Snorkeling with Jesus

As we swam over the reef I suddenly caught a glimpse of the statue’s hand. I never would have expected to see a statue underwater, let alone in a coral reef, but there it was. A large statue of Jesus cemented to the ocean floor, rather unusual I’d say.

Christ of the Abyss, Key Largo

John Pennekamp State Park protects the third largest coral reef in the world, part of the National Marine Sanctuary. Off the coast of Key Largo, it’s a relatively quick boat ride to get out to the reefs and get snorkeling.

Dry Rocks Reef, Key Largo

From the bronze and aptly named Christ of the Abyss statue to the incredibly colorful coral and fish, the snorkeling at Dry Rocks didn’t disappoint. We saw an incredible variety of fish, from snapper to grouper to angelfish and even a barracudda. The most amazing without a doubt though were the fan corals which seemed to be delicately blowing in the current. There’s even a turtle on the reef and two small kids from our boat swore they saw a nurse shark (their Dad was somewhat less sure on their sighting…)

Snorkeling,  Key Largo

Perhaps the best part of the snorkeling trip was becoming a classmate of the school of fish. Swimming amongst them, we were able to control the movements of the entire school, making these little one inch fish swim around the reef. Words can’t really explain how cool it was, hopefully the video is better.

If you can’t see it on your browser, watch it on Youtube Here!

The reef ranges from very shallow to deep, so there’s plenty of space for all snorkelers. When we arrived at the reef in the mid-afternoon the place was full of snorkelers, but by late in the afternoon we were the only boat left there.  The quick story about the statue is that it was placed there in the 1960s after being donated to the Underwater Society of the America’s.  It’s a bronze replica of an original Christ of the Abyss located off the coast of Italy.

John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo

IF YOU GO: John Pennekamp State Park is a little over an hour from Miami. It’s an easy drive down U.S. 1. You’ll find the State Park at what’s considered the upper keys, just south of Key Largo at Mile marker 102. Entry into the park is per person, when we went it was 4.50 per adult for the first two people and .50 each adult there after. Snorkeling tours leave three times a day and are $29.50 per adult, including the boat ride, but not including snorkeling equipment. All equipment can be rented, but we picked our own gear up before we went. There are showers and changing facitilies at the park as well as lots of picnic areas, beaches and even a snack stand.  They also rent kayaks, paddleboards and canoes and sell a glass bottom boat tour for those that don’t want to snorkel.

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Underwater at night…

Lake Malawi is known for its amazing fish population- several thousand types of cichlid and frankly there is no better way to see a lake than from the bottom.  So that’s how we found ourselves our first night in Nkata Bay- at the bottom of Lake Malawi- looking up at the full moon.

Night diving in Lake Malawi was an incredible experience, and for our first night dive it was the perfect place.  As the dive master said over and over again, there is nothing that can hurt you in the lake: no sharks, no rays, no crocodiles (at least not near Nkata Bay!).

As we flipped out of the boat and reassembled our dive group at the bottom I couldn’t help but think that night diving was a really bad idea.  We had done a dive that afternoon to see the lake in the day light and it was spectacular- tons of colorful fish and some beautiful rock formations, so I was expecting to see something familiar at night.  At night though, the Lake was actually rather scary.  It was exactly like the few minutes of footage from Lake Malawi on the documentary Planet Earth.  Dozens of dolphin fish, a little less than a meter in length swarmed our lights, using them to hunt for sleeping cichlids.  Although the dive master warned us that the dolphin fish would swarm our lights and possibly touch us, but not harm us, I was rather unprepared for the sensation of being surrounded by rather large hunting fish.  It was unnerving.

We had been warned to be prudent with our underwater lights, as shining them at a cichlid to get a better view was akin to playing G_d.  Danny, who tried to catch fish the entire time, of course tried to shine his light on some cichlid, but fortunately the ones he chose made it through the night.

Diving in Lake Malawi was unique and different.  Beside being our first dive in freshwater, the lake bottom is also an incredible landscape of enormous rock formations.  It felt like we were swimming along a rocky valley, which is actually exactly what we’re doing.  Lake Malawi is the southern end of the Great Rift Valley- which extends all the way north into the middle east, and one of the only places where the valley has filled with water.  Over time, the species caught in the lake have evolved into different sub-species, making the lake one of the best examples of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on the planet.  Besides being beautiful, we also saw cichlids that swim upside down, eating the algae off the underside of rocks.  It was a beautiful place, and certainly a nice place to dive or snorkel….just do it during the day.

Off to Mozambique

Wanted: Rest and relaxation for two weary travelers starting their travels in Africa.

Found: Tofo Bay, Mozambique.

Back in September we met a wonderful group of South African’s in Bolivia. Upon hearing our arrival date in Johannesburg they quickly informed us that well, the entire country is on holiday from mid-December to mid-January. Translation: transportation, accommodation and activities would be completely booked or ridiculously crowded and overpriced. Ouch.So our plan, at their suggestion was to hang out on the beach in Mozambique for a week or so and let the crowds have their fun and go back to work.

That was the plan. What we found when we arrived in Mozambique was an ideal little vacation spot on the Indian Ocean. We popped our tent up and headed to the beach. While the town of Tofo is developed its not overly touristy and so its got the right mix of enough to do that you’re not bored, but enough space so you’re not overrun. The vibe was very lassaiz-faire. Do as much or as little as you want the town seemed to say. So we jumped right in. We learned the hard way to put sunscreen on the back of your knees when surfing and to put your flip flops on before actually walking up the beach after jumping off the dive boat. Surfing it seems, is a lot harder than it looks. After a two hour lesson, which really amounted to paddling out against the waves, catching one, trying to stand up and falling, we were beat and burned. Success was fleeting, but just so its on the record, we both successfully “surfed”.

One of the most popular activities in Tofo is diving. According to other divers, Tofo has some of the best diving in Africa. Since we missed the whale sharks in Honduras and Belize, we figured we might as well go ahead and dive here in the hopes of seeing something neat. Admittedly we are new to diving, so when we saw our first octopus we were excited. And then there were schools of trigger fish and natal knifejaws, lionfish and some spotted rays to keep our eyes busy. Enthralled, we went for two more dives gaining our advanced deep water dive certification. No whale sharks, but we saw tons of honeycomb moray eels and a dragon moray, which is apparently very rare. Also saw some huge barramundi cod, which frankly I didn’t want coming anywhere near me. Diving is fun, but expensive. If we come home early, diving might just be the cause!

We spent the rest of our days eating fish and chicken meals, lounging by a pool and watched the stars come out at night. It was peaceful, relaxed and hot. Ridiculous “we’re barely in the tropics right now” hot. Its a hot sun in Mozambique, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

During the day we could find relief in the shade or in the ocean, but at night we melted away like butter on a frying pan. Someone told us that the temperature was above 35C and you know what I believed it. A week lying by the Indian Ocean was about all the rest and relaxation we could take. Any more time in the water and we would have grown gills. As luck would have it we found some rather exciting news online and we were off to South Africa.

Review: Underwater Vision, Utila, Honduras

We earned our PADI Open Water Certifications through Underwater Vision in Utila, Honduras. Recommended by friends of ours, Underwater Vision was a great place to learn to dive or just dive in general. At the time we were certified (May 2009) PADI Open Water Certification was $250 including accommodation, equipment, certification classes and dives, and two fun dives. In total we had 7 dives for that price, which we thought was pretty good!

A laid back atmosphere, Underwater Vision has a comfortable feel in the classroom and in the living area, but a professional feel out on the boat and while diving. We felt that it was the [ad#reviews] right balance of island laid back and professional. Our instructor, Dave, was great about taking care of people in the class, splitting us into small groups to lessen the impact on the reef, as well as provide personal attention to each student. We really enjoyed our classes and felt like safety was a big priority for the dive shop. On our dives we were accompanied by divemaster’s and divemaster’s in training, adding to our level of comfort underwater. Beyond open water certifications, Underwater Vision offers PADI certifications through Divemaster.

Accommodations at the dive center ranged from backpacker dorms (with the most comfortable beds in Central America) to private rooms with and without air conditioning, and suites with kitchenettes. A small on site kitchen provides a cheap place for meals and cold water. :)

Overall we would definitely return and highly recommend Underwater Vision for fun dives and PADI certifications.e

Sharing is Caring….

**This post was created prior to the earthquake of 5/28/09– We are NO longer in Utila.**

Let’s face it, we do a lot of what most people would call “extreme” sports.  We mountain bike, whitewater kayak, compete in off road triathlons and do as many adventure races as possible.  Generally if there is an adventure sport/activity out there we want to try it.  For one reason or another, neither of us had ever tried SCUBA diving.  Not exactly a sport, but certainly an adventure.  I have a hard time snorkeling, really who likes to breath through a straw,  so when we inquired about taking classes in DC last fall I was needless to say, thrilled when it turned out to be too expensive.  However that was not the case in Honduras and after almost every traveler we met moving north or south was going or had been to the Bay Islands we felt compelled to include it in our journey.

I’ll be completely honest with you, we only learned how to SCUBA dive because we were in Honduras and it is the cheapest place in the world to become certified.  We figured that since we’re traveling around the world, we might as well get certified since showing up at the Great Barrier Reef and not being able to dive would just be lame.  (Although I later found out that Australia is full of sharks.) Plus, this trip is all about new experiences.  Therefore, we headed off to the Bay Islands of Honduras for a PADI Open Water Course.

At the recommendation of our friends Tracy and David (two years around the world themselves!) we signed up for PADI Open Water Certification at Underwater Vision on the island of Utila.  Thrown into the reading right away, we read the part about sharing air with your diving buddy and well, we were glad to have each other as buddies.  Admittedly I did not share well in Kindergarten, or in 4th grade, especially when it came to Barbies, but its been a long time since then and I can safely say I would share my air with Danny, even if he never shares his ice cream with me!

An hour into our confined water dive I was shivering 3m down practicing how to clear my mask and share my air.   Needless to say the heavy equipment and dry air, coupled with the temperature underwater and extremely low visibility made for a lousy first diving experience. The next day, 30 minutes into my first open water dive I was 12m down staring into the home of a lobster surrounded by coral and big tropical fish.  It was about 180 degrees away from the confined water dive and I felt like I was in a deep sea aquarium.  The feeling of breathing underwater was surreal, I didn’t even notice how deep I was until I looked to the surface.

Over the next five dives (we did a few fun dives as well after our certification), we swam in what seemed like an endless aquarium of tropical fish, coral and even some wrecks. We learned the unofficial rule of wetsuits, “don’t pee in a wetsuit, especially one that isn’t yours” and how to gracefully, if somewhat awkwardly get in and out of a tight wetsuit.

Although I have nothing to compare it to, the diving around Utila was incredible.  Excellent visibility (except for the first day) and nothing but beautiful coral reefs, blue water and thousands of marine creatures.  We saw entire schools of fish and even swam with a sea turtle!  Unfortunately our timing did not coincide with Utila’s famous whale sharks and there were no sightings of manta rays or other large marine animals. Swimming underwater with all the marine life I felt a little like Ariel (sans the red hair, but with the sidekick) from the Little Mermaid and I’ll admit that I sang “Under the sea” into my regulator more than a few times.  Maybe that’s why I was having buoyancy issues!

So now that we’re certified to dive, who is coming with us under the sea?  I hear you can dive with Penguins in South America….