Nekton Pilot St Croix
After being "out of the pool" for almost 5 years because of a health issue that contraindicated scuba diving, we are getting back in the water. Our first trip is scheduled for April 2009 and it will be on the Nekton Pilot for the eastern Puerto Rico and St Croix itinerary. Kelly's work schedule pretty much determined the dates and because we've had great times on previous Nekton trips, we chose to book the Nekton Pilot St Croix. We still had an $800 deposit with Nekton and we found roundtrip (non-stop) airfare on JetBlue between Orlando and San Juan Puerto Rico for just $350/person.
Here is a link to a photo albums for both the underwater and above water photos.
Our JetBlue flight arrived in San Juan on-time and uneventful just after 1PM. The return flight to Orlando was MUCH more interesting. See the end of the report for details on the return trip.
My wife (Kelly) and I arranged our own transportation to/from Fajardo because we wanted to take a tour of San Juan on our return trip to the airport. We hired Francisco of Puerto Rico Taxi Van Services (Puerto Rico | Taxi Rental | Tours. Home) to pick us up at the airport and transport us to the Puerto Del Rey Marina near Fajardo. Francisco was waiting for us as we exited the baggage claim area. He loaded our luggage and we were promptly on the way to the marina near Fajardo by around 1:45 PM. We highly highly highly recommend Francisco if you need transportation in/around San Juan.
It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get from the airport to the marina. We made one quick stop for some ice for Kelly's sore shoulder. About two weeks before we were scheduled to leave on this trip Kelly injured her shoulder doing.... yardwork (Ouch!). Her shoulder was still very sore and frequently very painful, but she got it shot up with cortizone (or something) and had several physical therapy sessions before we left so the pain/soreness was bearable (as long as numerous Advils were consumed throughout the day). We arrived at Puerto Del Rey Marina around 3PM and were met by Nekton divemasters Ryan and Will who let us know we could drop our luggage off and then plan on boarding the boat around 6:30-7PM.
We proceeded to walk the docks of the marina for a little while (we enjoy looking at (drooling over) the nice boats/yachts in marinas!) and then stopped at the marina restaurant for a late lunch. We had a couple Coronas and a leisurely lunch while fending off the local kitty cat population. After lunch we walked the marina docks for a little while and then returned to the restaurant for a couple more drinks and a lite (to go) dinner of fried sweet plantains and chicken Empanadillas. The sweet plantains were great, the empanadillas were not as spicy as we are accustomed to.
Around 6:45PM we boarded the boat. Not much has changed since we were last on the Pilot five years ago. About the only significant difference we could detect was that the TV in the salon had been replaced with a much larger flat screen TV, and the photo 'light/slide' table had been replaced by a computer workstation. After boarding there was a buffet of fruits and light finger food setup on the galley counter top. Per standard procedure each guest was photographed for the "wall of faces/names". After all the guests were aboard all the crew members were introduced to the guests. The most notable thing about the crew (divemasters anyway) was how many of them were quite new (2 were on their first week!). However I remembered Captain Bud from one of my previous Nekton trips when he was the engineer.
After the crew was introduced and we were told the agenda for the evening we had the mandatory evacuation drill. No one died during the evacuation drill. :) And we got to see the International Space Station pass directly overhead (Thanks Phil!).
We had cabin #6. We really prefer cabin 7 or 3 but they were not available when we booked our trip. As many people are aware the cabins on the main deck of the Nekton boats are directly below the sun deck and it can be REALLY LOUD in the cabins/salon if people on the sun deck are not very careful about minimizing the noise from walking, stomping, exercising, partying, etc, etc. There was one really annoying instance on our trip where several of the crew were hanging out and making a lot of noise on the sundeck above our cabin around 10PM when Kelly was trying to sleep even after I asked if they could try and quiet down a little. Cabins 3 and 7 are directly below the pilot house and they are usually pretty quiet compared to the other cabins on the main deck and they have a window on the front wall as well as the outside wall of the cabin which is also nice. If we do another Nekton trip we will probably get a downstairs (forward) cabin to try and avoid the sundeck noise. The downstairs cabins towards the back of the boat are closer to the engine/generator rooms which can be quite loud as well. There are two generators on the Nekton boats which rotate running every 12 hours. On my first Nekton trip we were in the cabin farthest aft on the lower level and the generator on our side of the boat ran from 8PM-8AM. It sounded like the generator was in the room with us every night.
On the first night there was a horrendous stench in our cabin (and no, I didn't produce it!). At our first dive site briefing the following morning we found that a battery had overheated up on the sundeck behind the pilot house and it was putting out the most horrendous sulfur STINK/STANK/STUNK you could possibly imagine. This battery/stink issue happened twice on our trip. There was another night when (according to Kelly who has a much more sensitive nose than I do) there was a tremenous OUTHOUSE smell coming from the head. The occupants of cabin 7 also noticed the smell issue. So basically our cabin had lots of noise coming from above as well as various/sundry smell issues on an ongoing basis. Very nice.
The food was plentiful but Kelly and I agreed that it was not up to the standards from our previous trips when Arminda was the cook. I'm not sure, but it seemed like 57 pigs must have been sacrificed in order to make the meals for the week. Bacon, ham, or sausage every morning, roast pork, ham, pork chops, ribs for dinner. Etc etc.
The Dive Deck
Nothing appeared to have changed on the dive deck since our previous Nekton trip 5 years ago. They grouped all of us nitrox divers on the port side of the dive deck. Unfortunately we were stuck in probably the worst dive deck station because we were in the middle of the narrow aisle where the 'stairs to nowhere' come down onto the dive deck. So we didn't have much room in front of us and everyone heading to the stairs in the center or the starboard (larger) side of the dive deck had to get past us. Our nitrox fills were consistently 27-28%. We will probably forego the nitrox option ($200/pp) if we do another Nekton trip. I was using one of their normal LP steel 95 tanks and I usually got 2500-2600 PSI fills. Kelly was diving an AL 80 tank and she was getting 'only' 2800-2900 PSI fills.
At the start of the week the vis on the west end dive sites was pretty good (about 80ft). However by Thursday the vis on the west end dive sites was down to about 30'. The dive sites on the north side stayed in the 50-80 foot range all week. Vis on the Thursday afternoon/night pier dives was probably 30' as well. According to my dive computer the surface water temperature was mostly 78-79 degrees and the minimum water temp was around 74-75 (with a couple 71s and a 72). The pier dives were 80 degrees. I suspect that my dive computer registers a degree or two low.
Compared to our previous liveaboard trips the amount of 'life' on the dives was not overwhelming (This was somewhat expected as I had learned from previous StCroix trip reports). There was a decent amount of small fish however I never saw a single grouper or snapper longer than 15". We saw a small school of decent sized amberjacks on one of the deeper wreck dives. We saw maybe 6-7 turtles over the course of the week (Including a leatherback on the surface from the boat). Two green morays, several spotted morays, 2 small gold tailed morays. One drum fish. The two 'wreck' dive sites were very enjoyable. There were multiple wrecks on each of the 'wreck' dive sites which was an added bonus.
Because of her sore shoulder Kelly sat out a number of dives. I would like to thank Linda/Phil, and Pete for allowing me to buddy with them when Kelly was not diving. They were great dive buddies (and Linda/Phil are easy to spot underwater as well!).
I was using my Light and Motion Tetra 5050 system with an Olympus C5050 camera and a single Sea&Sea YS-90DX strobe. I had several photography issues on this trip. On the 'hardware' issue side, during the first dive I noticed I could not change the shutter speed or F-stop. Upon inspection of the housing once back on the boat, I discovered that the plastic gear used to change the shutter speed/F-stop was broken. This no doubt occurred when my UW camera bag took a tumble during the airport shuttle van ride at the Orlando airport. There was no way to fix this problem so I simply used the camera's four "My Settings" configurations to change between 4 different preconfigured shutter speed/f-stop/macro mode settings during each dive. On day two my strobe started acting flaky and then stopped firing at all. I then noticed that the L&M ROC TTL control battery mount was loose and causing the problem. I'm sure this was related to issue #1. A little super glue and the ROC TTL was functioning reliably. Finally, I knew that my 'reading vision' had deteriorated since our last significant scuba trip and I had purchased a 'gauge reader' mask that worked great for reading my dive computer displays, but it was USELESS for viewing the camera LCD related to photo composition and focus accuracy. I should have at least brought the 'dive optix' inserts I had bought (but not previously tested). Well that's all the excuses I have for my photography performance. Initially the vis was decent enough for some WA photography, but by Thursday the vis limited photography to macro mostly.
Overall Boat/Dive Experience
It was good to get back in the water for a full week of diving. The conditions on and condition of the Nekton Pilot were....tolerable. The crew was young but mostly eager to please and they were quite helpful resolving a number of equipment issues. The St Croix itinerary was definitely my least favorite compared to the other Nekton trips I have done (NW Bahamas, Southern Bahamas, Belize twice). We will certainly consider going on another Nekton dive trip. It will probably the Cay Sal Bank or Medio Reef itinerary if the schedule works out.
The return trip home
Francisco was waiting for us at the marina in Fajardo promptly at 8:30AM just like we requested. However there was some sort of issue between Captain Bud and the US Customs/Immigration/Border officers. Apparently there was a (rather heated) disagreement about the how the 'process' was supposed to work. After several phone calls and 30 minutes delay we were allowed to disembark. Francisco loaded all of our luggage and then drove us back to San Juan. As requested he took the 'scenic' route and gave us a tour of the beach areas on the north coast of Puerto Rico and then he took us into old San Juan. He dropped us off at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort (National Historic Site) and waited while we spent about 1 1/2 hours touring the fort. Very highly recommended! Francisco then took us on a tour around old San Juan and eventually dropped us off at a restaurant where we could store our luggage for a small fee. We arranged for Francisco to pick us up 3 hours later (4PM) and then take us to the airport. Kelly and I wandered around old San Juan and had lunch at ????? on Calle Del Sol for some 'local' flavor as recommended by Francisco. It was very good. Eventually 4PM rolled around and Francisco picked us up promptly and had us to the JetBlue departures entrance at the airport by 4:30 PM.
The flight back to Orlando was made more interesting by the drunk idiot in the seat (window) directly in front of mine. At first I didn't realize he was a drunken idiot, I thought he was just a happy redneck and that he was buddies with the guy in the aisle seat in his row (the center seat was empty). I thought he was talking kind of loud with his 'buddy' because he had the volume turned way up on his headphones. Well in fact he was a drunk idiot and he was annoying the large (6'4" 250lb dude) and he wouldn't stop even after the flight attendant made some "behavior modification" suggestions. Since the drunken idiot didn't seem inclined to pipe down the large dude in the aisle seat switched places with the mountainous sized dude in the seat across the aisle from his. These very large guys may have been NFL players for all I know. Well drunk idiot dude started in with gigundus dude, gigundus dude suggested that he should shut up.... NOW!, drunk dude kept jabbering loudly and dropping 'F' bombs left and right which was offending the family in the row ahead so eventually flight attendant came back and told drunk idiot that if he didn't shut up NOW the flight would be diverted and he would be arrested. The relative quiet/calm lastly for about a full 5 minutes before a baby squeeled, drunken idiot dude said something unfortunate and the babies father (Also a LARGE ANGRY DUDE) got into it with drunken idiot. At this point there were three LARGE ANGRY DUDES standing up and the (not so large) drunken idiot was threatening to smack them around and to beat their bleepin bleepin $#@!%!! butts. At this point my wife and the lady sitting in the aisle seat next to my wife bugged out to the back of the plane. I was still sitting directly behind drunken idiot dude trying to decide whether I wanted to put the "Ric Flair Sleeper Hold" (ROFLMAO) on the drunken idiot around the left side or around the right side in the event drunked up idiot actually took a swing at the collection of LARGE ANGRY DUDES towering over him. Well at this point both flight attendants and the copilot showed up and along with the three LARGE ANGRY DUDES, they escorted the perp to the front of the plane where he got a "talking to" by the copilot. Eventually they found a special seat in the front row for the drunken idiot redneck dude where he stayed for the remaining 15-20 minutes of the flight. Upon landing in Orlando the pilot pulled up to the terminal but requested (in an emphatic and repeated manner) that all passengers should remain seated for a couple of minutes. Several Orlando Police officers boarded the plane from the rear door of the plane and removed the perp without further incident before the other passengers were allowed to deplane. Eventually we disembarked, collected our checked baggage, waited (seemingly forever) for the long term parking shuttle bus, found our vehicle, and got home safe and sound right at midnight.