Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top

Shallow

The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!


Livingstone, I Presume

May 20, 2009

Livingstone is the city on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, the largest and most famous waterfall in Africa. The falls are a major tourist attraction, and are a highlight of many people’s journey to ‘the dark continent’. Victoria Falls is about one kilometer across, where the entire Zambezi River drops into a gorge about 400 feet deep.

We arrived in Livingstone after crossing, from east to west, almost all of Zambia by bus in a single day. It was dark when we arrived, but our preferred guesthouse was only a couple of blocks from the bus stop. Unfortunately, it was full, so we found a local guesthouse (i.e. no tourists) where we got a room, with shower, for about 70,000 Kwacha (about $12 US). We switched rooms for each of the next two nights, eventually ending up in the ‘honeymoon suite’ at Jollyboys Backpackers, a thatched cottage with a double bed, a mosquito net, and a shared shower and toilet about 50 feet away in the main building. We either need to resign ourselves to getting up once or twice a night, or curtail all beer drinking by 6 PM!

There we met up with Mark and Chloe, the young couple who survived the hair-raising hitchhiking experience, and who only had a single day to spend in Victoria Falls. They were booked on the infamous Victoria Falls sunset river cruise that evening, so we agreed to join them. Later in the day, we met up with Bart and Evelyn (the Dutch not-really-a-couple who we’d spent time with in NKhata Bay, Malawi). They signed up for the all-you-can-eat-and-drink in two hours booze cruise also.

We first visited the falls around mid-day. The recent rainy season has had the highest rainfall in 40 years, so the falls are running more powerfully than they have in many decades. They are quite spectacular when viewed from the side of the falls, where the view isn’t masked by the spray that shoots up from the bottom of the gorge.

As you progress from the side to the edge of the gorge opposite the falls, it becomes progressively wetter. Many people rent a rain poncho. We decided on a different approach.

It quickly becomes very wet — more like swimming than walking in the rain. The water is so powerful that it ricochets more than 400 feet from where it impacts at the bottom of the gorge, and sends clouds of moisture an additional 200 feet into the air, above the level of the top of the falls. The water falls back to earth in a heavy, drenching rain, and as the trail gets close to the edge of the gorge, is augmented by sheets off spray blasting up from below. It’s the best shower we’ve had in Africa!


Later that day, on the sunset cruise, we met a group of four recently graduated British doctors who had just completed their residency in Zambia. The pontoon barge put in upstream of the falls, and was equipped with a single outboard motor. I briefly wondered what they do if the motor fails, but quickly washed that thought from my mind with a couple of gin and tonics. The body count was as follows. The names have been removed to protect the innocent, but none of them was Diane or Patrick, who had been warned by a man with a broken leg that had been on the cruise a few weeks earlier, and who sustained his injury while jumping from a moving vehicle after the event:
· one woman had to be sent home early, carried back to the bus by Patrick
· one British woman was taken back to our guesthouse bar by two of her three friends, where they needed to rescue her from the arms of two different men
· one British man was missing action. We knew that he’d made it to shore, but after several searches he couldn’t be located, and his friends went back to town without him. He made it back safely in the middle of the night after waking up alone in the darkened men’s bathroom of the outdoor beach club where our boat docked. He had the highest concentration of mosquito bites that we’ve ever seen, but only on the side of his face that wasn’t pressed against the wall as he slept.

The next day, we were surprisingly not hung over. Perhaps it was our regular training regime of afternoon and evening beers? So, we headed to the bridge over the Zambezi which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and exists in the no man’s land between the two border posts. It is possible to head out onto the bridge, without officially leaving Zambia, to enjoy the view and the activities available there.

Patrick started off the Bungee Jump. 111 meters (about 350 feet) from the bridge deck to the bottom of the gorge. The third highest in the world. Four seconds of freefall before the bungee comes tight, which feels about two seconds too long when you’re doing it.

Then the Gorge Swing. Similar to the bungee jump except that you are attached to a static rope, not an elastic bungee, that is anchored at bridge level over 300 feet away to a cable crossing the gorge. The drop is the same, but at the bottom, instead of springing back up, you swing out in an arc. It’s more frightening than the bungee because you don’t dive, but merely walk off the side of the bridge and fall over 300 feet.

In both cases, after you stop moving, a guy is lowered from the bridge to retrieve you, and then you’re winched back up to a catwalk below the bridge. You then walk to the end of the bridge, up the bank on the Zambian side, then back out to the center of the bridge. Bart and Evelyn also did the bungee, but Evelyn stopped after that.

The triple feature was completed was a zip line across the gorge, from the Zambia to the Zimbabwean sides. This was the tamest of the three, and a nice relaxing way to wind up.

Our timing in visiting the falls was perfect, because the next night was a full moon. On the night of the full moon, the falls open again after dark, to experience something very rare – a lunar rainbow. On full moons with clear skies, a rainbow is visible when the light from the moon hits the mist above the falls. It’s much fainter than a regular rainbow, and less colourful, but it is clearly visible with the naked eye. Here’s a photo taken with a 30-second exposure in the darkness.

We had a great two days in Livingstone experiencing part of what Victoria Falls has to offer. In our next posting, we’ll fill you in the rest of it.