Diving the Keys

Florida Keys – April, 2018 Jim and I are working through a short bucket list of items we want to do before leaving Florida for the summer. Diving in the Keys was at the top of that list. We still can’t believe we were nearing the end of our second season down here and hadn’t been diving at all.

We were optimistic that now that the high season was waning we could find a campsite in the Keys. We did, at Fiesta Key RV Resort, between Islamorada and Marathon. Even with a Passport America discount for the first two nights, the cost averaged $80 per night, but it was well worth it. The resort was surrounded by beautiful, clear water. It had a very nice pool we never used because there was a great ocean swim area. Most importantly, it was still half the cost of the cheapest hotel room we could find and we got to sleep in our own bed.

We drove down on Sunday and dove Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon off Islamorada. The first day we made two dives to an average depth of 50 feet. The coral wasn’t much to look at, it was more like rubble, but the sea life was astounding. We saw eels galore, a turtle, lionfish; all on the first dive.

Our second dive seemed a bit like a bust with not nearly as much to see. That is until the halfway point when the dive guide turned us back toward the boat. Jim and I were in the back of the pack as usual and a big nurse shark came straight at me.

I banged on my tank with the pointer I carry to get Jim’s attention so he wouldn’t miss it. The shark seemed interested in me and kept heading my way. I thought it might come up and give me a kiss so I kept my pointer aimed at it in case I needed to poke it in the eye to make it clear I was not that kind of girl!

It veered away just a few feet from me and kept cruising the reef. A few minutes later another, larger nurse shark came flying past. On the way back to the boat we spotted a nurse shark a total of 4 times. We assume there were just 2 sharks but there could have been more.

I chose not to take a camera with me that first day of diving so I have no evidence of these encounters. It had been over two years since our last dives in Cozumel therefore I thought it would be a good idea to concentrate on my diving and not be distracted by my camera. I had a new underwater camera I was dying to try though.

I had been struggling with the idea of buying a new underwater camera. I had a waterproof housing for my Sony and we owned a SeaLife DC600. But honestly I was floored by how great Jim’s underwater pics were turning out with his old GoPro in its waterproof case.

We stopped in a dive shop in Panama City on our way into Florida last fall and they showed me the Intova X2. It is similar to the GoPro but is waterproof without an extra case and has some built in filters and lighting options. It cost around $500.

I took it on our Wednesday afternoon dives and although I’m still getting used to the settings, I am really pleased with its performance. Usually in underwater photography close proximity to the subject is the key to any decent shot. But this camera takes some amazingly clear photos at a distance. Like this one of our dive leader joining us in the water. I took it from the bottom, 30 feet below.

Wednesday’s dive sites were teeming with fish.

Both sites had beautiful hard and soft corals and were relatively shallow at around 30 feet or less.

I may not be able to capture all the colors of the ocean with this little camera yet but I like the simplicity of it. This pufferfish is blotchy brown so it captured it perfectly, even if you can’t tell that some of the fans surrounding it were beautiful shades of purple.

It also flawlessly captured this black and gold french angelfish.

The highlight of the day was this gorgeous turtle who didn’t seem to mind the half dozen divers hovering around him.

The Florida Keys offer almost as good a diving experience as we’ve found anywhere in our dive travels. The dive trips are reasonably priced as well at $85 each. We do not intend to let another 2 years go by before going again.

On one of our non-diving days we drove 65 miles south to Key West. The drive was nice and there were a couple of places we wanted to see there. We had spent a long weekend in Key West in 2009 so we weren’t completely unfamiliar with the area.

First stop was the Key West Cemetery. You know we love cemeteries, the older the better, and we had somehow missed this one on our first visit. This cemetery was established in 1847, on the highest natural elevation in Key West, after the previous cemetery was destroyed by a hurricane. The cemetery is 19 acres so it made for a nice morning walk.

Jim had read that there were several humorous headstones with sayings like “I told you I was sick” and “I always dreamed of owning a small place in Key West.” He had also read to watch out for iguanas. We walked the aisles, he looking for interesting headstones, while I watched out for big slithery things.

The day was warming up so I had better luck than Jim did.

Despite some intelligence on where these humorous headstones were supposed to be, he never did find one.

Another thing we didn’t find was a parking space anywhere close to our next point of interest. After driving the narrow streets in our big truck looking for one, we got a bit fed up and decided we’d save that destination for our next visit because we know we’ll be back. We had been considering lunch downtown as well but instead we turned our carriage toward camp and found an awesome seafood place called the Square Grouper on our way home along the Overseas Highway.

Beaver Lake & the White River

Eureka Springs, Arkansas – June, 2016 A couple of our friends wanted to dive a local lake. I’m not a huge fan of lake diving so it’s got to be pretty near perfect conditions for me to agree. We picked a beautiful weekend and the clearest lake in our vicinity and made it happen.

Here is the Beaver Dam with Beaver Lake behind it. The arrow shows where we dove. Beaver Lake generally has the best visibility of any of the local lakes.

On this trip the vis averaged 15-20 feet. We chose to dive on a Friday and arrived at the site around 8 am. Luckily we had it entirely to ourselves for a couple hours.

The site which I believe is called Dam Site North Bluffs Park had many items purposefully sunk by local divers. There was a large houseboat, a jet ski, and an airplane fuselage among other things. Our favorite was a VW Beatle.

I know that is a horrible pic but it is a fairly good representation of what things look like in the lake. We were able to find most of the items that were there and then we returned along the shore and stopped to feed hot dogs to the fishies. Here is our dive buddy, Danielle, with one of the many fish friends she made.

I was enjoying the fish immensely until one of the perch mistook my ear for a piece of dog. I didn’t realize they had teeth! We did see several really big fish but none of the larger ones stopped for a snack.

This is one of the two best lake dives I’ve ever experienced. The other was also in Beaver Lake where they have sunk a school bus and placed mannequins in and around it. The bus is only accessible by boat though. If you want to dive any of these places C&J Sports will turn you on to all the details.

More friends joined us on Friday night and we planned a float for Saturday morning. The White River flows from the Beaver Dam when the Corp of Engineers chooses to release it. There is no current to speak of when they are not releasing water.

We put in just below the dam. All of the following pictures were taken by our friend Amy who had the foresight to bring a phone. Here’s a pic she took of us at the put in with fly fisherman wading behind us.

The water is incredibly cold because it is released from the bottom of the lake. It actually hurts to wade in it. But on a hot June morning floating through the mist created by that cold stream was like having outdoor air conditioning.

We planned a short 2 mile float since there would be no current. They were scheduled to release water that afternoon but we had no intention of floating past lunch. Being on a river too cold to comfortably swim in on a 100 degree day was not our idea of fun.

So we slowly paddled the two miles in a couple hours. There were plenty of places to stop. The rocks at one stop looked like they had been purposefully placed there.

We saw lots more fisherman but only saw one fish caught all day. Jim didn’t have any luck at all and soon quit and just enjoyed the view. The scenery all along the float was breathtaking.

The water was crystal clear as well. So the scenery under the surface was equally intriguing.

In the afternoons we stayed cool by hanging out in the lake. Our favorite spot is the gravel bar on the island where the Dam Site Lake Campground is located. Since only campers are supposed to use it, it is never crowded.

We weren’t able to get a campsite on the island this particular weekend so we were staying at the Dam Site River Campground in the Parker Bottoms loop. This gave us access to the gravel bar on the island however.

Even though this campground wasn’t our first choice, it turned out it probably was the best alternative for us. Did I mention it was HOT? The lake campground has little shade and we likely would have baked. All the sites at the river campground were under a canopy of very tall trees. The electric only sites were just $20 per night.

The river ran beside the campground but there was no reasonable access to the river from it. But a short ways down the road past the campground was a beautiful access where you could fish, enjoy the cool breezes off the chilly water, or even dip your toes in if you were feeling really brave.

Under the Sea

Under the sea, Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter, Take it from me” Sebastian

Cozumel, Mexico – February, 2016. I am here to testify that crab in The Little Mermaid knew a thing or two. There is a beautiful world that only a fraction of us get to experience under those lovely blue and turquoise waters. Jim and I have been scuba diving for 10 years now and we love it more every year.

We have visited many great dive locations; Bonaire, Utila, and Cayman Brac to name a few. But Cozumel holds a special place in our hearts and in our pocketbooks as it’s inexpensive enough to visit often. It had been 2 long years since we had gone on any significant dive trip and we were missing our time under the waves.

I took my Sony A6000 out in its new waterproof case. I was extremely nervous taking my $500 camera to 100 foot depth in a $200 case. I had a couple glitches with the functionality of the buttons that I need to work out but the case did bring it through safe and sound and dry. Jim used his GoPro2. About half of these pictures came from each camera.

We don’t have any fancy lights, strobes, or filters yet so these pictures are not as good we’d like.  Eventually we will have equipment to filter out some of the blues and greens, light our subjects, and allow you to see the rainbow of colors that actually exist under water.  I hope these will give you some idea of our experience.   

Diving off the hotel pier makes for a decent shore dive. They built this pyramid which is a nice photo op and a good home for fish. Here’s Jim peering inside.


We saw so many beautiful turtles this trip. This one was being treated to a cleaning by angelfish while our new dive friends, Wisconsin, watched and recorded the scene.

More outstanding was the fact that not more than 6 feet away was a ledge with a nurse shark resting under it and a huge moray eel guarding it. Unfortunately a picture of that duo would have taken more skill (and lights) than we possess.

Generally nurse shark are sleeping during the day. They are usually tucked pretty far under an overhang. This fellow didn’t seem to care how well he hid himself.

Many divers passed right by the reef he was resting behind without knowing he was there. Then a couple divers passed directly over him and alerted the rest of the group to his proximity. I was swimming against a hard current to stay above him and get this shot so it was a little hard to keep the camera steady.

Eels are also generally hidden and most often we just see their heads sticking out of a hole. This 6 foot long moray swam right under Jim without him even noticing while I frantically tried to get his attention (not because I was concerned for his safety but because he was missing a great photo!) Luckily he swam around in the open for a bit and Jim got several nice shots of him.

This gorgeous spotted eagle ray swam right by our group. He was stunning and majestic and had a wing span of at least 5 feet.

We were entertained by this duo for a bit. The stingray couldn’t shake his little buddy who we imagine was hoping to get a free meal from the scraps of the ray’s next victim.

The fish are unbelievably plentiful in Cozumel. Some of our favorites…

The filefish seemed extremely large this year.

The triangular shaped cowfish are always adorable.

SQUIRREL…fish (sorry, inside joke)

These are tiny juvenile drum fish. Like most kids, they won’t stay still for a photo. They were no more than 2 inches long front to back or top to bottom even with those long fins.

Here is a huge black grouper. He was probably 4 feet long.

The diver in the photo was a kid from Israel who has lived in Canada for several years and was spending a week backpacking around Mexico. We meet tons of interesting people on dive boats.

This is how silly I look while diving. I have my hands tucked under my arms because I’m freezing. Diving is generally magical, but I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone into believing it is always comfortable or easy.

There is a lot of gear to lug on and off the boat every day. You have to haul your butt off the boat with a tank strapped to your back and weights in your pockets to help you counter the buoyancy of you and your gear. You get to haul all that back up a ladder at the end of the dive. Thankfully the deckhands are there to help you.

Often you are hot, like when you have to put on a heavy black suit and sit in the sun while you listen to the dive plan and wait your turn to get off the boat. I’m very cold natured so once I get wet on the first dive, I’m likely to be cold until I step off the boat at the end of the day. Jim is generally comfortable and rarely gets cold when we are diving in the Caribbean. Most divers fall somewhere between us. It depends a lot on their nature and a little on the type of wetsuit they choose to wear.

We dove 5 days, the first two days before our friends arrived and three more days with those of our group that are scuba divers. The boat picked us up about 8 and there is an hour long ride to the best dive sites. Then the first dive takes an hour or so before everyone is back on board and accounted for. There is usually about an hour’s rest between dives, then another dive, then the boat ride home.

So diving takes up a good portion of the day. We arrived back at the resort around 2 most days. By that point the divers are thirsty and famished. Luckily Hotel Cozumel has a bar and a buffet right by the pier.

We enjoyed our two week stay so much. But we were not sad to leave. Like most of our adventures we couldn’t wait to embark on this one and when it was over we were excited for our next chapter. We were also happy to get back to our own kitchen and return to our routines.

We had left our fifth wheel and truck in a storage lot outside the Houston Airport. The owner of RDP Storage was incredibly kind. He allowed us to stay in our home, in his storage lot, the nights before and after our flights. He also insisted on driving us to the airport and would have been happy to pick us up on the Sunday evening of our return if he didn’t happen to have plans out of town at the time. We paid the storage facility $85, a month’s storage fee and the minimum charge, and $30 for the cab to get home from the airport. This was well under the amount it would have cost us just to park our truck for two weeks at the airport.