Part of the story of my T&C Explorer trip actually began many months ago, on a flight back from Palau sitting in front of a passenger who coughed. For 7 hours. Continuously. And, as it turned out, who shared with me his case of Whooping Cough. Once diagnosed, my doc told me that I should expect to be out of commission for 4-6 weeks, and he was dead accurate, except for the “weeks” part. It turned out to be 4-6 months. The relevance is that I ended up having to reschedule my trip not once, but twice, and I’m pleased to report that my contact at Explorer Ventures truly went the extra mile to help me manage these postponements. Both times I had to cancel I was patiently helped to reschedule the trip, and since I was somewhat flexible, they steered me to weeks that looked unlikely to fill, and did not charge me a reschedule fee either time. Kudos to them, they didn’t have to be so accommodating.
The trip to Provo was uneventful, and Bee, one of the two divemasters for the trip, met me at the airport. We waited for another flight to arrive, then were transported by van to the marina where the Explorer was docked. Because of island rules, only T&C licensed taxi operators can pick up or drop off at the airport, so plan on forking out $18 each way. Also plan on grabbing a sandwich at the airport if possible, there is no afternoon meal served on board.
The Explorer II is a lovely and impressive craft, resembling a much larger cruise liner in her lines and proportions. My last live-aboard trip was aboard the Nekton Rorqual, so by comparison the Explorer was a work of art. She was only 18 months out of a complete refit, and was mostly immaculate inside and out. Passenger quarters are distributed over her three decks, with two premium cabins on the top level, four rooms with queen beds on the middle level, and four more downstairs with bunks. All rooms have en suite toilet facilities, and there was abundant hot water with plenty of pressure. I was in one of the lower deck rooms, and since we only had 10 aboard for this trip, I was one of many who enjoyed private quarters. My room was clean, the bed comfortable, and while the overall size of the room is tiny, the space is well utilized, with ample storage. The AC had simple fan controls, and was more than adequate to keep things cool and dry in the room.
Topdeck, for hanging out without frying in the sun
The lower deck rooms do have tiny portholes to allow in some natural light, but not a lot of it. The mid and upper deck rooms have large windows. If you are prone toward seasickness, I recommend the lower deck rooms as the roll of the boat is much less pronounced compared especially to the top deck rooms. Two of the top deck passengers had some trouble with mal de mer while moored at the choppy and unprotected French key. But lower deckers, beware: The bow thrusters employed while mooring and docking make an exquisitely awful racket. It’s a loud and strange enough sound to make you bolt upright, which is not advised in a bunk bed.
Meals were served and boat briefings were held in the salon, which, like the rest of the boat, was keep spotlessly clean and was brightly lit, cool, and otherwise a comfortable place to hang out. It had the usual entertainment center with TV and stereo, and snacks and cold drinks were always appearing out of nowhere. The Sundeck was simply an open space with chaise lounges and no shade, but the top deck afforded even more space to relax, socialize, and enjoy the view while out of direct sunlight. There was a fridge on the flybridge that was kept stocked with beverages.
The dive deck it pretty typical of modern live-aboard vessels, with each diver given a space for the week where your tank was refilled by whip after each dive and which included a storage cubby under the seat. I judge the dive deck of each boat I sail on by the standard set by the Belize Aggressor, which had the most generous space for divers of any craft I have visited. Compared to the Aggressor, the Explorer allotted a pretty chincy amount of elbow room between divers, although it was no issue for us because the boat was not full, and beyond that small quibble the deck was otherwise laid out in a neat and orderly fashion. Once again, everything was clean and worked properly. A couple minor issues popped up with the Nitrox blending and dive deck showers, both were quickly and efficiently addressed. Fills were attended to immediately after each dive, and were nearly always right at 3000 PSI after cooling. One very nice feature of the dive deck was the space in the center of the deck for drying wetsuits right above heat vent for the engine room. The heat helped dry the wetsuits much more quickly. The Explorer is photographer-friendly, with a spacious camera table and dedicated camera rinse tank.
The crew was top notch in every regard. We even had the luxury of two captains (changing of the guard) and two engineers aboard, making the crew-to-passenger ratio 4 to 5. We were pampered by every member of the crew, but our able purser Donna really deserves special recognition for going out of her way to see to everybody’s comfort. She was a perfect hostess at meals, saw to it that chilly night divers were greeted with hot water down the wetsuit and Irish coffee, and even went from room to room awakening napping divers about to sleep through a dive. That would be, uh, me. By the way, I don’t mean to slight those not mentioned by name. Everybody on board really did a marvelous job.
The food on this trip gets its own paragraph. The Explorer’s chef is a local from T&C, gruff but loveable Stanley. Stanley is a magician. The meals far surpassed any live-aboard fare I have seen so far. Great variety, perfectly prepared, and, sharply contrasting the mostly bland and middle-of-the-road fare from other trips, Stan wasn’t afraid to add a little spice when it was called for. He served NY Strip steaks one night worthy of my grill at home, and I can count the really good steaks I have had in the Caribbean on one hand. The scratch-made soups were sumptuous, the salads fresh and delicious, and hot breakfasts were cooked to order. Even over-easy eggs were cooked correctly. Good man.
T&C diving can be as good as anywhere in the Caribbean. There are steep and deep walls, healthy reefs, generally good visibility, and usually a better chance of large animal encounter than most other places in the region. Indeed, upon boarding we were told by the excited crew about last weeks Whale Shark, Manta, and Humpback Whale sightings. On the very first dive as I stopped breathing for a few moments to approach a skittish photo subject, I could distinctly hear them singing in the background. And, as the week progressed, we spotted whales breaching on numerous occasions, and half of the divers on board were blessed with the rare privilege of underwater encounters with the curious and beautiful creatures. I wasn’t in that lucky group, but I consider that just another thing to look forward too.
Although the whales skunked me, I did have two unforgettable large animal encounters. They are unforgettable mostly because I was toting a new DSLR camera rig, and had I been using my older Point and Shoot rig, I would never have been able to capture these images. It was remarkably lucky timing on my part to have brought the new rig into service on the very trip where photo ops presented themselves that required the speed and flexibility of a DSLR.
Early in the trip, I was busy taking macro shots of a tiny solitary hydroid, when two dolphins swam within 5 feet of me. As they swam away, I began to follow while furiously attempting to change my camera settings from macro to Dolphin. Discourteously, they made a loop and passed again right in front of me before I could dial in the camera, so I just snapped a series of badly over-exposed shots, then managed to recover one keeper by using the magic of RAW image manipulation. All Hail RAW! What a cool memory of a wonderful moment.
Later, on a site called the Gulley, we were told to expect to see three Gray Reef sharks that had made that sight their home, and sure enough they appeared only minutes into the dive, and swam among us for most of the two dives we did there. I suspect the sharks had been fed. I have never been among sharks that were so willing to closely approach divers. Although never threatening, they did occasionally get inside my comfort zone. On one occasion, I was on the hang bar with one of the DM’s doing my safety stop, and observed one of the Grays practically run over a diver on the bottom (she demonstrated some world class retreating), then purposefully swim directly toward us. He got within only a couple feet and only swerved off when I stuck my fin in his face. I turned around to see that the DM had removed one of his extra-long free diving fins, ready to swat the unruly beast if necessary.
Gray Reef Sharks. These 4-6 footers came in CLOSE.
The dive operation on the Explorer II was every bit the match for the rest of the boat in terms of quality, safety, and customer care. Nothing out of the ordinary in the rules department; don’t go below MOD on Nitrox or below 130 feet on air, back on the boat with 500 pounds, no solo diving unless you present a Solo certification (or take the Solo class on board as I did), and absolutely no drowning. And, my favorite: no noisemakers unless you were breaking the last rule above. Bravo!
This is a Solitary Hydroid, about the size of a dime
There was a DM in the water on every dive except night dives (where the DM would keep track of divers using the required tank lights), and you were welcome to take advantage of a guided dive or do your own thing. Visibility on this trip was middling, usually 50-70 feet, and for those keeping track, the water temperatures stayed near 78 degrees. Air temperatures stayed very comfortably in the low 80’s, dropping into the low 70’s at night.
A characteristic unique to the Explorer II, due to its height and broad cross section, was its propensity to swing in the wind at anchor. You, the experienced live-aboard diver may be thinking to yourself “well, duh, they all do that”. Uh uh, not like this boat. A full cycle swing would take nearly 5 full minutes. For “special-needs” navigators like myself, finding the boat was often a challenging affair, mainly because the boat was never where you left it. Even if you were certain you knew where you were, and you were certain the boat would come swinging along sooner or later, your confidence would begin to waver after a few minutes of looking up at an empty ocean. Then, if you kept your resolve and waited for the trolley, you would still have to pull out that trigonometry you thought you would never need and plot an interception course to catch the hang ropes as they sped by. And then the real fun began. Safety stops were amusement park rides, hanging on the rope and flying through the water at 3+ knots. You must seriously watch your depth while doing your safety stop, sometimes you are being dragged so fast that you end up at the end of a 15 foot rope but only 5 feet below the surface.
Another aspect of the swing was timing your entry to be somewhere near the dive site you want to visit. I never quite got the hang of it. Inevitably, I would pick the moment when the boat was at its furthest point away from the site, then enter, and swim vigorously for the wall while watching the boat swing past me overhead, en route to the perfect entry point over the wall, where it smugly deposited the divers who had figured out the system.
There is one other diving skill that I possess in about the same abundance as sense-of-direction, which is critter-finding. I’m sure there was some divine sense of humor at play when I was blessed with an intense desire to photograph sea creatures, and practically no ability whatsoever to find them. So imagine my delight when I was cruising the wall at 80 feet, glanced over, and on my very own and without assistance, found a seahorse! Whoops, not one, but TWO seahorses, 6 inches apart. Back on board, I shared my find with the other divers, and promised to guide the DM back and a couple photogs to the sea fan on the next dive. Of course, on the next dive, I entered at the wrong point of the boat swing, came up on an unfamiliar point on the wall, and guided my small group the exact opposite direction from the fan, while the rest of the divers had located the my treasure based on my verbal directions back on board. I really need to take up knitting or something where I can’t get lost.
The week passed quickly, with one great dive following another, occasionally interrupted by a “just good” dive. The only unusual incident of the week was when the Explorer broke a mooring at French Key while all the divers were in the water, and that incident was handled efficiently and safely. The dingy was deployed, the driver signaled the DM by revving the engine over and over (who the hell is sawing wood??), and the DM called the dive and rounded up all the divers. We were picked up live-boat style by the Explorer, and the mooring was repaired later by the crew. Nothing to it.
Rare Fingerprint Cyphoma
A dawn dive is offered on the last diving day, and I just couldn’t make myself get up that early on the last of vacation so I skipped that one, along with one night dive when my old alcoholism was flaring up and I decided to drink a bit from the free open bar provided to those who have ended their day of diving, and watch the stars. So my final tally was 25 of the 27 dives offered, which is a pretty darn good week of diving by any standard. The boat is back at port by about noon, and everybody gets busy either getting ready for the next group or packing and drying. No meal is served on Friday evening, but free transportation is offered into town, and there are plenty of restaurant choices. The next morning, you have to be out of your room by 9:00 AM, but you are welcome to remain on the boat until time to leave for your flight, which on Saturdays is three hours early. It’s a busy, inefficient, crowded, sweaty little airport, so grab a seat quickly if you can find one and have a good book handy.
This was a nearly flawless week of fine diving, featuring many good experiences, and no bad ones. I think few of us realize how difficult it really is to keep a large and complex vessel operating perfectly, keep a boat full of divers safe, happy, well fed, and comfortable, and keep a really exceptional crew intact and eager to please. The Explorer II did all of these things and I recommend it without reservation.