Having been cave trained in Mexico where, let’s face it, there’s a great deal more detail to see in the underwater caves, I was greatly concerned about what there would be to see in their Floridian counterparts. There would be no amazing formations hanging from the ceiling, no corresponding spires from the floor either.
Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Peacock. The walls were not as smooth as Ginnie or Little River, and there were actually a couple of really interesting formations: one a horizontal hole and the other a near-vertical column. Ok, so there are likely many more interesting things than those in this very system but hey I was new, and didn’t make it all that far.
Ever look back at old family albums and laugh your posterior off at how bad the shots were, how old the hairstyles look, and utter repeatedly “What the hell was I thinkin?” Welcome to mine. These shots date back to 1998; my first underwater camera, my first trip to “the tropics”, and my first escape from a rather brutal Canadian winter.
The resort was called South Caicos Ocean Haven, a decidedly small resort that likely wasn’t any bigger when it went by the name Club Caribe: 22 rooms, nearly as many air conditioners, no TV’s and no phones. Favourable adjectives that come to mind are: basic, rustic, simple, tasteful, off-the-beaten-path, diver-centric, unencumbered, comfortable, clean, and… did I mention basic? The less flattering ones would be: spartan, lacking, undeveloped, and provisionless (if that’s a word). When I was there the new owner had taken over the place less than a year before and was still in the rebuilding phase – I’m sure it’s better now, if it’s still in business (it appears their website is no longer functioning).
The selection of dive sites available at the time was somewhat limited since they had not yet fully explored the area’s potential, but the sites we visited were excellent. Fish are plentiful since it is in a national park area which prohibits commercial fishing. Sharks, eagle rays, stingrays, crabs, trumpet fish, barracuda and eels were common sightings at each of the sites which were a maximum of 15 minutes from the resort.
As a wreck aficionado the highlight was likely the plane, reportedly a DC-10 but seeming much smaller than that, complete with requisite swash buckling tale of it being a drug runner. The Arches was another favourite – a small coral arch that seemed to attract a rather abundant amount of marine life. Due to the out-of-the-way nature of the locale, it being the only resort on the island, and diving being just about the only thing to do on South Caicos, this is a destination clearly intended for divers only. The island is small, the population is small, the number of divers it sees is small, and the number of activities is small, but that all adds up to one valuable asset: the place has not been “dived out”. The diver impact I could see was nil, the fish weren’t harassed regularly so weren’t as afraid of you as is common at more frequented destination, and having such short boat rides (particularly given the way flat hulled little Carolina skiffs like these abhor waves of ANY size) is a true blessing.
What do you get when you take a working boat from the Great Lakes, refit it, and turn it into a liveaboard vessel in the tropics? You get the cheapest date in the Aggressor fleet.
Roatan, the area where most of the diving was done, is touted as the “macro capital of the world”. Not sure who started calling it that, but they likely weren’t too far off. Colourful little critters are plentiful so photographers and eagle-eyed fish lovers rave about the place. Aside from the fish there are two shipwrecks which were intentionally sunk not long ago, so they don’t have much life on them, yet.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip were the dives spent in a cavern that had shafts of light pouring in from holes in the “ceiling”.
The boat itself was more than large enough (120′ long with 10 passenger cabins), quite spacious overall, had good food and plenty of room in the dive areas which helped make things very comfortable and easy to like.
Here is a list of all the things Florida has to offer. No wait, that would take too long. It might take vastly less space to mention what Florida doesn’t have: volcanoes, mountains, and senior citizens that can drive well. That’s about it. Particularly for divers, Florida seems to have just about everything: caves, wrecks, reefs, and all in abundance.
Even if you’ve never cave dived, and aren’t cave certified, you can still get into a “cave” in Ginnie Springs which is one of the most famous cave diving locations in the world. If you do happen to be cave trained then you likely already know all about northern Florida, no matter where on the globe you call home.
Off the coast there are plenty of wrecks to dive, and more by the day. An active artificial reef program seems to drop a wreck frequently, giving divers more places to play and fish more places to call home, which attracts even more divers. Having had only a precious few days to dive the area I’ve only seen three wrecks (Duane, Bibb and Eagle) but by the accounts of those who have done vastly more diving there than I ever will, they are among the best the state has to offer.
To say that diving in North Carolina offers a unique experience is an understatement akin to saying the Grand Canyon is larger than a bread box. In a relatively limited area it has some of the best of what diving is all about.
Most of the wrecks date from World War II, sunk in numerous ways, mostly from German U-boats (submarines). In one of those ironic twists where the hunter becomes the hunted, a U-boat is one of the most popular wrecks that brings divers from around the world. To be honest, the idea of diving a sub, at least in this instance, is better than actually diving it. From what I have seen, many people who dive it leave somewhat disappointed, myself included. The reasons for that are simple: the exterior of a sub is minimalist by design, everything is on the inside, and this wreck does not readily invite penetration since it is tight and silty (bad combination) with numerous entanglement hazards. Much of the outer hull has rusted away and it does not much resemble a submarine anymore.
Moorehead City, North Carolina, USA
Beginner to Advance
Having said that, the sub was the ONLY disappointment about all of North Carolina diving, everything else exceeded expectations by an order of magnitude. Due to its location the gulf stream flows just off shore, meaning although dives are done miles out into the ocean, water temperatures are in the 70 degree area for most of the summer. Ditch the drysuit and get out the 3mm wetsuit – you can be forgiven for thinking you’re in the Bahamas, it’s that warm. That warm water makes for easy diving and prolific marine life. I was not prepared for the colorful critters and the absolute abundance of life. When our captain briefed us in a truly enjoyable southern drawl saying, “When you get down you may not be able to see the wreck, it’s usually covered in fish but you can drop just below them and you’ll see the wreck just fine,” I was entirely certain he was kidding. He wasn’t.
As if wrecks of every shape and size, along with myriad fish species were not enough there is another major item which draws divers to this spectacular region: sand tiger sharks. The Australian name for this species seems much more appropriate – ragged tooth shark, because they have more teeth than can fit in their mouths, making them look entirely sinister and dangerous. It was difficult to tell how many sharks were on the few wrecks they elect to congregate around due to the way they swim in and out of your range of visibility, but a conservative estimate would say 30-50 on a wreck like the Schurz, ensuring you’re not about to fall asleep on that dive. Check out http://www.nc-wreckdiving.com/shipwrecks.html for a list of North Carolina wrecks.