Dive Adventures to
the Ends of the Earth
How did a 1965 "Pool Certification" at Iowa
State University lead to organizing adventurous dive trips to remote destinations?
It's a long story, but I'll keep it short.
In 1971, I entered a Special Forces Underwater
Operations Course and received extensive training in open circuit (conventional
SCUBA) and closed circuit (rebreathers) diving. I was soon jumping
out of airplanes at 2,000' into dark midnight skies and hurdling toward
inky black waters while wondering if I could blindly dump the chute
15' above the ocean surface for a successful entry. After our group
finished each clandestine operation, we hoped the submariners could find
us. Obviously, they did, but there were more than a few tense moments!
After the exciting little stint with Uncle
Sam, I returned to the states and became a safety diver on the instructional
team for the California Institute of Technology & Jet Propulsion Lab,
completed an LA County course (back when they did emergency accents from
100'), and eventually became the chief instructor for the Cal.Tech/JPL
In 1980, I moved to the British Virgin Islands
in the Caribbean and turned into a professional SCUBA educator with George
Marler's Aquatic Centres, Baskin in the Sun, and most recently Dive BVI.
I've been diving these islands for over 15 years and stopped keeping up
my log book somewhere around dive 7000+.
What is there about the BVI that makes it
the kind of place where someone can do 8 or 9 thousand dives and still
look forward to going to work (underwater) every day? The key is
diversity. The wide spread sites are each different in bottom composition,
and the marine life provides an ever-changing counterpoint to these differing
One day we might be working the canyons and
tunnels of Painted Walls on Dead Chest and the next exploring offshore
pinnacles such as Blonde Rock, Santa Monica Rock, Ring Dove or Carrot Shoal.
The many islands that make up the BVI also provide lots of sheltered locations
for the less adventurous divers or those prone to mal-de-mer. The
area also abounds in what I call coral gardens - shallow and not-so-shallow
areas where the coral creates fantastic shapes, terraces, and ledges that
seem to stretch endlessly.
I hear a lot about Cayman and Bonaire from
our guests because many divers have dove around a bit before they finally
make it to the British Virgins. I have never had a diver complain
about the diving here being inferior to that of Cayman or Bonaire, but
it is different. If you want walls endlessly dropping to thousands
of feet, go elsewhere but otherwise, I'll match our diving with any Caribbean
destination that doesn't train the fish. We don't feed sharks, eels,
or stingrays which probably makes us one of the few islands that can still
boast of wild populations.
To periodically "escape" from our home in
paradise, my wife Maritha and I organize dive trips to far and distant
destinations such as the Sea of Cortez, the Galapagos, Micronesia, Indonesia,
and the Revillegedos Islands. Our goal is to find and dive remote
areas with wild marine populations and to capture some incredible moments
and experiences on film. Our next venture will be to Malpelos.
The Indonesian Sea Snake
The walls of Indonesia started in inches of
water and plummeted 1000's of feet into the abyss. It was along these
walls that I saw my first Pacific sea snake. Fear tempered with knowledge
best describes my reaction to the situation. Sea snakes are among
the most poisonous animals in the world, and yet many divers have been
photographed and filmed swimming and handling both Olive and Banded sea
snakes. This particular snake showed no interest in us whatsoever
as my wife and I closed in to try to photograph the "Nikon Moment".
Unfortunately, a strong current was sweeping
over acres of reefs and our wide angle lens dictated a close approach.
As we split up to bracket the snake, I remember thinking that we may never
want to do this again or have the opportunity! Finning like mad,
I began to catch up with the snake and Maritha struggled to position herself,
camera, and strobe near the wall slightly below the snake. All that
remained was for me to move in close - given my mental state and aforementioned
mentioned snake phobia, this was easier said than done, however, we were
quite pleased with the results.
The above photo is the best of 5 exposures
and for those of you interested in the photographic details, the camera
was a Nikonos III with a 15 mm lens, twin Oceanic strobes, and Kodachrome
In April of 1992, I read an article in Ocean
Realm entitled "The Middle of Nowhere". The accompanying Howard Hall
photo was of a giant manta ray shot with a wide angle lens at what appeared
to be a very close distance. The story raised my heartbeat and I
very badly wanted to experience diving with these magnificent creatures.
Two years later, Maritha and I began to organize
a trip to find these manta rays of the Revillegedos, a series of remote
volcanic islands some 200-300 miles south of Cabo San Lucas - hence the
"middle of nowhere". Research showed that the area was at the end
of a 30 hour crossing in possible rough and uncertain seas. We merely
THOUGHT we had seen bad conditions on our previous Indonesia Komodo venture
and were prepared for far worse on this trip. We received information
about motorized boats large enough for 18-20 passengers and a sailing vessel
Copper Sky which held only 8. Since our primary quarry was manta rays,
we opted for the smaller, less comfortable sailboat. And were we
ever rewarded! Sea conditions remained perfectly flat for the first part
of the journey.
Our small group of select and exceptionally
hardy souls finally reached the Revillegedos, anchored for the night, and
awoke to find mantas surrounding the sailboat. Entering the water,
we all wondered what to do next. A giant Manta came to me, I grabbed on,
and it soared off into blue waters. Amazingly, it stayed within 40
- 70' of depth allowing me to hang on for a good ride, but the boat was
quickly receding the distance! I couldn't decide whether to let go
and have a short swim back or stay with the Manta in the event this opportunity
never happened again. I decided to stay with the ray and eventually
had a very long snorkel back to the group.
During my fast manta ride and slow swim back
to the sailboat, the rest of our party discovered that the flock of rays
wanted to play and were giving them rides NEAR the boat. For all
I knew, my manta probably raced back to join the fun (regrettably without
me!). After I returned, I managed to catch a great shot of
a 70 year old grandmother hitching a ride on a big manta. This proves
one is never too old to dive and ride rays!
I can still close my eyes and see those
giant rays! They float like giant sea-going spaceships through my dreams.
The mantas came to us every day that we dove San Benedicto and we never
got enough of them. We photographed them, scratched their bellies,
and yes, rode them. Somehow, they seemed to want the interaction.
They could easily outswim us, yet allowed our touch and occasional hitchhikes.
We were able to dive with up to five mantas
at a time, in depths that allowed six dives a day. Best of all, we
had the site and the rays all to ourselves! As usual, we took hundreds
of photographs, one of which was chosen as the cover of International SCUBA
Dive Magazine and is featured in the photo above and side bar of this web
page. We also had additional photos selected for a spread inside
the magazine with a write-up and were more than pleased with the experiences
and results of our trip to the "middle of nowhere".
It's Not For Everyone, But, Is It For You ?
Pelagic - just the name congers up visions of man eating marine
life from the depths of the open oceans for most divers. High seas
- not just an ATT radio frequency, but a sea state that most prudent divers
ponder about before entering the water. Strong current - a forceful
flow of water in a definite or changing direction which is a sea condition
the majority of divers would like to do without. Open ocean cruise
- 36 hours of plowing through the Pacific enroute to an island 240 miles
off the Coast of Columbia, 884 ft. high, 3/4 of a mile long, boasting no
vegetation and rarely a calm anchorage.
The picture I just painted is not a pretty one for the average person
in the diving community but, if you're the type of diver that enjoys a
wild rollercoaster ride of pure adrenaline, then Malpelo is for you.
The October of 1993, Vol. 18, No, 1O of Undercurrent said, "Our first dive
was at the Alter of the Virgin, along the steep cliffs. Visibility was
typically 75-80 feet, the bottom was a smattering of boulders and ledges
with a variety of fish, including snappers and grouper up to 30 pounds
.... but, what made this dive unique was the overwhelming abundance of
free swimming moray eels - literally hundreds buzzing around the rock or
merely laying about. While recent reports have suggested that the
CoCos sharks have been thinned by fishing or driven deeper by El Nino,
they are alive and well at Malpelo ... if you are a good diver and can
handle the conditions. The draw to Malpelo is sharks".
Not rinky dinky white tips or the occasional reef shark. The
emphasis here is quantity and quality: Hammerheads, and Malpelo delivers
"Hugging the rock face, I inched my way around the ledge only to
be greeted by one of the more amazing sights I had ever seen in 30 years
of diving: the entire ocean seemed to be filled with Hammerhead Sharks.
They moved in an endless column from about 100 feet all the way to the
surface. In the March 1994 issue of Rodale's Scuba Diving, Bret Gilliam
wrote, "Apparently the 50 hammerheads we saw at La Gringa were just a scouting
party. They've called up reinforcements and a vast armada of torpedo-shaped
bodies - literally hundreds of hammerheads - stretches as far as I can.
see. One of the other divers bricfly brings up his hands to videotape
this incredible scene only to be blown head over heels through the boulders
like a tumbleweed in a dust storm. We're flying along now under a solid
layer of sharks. We look up and are astonished to see that the hammerheads
are being approached by an equally large army of blacktip sharks.
Their bodies are packed so densely that we can't distinguish where one
shark begins and another ends. As we bound back to the ship over the by-now-familiar
mountainous swells, I know I've bloody well gotten my monies worth, Malpelo
isn't for everyone; but for some, big fish protected by big seas are the
flame to which we return, moth-like, mesmerized and helpless."
Aquatic Adventures offers 10 to 14 day expeditions aboard the M/Y
"Inzan Tiger" for those who are looking for untamed destinations.
All participants involved will thoroughly screened. We require that
all divers to have Ideations, "Dive Alert" Signaling Whistle plus Divers
Diversions Diver Alert Safety Flag or some type of signal sausage and will
not be permitted to dive without these devices.
Call or FAX for more information (284) 495-9705.
--- Randy Keil
All photos are copyright 1995 & 1996 Randy &
Maritha Keil. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Keil's "Diving the Galapagos" article
Keil's "Scuba Resort Course" article
Watersports at Peter Island
Gateway to Dive Travel.