Every time I look at Guy Miller, Skin Diver's publisher, we start giggling like fifth-graders. We're watching a video on the Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and the narrator keeps referring to the area's 'hard bottom.' It would be embarrassing to act like this anywhere else. But this isn't normal life.
This is the Florida Keys.
And we are on Scuba Trek.
Photo by David Benz
Jeep sponsored the week-long
caravan through the Keys. More than 100 readers signed on for Scuba Trek, a week long drive and dive tour of the Keys, through Skin Diver's website. But only two-dozen hardy souls have shown up on this rain-soaked first day. We somehow timed Scuba Trek to start at precisely the moment when Tropical Storm Harvey was set to blunder across south Florida. So instead of diving the Pennekamp Reef, our group is vicariously experiencing it through a video at park headquarters. As the flick ends, Guy stands up, introduces himself and lays down the ground rules for our trek to Key West.
We will spend the next four days diving Key Largo, Marathon, Looe Key and Key West. Scuba Trekkers will have access to rebreathers, DPVs, camera systems and lights provided by our sponsors. And between dives our group will converge at local watering holes to tell lies, eat conch fritters, sample exotic rums, dance with wild abandon and generally party like a bunch of 20-year-old trust funders at Mardi Gras.
Having been blown out of diving the park, we decide to caravan south and take a tour of the Jules Undersea Lodge, an underwater habitat in a 20-foot lagoon where divers can temporarily sleep with the fishes. On our way to the Lodge, we stop off at Diver's Outlet in Florida City to pick up complimentary window-mount dive flags for all the trekker vehicles. I grab a Marks-a-Lot from the cashier and scrawl 'Hard Bottom I' down the white stripe of Guy's flag.
The women of Scuba Trek
party in Key West. Minding the Madness
It's still raining as we pull into Jules Lodge. Most of the group heads inside for lunch, but Guy and I sniff out the dive shop, get some tanks and hit the water. After half an hour we're joined by Tom Deardorf from Farallon who has a couple DPVs for us to try. The trekkers soon follow and that's when I meet Doug. We exchange pleasantries and then submerge, each of us straddling one of the big orange Farallons. Doug leads, I follow. We plow through the lagoon dodging pilings and practicing barrel rolls. After relinquishing the DPVs to some fellow trekkers, we tour the habitat. It's the first time I have really felt like Jacques Cousteau. There's something undeniably cool about swimming into an underwater habitat. You pop up through an open hatch into a tank about the size of a school bus, take off your gear and strut around like a true aquanaut. The Lodge is complete with bunks, kitchen, bathroom, stereo and big bubble windows for watching the fish go by. Doug and I leave for the surface only after hunger wins out over sheer child-like fascination.
Photo by David Benz
Mighty Heidi makes a night
dive at the Looe Key Reef Resort. That night our group converges still further south, at Sharky's in Key Largo. It's our first official trekker party and we raffle off prizes from PADI. An announcement is made that the grand prize giveaway, to be held at the end of the week, will feature an Ocean Kayak. Doug reacts to this news with great enthusiasm.
Tall and lean with streaky blond hair that reaches down his back, Doug looks like he should be modeling Tevas in Backpacker magazine. Over a game of pool, he tells me he's driven in from Colorado and splits his time between biking, skiing, bartending and mushroom collecting. The mushrooms, he assures me, are sold to local restaurants. Many varieties only grow at altitudes between 9,000 and 11,000 feet and, well, somebody has to sacrifice a few months of the year to hike around and pluck fungus from the hillsides.
As the night progresses, Doug mixes with the crowd to build good karma for the kayak raffle. When there's a lull in a conversation, he leans into people confidentially and asks, 'How's the madness?' while shifting his gaze down toward their drinks. If Doug cannot be convinced that the madness is at a sufficient level, he takes off for the bar and orders another round of rum and Coke, or tequila shots, or whatever his bartender instincts say will fit the moment.
The next morning dawns bright and clear, if not a wee early for some of Doug's new friends, and our group of trekkers dives Key Largo. Capt. Spencer Slate is aboard one of the boats and puts on his signature show--holding bait between his teeth while a barracuda streaks by and snatches it away. The other vessels move out to prime spots on Molasses Reef, and the diving is quintessential Keys, mirror-calm water, 50-foot viz and lively reefs. The weather holds out, and that night we shoot down to Marathon for a trip out to Davis Ledge. Before leaving the dock, we rendezvous with Robin and John from Nite Rider and they outfit everyone on our boat with monster head-mount lights for the dive.
'Just smile. They'll never put this in the magazine.' Our boat is filled with pink-faced, cheerful trekkers. It's been a day taken straight from the tourist board's brochure, and the anticipation is running high for tonight's dive. But one couple, Bill and Sue, are newly certified and a little apprehensive about making their first night dive. Guy talks them through the basics and offers to join them on the descent.
Both the depth and viz at Davis Ledge are about 20 feet, and with four feet of relief, the ledge runs for several hundred yards. I turn on my light and a dozen pair of lobster eyes shine back at me. I hear the whine of a DPV and know Guy has caught up with me. I turn, but can't see him. He has turned off his light and buzzed me in the dark. Well, two can play at that game. We spend the next 45 minutes draining every bit of juice from the DPVs. We turn off our lights and fly stealth, navigating by the faint moonlight. It's like being James Bond, Mike Nelson and Chuck Yeager all at the same time.
Our batteries finally die and we drag the DPVs back to the boat. Within a few minutes everyone is back, except Bill and Sue. We start to get worried until someone sees the glow of their lights about a hundred feet off the bow. Twenty minutes later they come to the ladder, both with huge smiles. Their first night dive has lasted nearly 90 minutes.
We get back to the dock and unload. Dead tired, Guy and I throw our wet gear in the back seat and head for the hotel. But somehow, we are unable to give up on the day and a few of us decide to stop for one last hurrah. Guy takes us to Snappers, a local dive he frequented during his days as a boat captain in the Keys. By 12:30 am, there are only four of us left in the place and all eyes are on me. I'm lying face-up on a table, spitting ice cubes into the air. The music shifts to something punchy and my limbs start flailing with the beat. Mercifully, Guy drags me back to the hotel.
Reign of the Trekker Queen
The next three days are more of the same: dive, sleep, feast, party, dive. Off Looe Key we visit the 210-foot freighter Adolphus Busch and the next day go out of Marathon for an afternoon feeding dive that features a friendly six-foot Nurse Shark.
Photo by David Benz
a Nurse Shark encounter. In Looe Key, the rain returns but we dive anyway. That night our group mixes with the local crowd at the resort's tiki bar. We gorge on appetizers until the band gets cranked up. A few songs into the set there's a disturbance at the back of the bar: Scott Corbett, one of the Skin Diver crew, is celebrating his birthday with face full of cake icing, courtesy of Nancy, the trekker queen.
Nancy, and her significant other, Phil, have been with us from the beginning. They seemed to be decent people, polite and well-heeled, but content to drink domestic brew from the can. But when Nancy bought the birthday cake for Scott, something in her was unleashed. That night she helps lead the charge in the icing war, shortly after which she leads the charge to the pool. And after several rounds of chicken fights, we all climb out and form a conga line around the bar and head back to the dance floor. The beat is loud and unrelenting. Heads bob, arms wave, bodies twist. The locals look totally perplexed. I turn around and see all six-foot plus feet of Robin, the Nite Rider guy, kickin' out a mean white-man's rendition of the funky chicken. At the end of the night, the bartender pulls me aside and says, 'You know, I've never seen divers act like this.'
The next morning begins our final day. I wake up at six, my body conditioned to the early rise but complaining bitterly from the previous night's excess. We drive from Looe Key to Key West in time to make the dive boat but forego it in favor of breakfast. We find the only Waffle House in town. I order mine smothered, covered and scattered.
After breakfast we tour the Mel Fisher museum, hang out in some touristy shops and try to weasel our way aboard a cruise ship (no luck). At two o'clock, we all meet at Crabby Dicks, a well-known Key West restaurant, for lunch. I sit next to Doug, who I haven't talked to in a couple days, and we start discussing rebreathers. Doug had tried the Dräger Dolphin earlier in the week and wants one nearly as bad as he wants the Ocean Kayak. The final drawing is tonight, and he believes he is destined to win.
The scene for our last blast is the Hog's Breath Saloon. After everyone arrives and we demolish the buffet line, things start to quiet down. There's the faint stench of party failure lingering in the air--no one really believes we can top last night's tiki bar blowout. And then, as if on cue, Nancy comes charging in. She has armed all the female partyers with water guns and they descend on the group, laying waste with pistols, blasters and water cannons. The scene erupts as the out-gunned men wrestle away a few weapons to defend themselves. But fear raises its ugly head and we all calm down, afraid of being thrown out of the bar. And that's when the bartender comes wading out of the back room with the biggest, baddest, super soaker any of us has ever seen. The fight rages on.
A truce is finally called and Guy climbs atop the bar to deliver a farewell speech and hand out the remaining prizes. The big moment arrives and Doug is beaming with confidence, already working out how to lash the Ocean Kayak to his SUV.But, it isn't meant to be. The kayak goes to Bill and Sue, the newly certified couple we'd met on our night dive. Doug takes it in stride and congratulates the winners. Later, we share a nod and Doug leans into me, confidentially, to ask, 'How's the madness?' Scuba Trek Sponsors