnight in England, transfer to Gatwick for another 10-hour flight non-stop to Male in the Maldives, all British Air. (By the way, the BA flights to/from Male were not on BA's newest planes, but were comfortable enough in business class.)

When we arrived in Male, we were greeted by Four Seasons personnel who made everything easy. We had to wait about an hour in a (thankfully air conditioned) lounge for our transit from the Male airport by sea plane to the first resort (Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru). By the way, don't bring alcohol (to drink), even in your checked baggage. Customs officials in the Maldives will confiscate your beverages on coming in (though you can get them back on the return), so it's a bit of a hassle.

Once at the resort, we were met by lovely folks who made us comfortable right away (well, after consuming a coconut milk drink, right from the coconut). We had one of their lovely Beach Bungalow with a private pool. The bungalow includes a spacious, luxurious bed/living room and bathroom facilities, a private pool and covered open air hut and its just steps to the beach. We used bicycles to get around, driving on hard-packed sand "roads" between our accommodations, the restaurants and spa. The Blu restaurant overlooking the lagoon (see picture) was open air and especially beautiful with the blue ski and water and lovely white sand.

The Four Seasons live aboard Explorer was by far the most luxurious live aboard I've been on. Our friends had the super-special (and expensive) Explorer Suite, which occupies the entire width of the ship at the bow. Our "ordinary" stateroom was certainly spacious enough, and we enjoyed the large window (not some small porthole). The dive deck was terrific, with lots of room for everyone and their cameras. All diving was done from a traditional wooden Maldivian "dhoni", which took us to the dive sites (never usually more than 10-15 minutes away). We spent four nights at sea, diving twice in the morning and once in the afternoon (and, as I recall, an occasional night dive). One evening we went ashore to an uninhabited island where we had a lovely beach BBQ, sitting at a "table" dug into the nice sandy beach.

After too short a cruise (I could have used another couple of days), we arrived at the other Four Seasons in the Maldives, at Kuda Huraa. This resort is also very nice, but not quite as spiffy as the one at Landaa Giraavaru. Our accommodations were quite nice, and we had no need for bicycles to get to meals or the dive center. I definitely recommend the direction we took, starting from Landaa Giraavaru. This way, you spend four nights on the Explorer, not just three, and can enjoy much of the final day in Kuda Huraa before taking a 30-minute boat ride to the Male airport for your flight home.

As you might expect at a Four Seasons, the service, amenities and dining options on land and at sea were excellent. We had reliable WiFi on land, and a little spotty and slower internet connectivity at sea. In addition to the fantastic spa/massage service at the resorts, it was fun to get a massage on the upper deck of the Explorer after a day's diving.

There were several nice restaurants at both land resorts. The meals were all excellent, and the food was varied. One night at the resorts, we enjoyed a Chinese Buffet and another night there was an Indian Buffet with entertainment. On the Explorer, the options were a little more limited, as you'd guess. Dining was definitely a bit pricey on land (no real surprise), but the meals are included on the Explorer, where the dining was either indoors or on an upper deck, and the chef and crew worked to accommodate our every need.

The weather was warm, not really too hot or humid. We had some amazing downpours, but the rain didn't last long. Some days when we were diving, we didn't have the sunshine an u/w photographer would like, but there was only one day where the wind came up and the seas were too high to go to some of the preferred islands/sites. While at times we could have wished for better viz, the conditions were never challenging. Unfortunately on one dive, the boat drifted off the reef by the time we got in the water. The dive master couldn't find the reef, and we had to abort the dive. The same thing happened on a second attempt at the same site, unfortunately. Generally, though, the crew was excellent, especially pre- and post-dive, even if (at times) too helpful. Unfortunately, some of the crew were new to the venues (mostly on the Explorer) and could have done more/better at spotting the small creatures.

We didn't see the hoped-for whale sharks, but that said, the sea life was great. The coral reefs were in very good condition. We saw schools of manta rays near the surface, nearly breaching at times, and pods and pods of dolphins who put on a great show. Underwater we saw lots of morays of a variety of species. The reef was teeming with the usual critters, including (of course) clown fish and a wide variety of nudibranchs, along with many lion fish (at least they are native to the region). There was a lovely spotted eagle ray and a turtle or two as well.

We'll definitely go back to the Maldives, and the Four Seasons can't be beat.

Visited on 10/2013 - Submitted on 02/14/2014

Palau Siren


This was my fifth or sixth trip back to Palau, but my first time on the Palau Siren. The boat, made of ironwood and teak, in traditional Phinisi style, is spacious and quite charming. The cabins are very roomy, though be careful walking down the steep stairs to the lower deck. At night, a pump kept cycling on and off, making sleep a little difficult, but frankly there are few liveaboards where I find it that easy to sleep. There was plenty of room on the dive deck, and all diving was done from a skiff, and there were never any long rides to the dive sites. We never had to carry our gear on or off (except for camera equipment). The crew provided fresh towels and a fruit drink on returning from each dive. There is lots of room undercover for storage, setup and charging of photography gear. Among the amenities that make the Siren unique are free Nitrox and the availability of on-board massages and laundry service.

All meals were served buffet-style, on the open aft deck of the boat (and where plastic curtains can keep out the rain when needed). The food was plentiful and flavorful, each meal usually including a variety of protein foods (chicken, pork, or beef and always seafood) along with great veggies and steamed rice. The chef would begin the evening meal with a "dinner briefing" which he ended by saying "ATTACK!", which we all gratefully did.

The crew were all very friendly and helpful, and it was pleasant spending 10 days getting to know them along with the guests. Traveling in June, I should have expected the frequent wind and rain. It didn't really dampen the diving much though, as the seas were never really rough.

When I was there, the Siren had been operating in Palau only for a year or so, and unfortunately, the crew was often confused by the presence or absence of current at various dive sites. You want to dive at The famous Blue Corner, when the current is roaring, to hook in and see the dozens of sharks on parade. Sadly, though we dived Blue Corner several times, on most occasions there was virtually no current, and no sharks. Other times there was current at locations where there shouldn't have been. The Siren begins and ends its week at Sam's Tours in Palau. One evening we dove right in front of the place, hopefully to see some mandarin fish just at sunset. I would have preferred a different setting, away from the boats docked there (and the trash that collected at the docks). Some of the divers were unhappy at these small misfortunes, but it's always fun to be on a dive trip.

The diving in Palau, no matter the conditions, is always spectacular, and the beauty of the islands above water is matched by the incredible variety of life underwater. The reef is generally in excellent condition, and there are opportunities to do drift dives, wall dives and night dives. There are always large numbers of small and larger reef fish including parrot fish, groupers, snappers, barracuda and Napoleon wrasse and ... of course ... reef sharks, to be seen, along with a broad array of morays, nudibranchs, turtles, sea fans and coral. In addition to seeing the sea life, we dove on a couple of wrecks including a well-preserved WW II plane. I recommend seeing the famous Jelly Fish Lake and the Chandelier Caves, which make up a memorable part of the unique Palau experience.

It's a long trip to Palau, no matter where you start, but it surely is one of the premiere dive destinations in the world!

Visited on 06/2013 - Submitted on 02/20/2014
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