Unlimited Reef Dives!

by Stephen Frink

The concept of unlimited diving in many Caribbean islands has gained great popularity. Divers looking to maximize their underwater time will book packages that include a boat dive followed by unlimited availability of tanks for beach diving. In a destination such as Bonaire, where there is good diving right offshore, such a program makes sense and four or five dives a day might be possible. But in the Florida Keys, where the fringing coral reef is four to six miles offshore and a boat is the only way to get there, an unlimited dive program was not practical;until now.

Ocean Divers' Unlimited Reef Dive Package allows guests to board any of its scheduled day or night departures, Monday through Friday. For one low price, divers can make a two tank dive in the morning, a two tank dive in the afternoon and even a night dive. Up to five dives per day are possible and the price per dive (including tanks and weights) is less than one-half the normal rate.

This sounds almost too good to be true and I figured if I were a traveling diver I'd have some questions. So I decided to play devil's advocate and ask Ocean Divers' Joe Clark some hard questions about this package.

SDM: What happens if an unlimited diver and his/her buddy are the only ones who want to make an afternoon dive? Do they have to sit at the dock because there are no other divers booked?

Clark: We hope that doesn't happen too often but if it does, no problem. The boat will go out with just the two of them. Actually this is no different than our standard policy. We will run a normally scheduled trip for a buddy pair anytime. Too many dive operators down here will take a booking hoping to get a reasonable number of divers on board and if they can't, they cancel. This leaves the diver scrambling to get a trip somewhere at the last minute. We always run a trip when we say we will.

SDM: What happens if the boat is full already? Are these divers only allowed on board if space is available?

Clark: To the contrary, pre-booked unlimited divers have priority. If the boat begins to fill up, we will refuse further bookings from day divers before we will inconvenience any of our package guests.

SDM: What happens if the weather does not cooperate for a few of the pre-booked dives?

Clark: I wish we could control the weather but it's possible the wind can kick up and make it too rough to dive. Rather than put our divers at risk or even give them a less than satisfactory dive experience, a raincheck is issued for any dives canceled owing to weather. We have carefully allowed for all contingencies in order to make this package a true bargain for anyone serious about logging maximum dive time in the Florida Keys.

SDM: What do you offer for the lodging portion of the dive package?

Clark: We work with our friends at Marina Del Mar. Besides being a truly great resort, Marina Del Mar offers the ultimate convenience for our divers because it is directly next door. We are side by side on a deep water canal that offers quick access to the Atlantic Ocean and the reefs of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. While we are separate businesses, Ocean Divers and Marina Del Mar have worked together closely for more than a decade and together we provide the ambiance and convenience of a true dive resort.

Typically, divers on our packages will check into the hotel and unwind a little before strolling down the seawall to visit us at Ocean Divers. They can store their dive gear in our guest storage facilities so they don't have to carry heavy equipment back and forth each day. And since we load the tanks on board for our guests each day, it really is a hassle free experience.

Ocean Divers Facilities: The Ocean Divers dive center is housed in a 7,000 square foot complex rich with all the dive amenities imaginable. Airfills come from a giant 50 cfm compressor with a pair of 35 cfm auxiliary compressors. Enriched air nitrox is generated via a membrane system developed by hyperbaric guru Dick Rutkowski. (Hyperbarics International, owned and operated by Dick Rutkowski, is at Ocean Divers and provides a total nitrox/hyperbaric instructional facility, complete with working hyperbaric chamber.)

Ocean Divers' two dive boats are the 50 foot fiberglass V-hull Ocean Diver and the 50 foot catamaran Big Red. Both are powered by twin diesel engines and can cruise to the reef at 16 and 20 knots respectively. Each vessel is U.S. Coast Guard certified for more than 40 divers but rarely do they operate at anywhere near that capacity. When I dived with Ocean Divers in mid-January to research this article, we went out mid-week and had an average of 12 divers on board. Given the substantial space on the dive deck, comfortable camera tables, camera rinse tanks and stability of the boat at anchor, I found these boats perfect for normal Key Largo dive conditions.

For divers looking for advanced education, Ocean Divers is a PADI Career Development Center. As might be expected of a full service dive center in operation for 23 years, Ocean Divers offers an assortment of instructional courses such as open water certifications for basic divers, a variety of dive specialties, advanced certifications and even divemaster courses. In addition, Ocean Divers has been named a PADI Career Development Center. There are only 11 such centers worldwide and this status denotes Ocean Divers' ability to train dive instructor candidates for a career in the scuba industry. It offers an IDC to prepare instructors to pass the IE (Instructor Evaluation) but, since Ocean Divers is a busy dive resort with complete infrastructure, it can also offer a wonderful RITC (Resort Instructor Training Course). All career level courses are taught by long time course directors Joe Angelo and Gary Howe. Joe has been with Ocean Divers for ten years and Gary five, assuring continuity and ongoing professionalism among instructional staff.

U/W photo enthusiasts are referred to Stephen Frink Photographic. Working in close collaboration with Ocean Divers for 19 years, Frink Photo offers U/W camera and video rentals, new and used photo equipment, and lab services. Resident photo pro Mike Waters is a skilled repair technician and can handle necessary immediate first aid for a flooded Nikonos.

Marina Del Mar Facilities: Marina Del Mar features 76 rooms and suites, a 42 slip marina, conference centers, lighted tennis courts, Nautilus fitness center and the Upper Keys' largest freshwater swimming pool. The heated pool is frequently in use with the various scuba courses offered through Ocean Divers.

Key Largo's most popular nightspot, Coconuts, is at Marina Del Mar, overlooking the canal and pool. This popular restaurant and bar transforms into a happening night club with live entertainment and specialty theme nights.

For divers who prefer the ambiance of a resort on scenic Florida Bay, Marina Del Mar Bayside offers 54 double rooms and two villas, a freshwater swimming pool and some of the best sunsets anywhere on the island. Ocean Divers' Unlimited Reef Dive packages can be structured with either Marina Del Mar or Marina Del Mar Bayside as host hotel.

Key Largo Dive Opportunities: Ocean Divers is near the south end of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, which means some of the very best dive sites are just short boat rides away. Molasses Reef, an icon of Keys dive excellence, is only a 30 minute boat ride away and offers superior water clarity and amazing populations of schooling tropical fish owing to its proximity to the Gulf Stream. The U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane, 327 foot sister ships sunk as artificial reefs in 1987, are only about seven miles from the Ocean Divers docks. The Duane sits upright in 120 feet of water and hosts giant schools of grunts and Barracuda, while the Bibb rests on her starboard side in 130 feet of water.

Other popular dive sites on the Ocean Divers itinerary include Pickles Reef, French Reef, the World War II wreck of the Benwood, the statue of Christ of the Abyss and even sites as far north as the Elbow and the famed City of Washington shipwreck. In addition to these traditional favorites, Ocean Divers is quick to explore new sites. Divers are raving about a new mini-wall drift dive from 45 to 90 feet deep just to the north of Molasses. Deep water gorgonians and sponges decorate the nearly vertical precipice and hidden within the convoluted ledges and chasms are some of the largest Nurse Sharks found anywhere.

For more information about the Ocean Divers Unlimited Reef Dive package, phone (800) 451-1113 or at (305) 451-1113.