October Half Term is the annual dive trip for the students and staff of Oakham School, this year’s destination was the Isle of Cozumel, one of Mexico’s National Marine Parks, with an added first for 2017, seeing the School Trip, which is run in conjunction with Dive Rutland, opened up to any club members wishing to join the group…
So as one of the club members who decided it would be a good idea to gate-crash the school party, here is a report on how we got on.
The lead up…
As a self-confessed ‘fair weather’ diver, when the notice appeared at the start of the year, it seemed to tick all the boxes. A week of organised diving in waters where a 2mm shorty is more than ample, and an all-inclusive hotel with pool, sun loungers, and a cocktail list for the non-diving other half, what more is needed?
We didn’t need much convincing, 2 extra places to book passed over to the school, one diver, one non-diver, and 5 months of looking at both the diving and (wrong) hotel reviews then passed rather quickly.
Reading about the type of diving and sites we would be visiting, it seemed an opportune time to think about some specialty dive qualifications to do whilst out there, so compiled a wish list of Deep, Drift, Boat and dSMB to see if any would be available to complete whilst there.
The dSMB required a pre-trip pool session, which I tagged onto the end of the annual Scuba Review, (a perk of club membership) meaning that I wouldn’t have to ‘use’ the first dive of the trip proving I can put my kit together and basic skill checks in the shallows.
A dSMB, spool, and line purchase later – Dive Rutland has a very well stocked shop if you didn’t know – all that was left was to pack and head off.
Not fancying a 05:30 start, we opted to decline the offer of a lift in the mini-bus convoy and meet everyone at the check-in desks, where the huddle of people in matching tops were easy to locate, along with Tracey in her ever-visible bright blue and orange Dive Rutland staff hoodie.
After an introduction to the rest of the 20 strong group, we realised that we were the only two club members travelling, which was not totally unexpected, but we were thinking there would be at least one more, whom it turned out unfortunately had to cancel.
Once everyone had checked in, we proceeded en-mass to baggage drop off, where we promptly caused the computer system to grind to a halt, and be thankful that we had arrived a few hours before the flight.
Fast forward 10 hours in the air, 50 minutes on a bus, 15 minutes walking, an hour on a ferry, and 20 minutes in a taxi, we arrived at the hotel just in time to catch the end of dinner, a well-deserved beer (or two), and swiftly check-in, before heading to bed.
After breakfast and a quick meeting to find out where we had to be and when, it was time to explore the hotel, find the important locations (pool, bars, towel hut), and register at ProDive, the centre who would be looking after us for the week... A paperwork and kit issuing session later, left the rest of the morning free to catch up and get to know the rest of the group, which was nicely split 9 students, 9 adults (school staff or parents), plus us two.
It also transpired that there were other non-divers on the trip, so a snorkel excursion had been arranged for them one afternoon while we were diving, as well as the opportunity to snorkel in the cenote (more about that later), which was a nice surprise for us, and removed some of the anxiety of what would there be to do all week while everyone was under the water.
After a spot of lunch in the restaurant on the beach, it was time to head off for our two afternoon dives, including a snorkeling opportunity for the non-divers due to the fairly calm initial sites.
The group got split between two boats, and we set out to the first of our dive sites.
On the way, it was explained that all of our dives during the week would have some form of current, and we’d be drifting along with it, with the boat picking us up at the end, wherever we surface.
So after some amusing kitting up and buddy checks, due to limited mobility and cylinders being locked in place, and we jumped into the warm and clear waters.
Straight away on our decent we were greeted with the sight of a large ray resting on the bottom, but he was soon out of sight as we gently drifted towards the site.
Lots of coral, tropical fish, lobsters, barracuda, and grouper passed by while we had a fairly leisurely drift over the landscape, and people used it as an opportunity to slowly sort out any equalisation problems, and start to refine weighting and buoyancy in readiness for the rest of the week.
I did have my GoPro with me, but noticed mid-way through the dive that it was taking on water! So have no video or photos to share. So all pictures in this article were taken by Tracey Roberts....
The Second dive had a bit stronger current, but was broken up by visits through a number of swim-through rock formations, which were a pleasant change of scenery and a real test of buoyancy control at times.
The highlight of the dive was meeting a juvenile turtle towards the end, as normally it is only babies before they swim away from the island or full adults once they return.
Three dives for those who wanted (and who wouldn’t!) although an early start, and a bit of confusion after the first dive as to when the next one was… It turns out it was two morning dives planned, and meant that everyone who was expecting to be back in time for breakfast went hungry! Good job there was melon on the boat to munch on.
More drifting, loads more coral, lobsters, crabs, big fish, nurse sharks, and an eagle ray or two thrown in for good measure.
Some of the group managed to find a Splendid Toad Fish, which is only found in the waters around Cozumel; Unfortunately I’d already drifted past that point and couldn’t easily get back
Another early start, but everyone knew to grab some breakfast before heading to the boat, as the plan for today was the same. 2 morning dives, and one in the afternoon.
The currents today seemed a lot stronger than the previous days, meaning the drifts were at a more rapid pace, and it was harder to stop and look at anything in detail for more than a few seconds at a time, and being aware of the location and intentions of your buddy and rest of the group was essential.
By the time the afternoon dive came, the students on the other boat had finished all of their Open Water and Advanced Open Water upgrades from Junior Adventure (congratulations all), so I could now have a go with my dSMB speciality deployment at the end of the dive.
The dive itself was good, more swim through formations, lots of schools of tropical fish, and lobsters hiding away in their holes. However I think the less said about the end of the dive and the smb deployment, the better, a little limp just about covers the attempt, and it’s a good job there are further dives tomorrow to try again.
2 further morning dives and an afternoon off, at which point the snorkelers went on their excursion which included three different locations, and they were even lucky enough to see both a shark and turtle.
The morning dives were again full of marine life, from the ever present turtles and lobsters, to a moray eel or two, big grouper, barracuda, parrot fish, and the coral to support it all.
Attempt 2 at the sausage deployment was a little better, but not great… About half as much air in it as was required… It really is quite tough if not used to the skill, and the added pressure of being the marker for the rest of the group, some of which would be surfacing shortly, so certainly a third and final chance needed. Feeling a bit deflated (no pun intended) I surfaced with the next low on air group, leaving the guide and two remaining divers to finish their time at the bottom.
The second dive’s deployment worked much better, and could see the look of relief in the instructor and guide’s eyes. As I still had air left once everyone else had surfaced, the guide took control of the SMB and we swam cross current for what seemed ages, ending up at a massive wall that dropped off further than we could see. A very impressive sight, and different to everything we had seen so far in the week.
The third dive for the day was a Night Dive for those adventurous enough to venture out into the dusk, armed with a torch.
As I’d never dove at night before, it was an exciting new situation, with new signals to learn, and considerations to take on-board. What a fantastic experience and dive it was… The things that are active at night are different to what is there in the day, being highlighted only by torchlight, if you are lucky enough to be looking in the right direction.
The highlights had to be the octopus that we sat and watched for a few minutes, and seeing lobsters out of their homes wandering around the coral floor.
An early(ish) night is called for due to a very early start in the morning.
Today being the final day of diving, had a 6am departure from the lobby, for a taxi, ferry, and mini bus ride to our mystery destination.
The Yucatan Peninsula does not have any overland rivers, instead underground networks of freshwater channels joining caves, caverns, and pools, form the impressive water system in the area.
Chikin-Ha is one such pool that is accessible from the surface, leading into the underground waterways, and was our location for the day’s 2 planned dives.
After a tour of the site, we were introduced to our dive guides, who explained how the day would work, and the additional information required when diving in a cavern, we’d always be within 25m of the surface, but not always above you, and so extra safety considerations were needed, as well as different rules for reporting air consumption.
While we kitted up, the snorkelers went off to a different point to snorkel in an area that the divers would pass under.
Like the night dive the evening before, this was a first for me, so not quite sure what to expect… but it certainly didn’t disappoint! Armed with a torch each, we followed the guide into the system of caverns, with crystal clear water, rock formations, and fossils that indicated that the areas that are now underwater were once above the surface may years ago.
After a slow and tranquil swim, guided by the torches of our group and other divers in the distance, we surfaced in another pool for a look around, and brief Mayan history lesson for the area, before heading back to the start.
A spot of lunch, including super spicy sandwiches, split the two dives, and the snorkelers found a zip line system on their travels, that they, along with some of the divers, decided to have a go on, while everyone else returned to the water.
The second dive explored a different section, which was a bit more tight and twisty than the previous, and had areas where the freshwater met the salt water, and the result was an area between the two, that was like swimming through swirly oily water, and visibility being reduced to a blur.
On the return ferry trip, there was a band playing on the outside deck, whom seemed very happy to play Happy Birthday in both English and Spanish to the member of the group who happened to be 50th that day, and a group meal booked at the Mexican restaurant at the hotel to celebrate in the evening.
A rest day (if there is such a thing!)
Day trip had been organised to visit Chichen Itza for those who wanted a full day out to visit one of the wonders of the world, a day in town for the shoppers, or the option to hire a car and explore the island for the adventurous.
For us, it was a day of rest, relaxing by the pool, and joining in the activities that the staff had put on and think between the few of us, aqua aerobics, giant chess, water polo and volleyball, craft skills, and baking were all attempted to some degree, and more importantly to catch up on the lack of beer and cocktails normally seen on holiday.
It also gave me a chance to get a list of dive sites we visited during the week, get my logbook up to date, signed and stamped, start on the packing in preparation of leaving the next day.
Another relaxing morning, before checking out of the hotel at noon, and then after lunch a reverse of day 1, including the breaking the computers at the baggage drop, and finding a bar in the airport that sold the biggest burgers and beers that we had seen all holiday!
A big thank you to the organisers!
A thoroughly good week and enjoyed by both of us, it was great to meet everyone else, and how quickly and easily people got on with each other certainly made things welcoming, and certainly contributed to how smoothly the whole trip went.
I hope this hasn’t put Oakham School off opening the week up to Dive Rutland Club members going forward, (I can’t think of anything that would have done) as we’ll certainly be interested in seeing where next year’s travels are going to take people, and can highly recommend to anyone that was thinking about this year, to go for it!
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