I know many divers who dive every month, and are quick to say: "Great live-aboard cruise! I must have logged in a jillion dives!" I must be a lousy SCUBA diver, because diving once or twice a year is more than enough for me. Diving just for the sake of diving, or taking photos of star-fish bores me I need a specific destination or activity (i.e. exotic animal encounters) to make it interesting. So, since my PADI Certification in 2001, I’ve sought out unique experiences. One fun dive was in the display aquarium in Sydney’s Ocean World. My guide said something like, "G’day mate! You’ll be swimming in the tank, among 7 or 8 nurse sharks". I was expecting "nurse sharks" as we Americans know them the small, cute critters we encounter at places like Belize’s "Shark-Ray Alley" (my favorite place in the world). So I get into the huge Ocean World tank and there was a brief black-out (what timing!) in the building. After a few seconds of pitch-black, the lights come on, and I’m surrounded by 14’ sharks with intimidating, protruding, needle-like teeth! Turns out we Americans have a different word for what the Aussies call "nurse sharks". We know them as Sand-Tiger Sharks! This adrenaline rush is the sort of abnormal dive I always seek out. But it wasn’ the oddest. The oddest one is as follows.......
For my birthday in 2011, my girlfriend and I saved money to spend the night underwater. Jules Undersea Lodge (located in Key Largo’s Emerald Lagoon) is an experience I’ll never forget. And it’s one I hope to do again some time, especially if I win the lottery, or if my Nigerian uncle finally sends all that money from my family’s estate! But seriously, Jules Undersea Lodge isn’t cheap, but it was an experience I’ll remember for, for well, as long as I can.
We missed the sign (drove right passed it) at first; it was hidden by palm trees. In those palm trees were cool, 4’-0" green iguanas. Much like constrictor snakes, they were introduced there, and although they’re tampering with the eco-system, they’re still pretty cool to look at. Eventually, I saw the Jules sign and went inside to sign the disclaimers, cough up my life savings and get a tour of the over-all facility (pumps, life-support systems, rest-rooms, surface-to-water electronic communications, where not to go, etc.). Our valuables were kept in the office’s lockers, and our luggage went into special air-tight suitcases that the guide took down to the lodge while we changed into our wetsuits and admiring the scenery. Off in the distance, I could see large round humps in the water, which were obviously manatees. They were near some privately-owned boats (it’s mainly a residential area) and on the other side of the rope/barrier, so these gentle giants weren’t on Jules property that day, unfortunately (no biggie, I played with manatees years before). Not all the neighbor’s houses looked great (with garbage in their yards and something that struck me as "white-trashy" I guess), which is strange, I thought anybody who could live near such a cool place would be rich.
Diving into the cottage itself involves pulling ourselves downward (at an angle), to guide us to our aquatic hotel-room. The rope isn’t necessary, but lack of visibility in the water makes it advisable, for the first swim. Once the building materializes in the murky depths, it resembles a trailer-camper thingie, except for the round 42" windows on the sides. Lotsa’ bubbles seem to be coming up on one side no doubt that’s part of the air-conditioning or life-support stuff. So we swim under the structure and stand on concrete slabs resembling cinder blocks. Then you stand upright and your head is now in the lodge’s entry room. After climbing up and removing our SCUBA gear, it’s required that guests shower (each and every time you leave the salt water) before going into the living quarters. The showers and restrooms are small, it’s like trying to squeeze into Houdini’s box.
The living quarters include beds, kitchen facilities, TV, DVD player phone to the surface control-room, and other basics. Once we were all there (myself, my significant other and the guide), I was warned not to remove the protective housing from my camcorder (Sony DCR-TRV-510; once state-of-the-art, and now an antique dinosaur) and Hero Cam. If the housings are taken off the cameras in this pressurized cabin, it could damage the cameras. This was frustrating, because I had hoped to use cables to hook my cameras up to the TV and watch the day’s shots. Before the guide leaves, he plays a video explaining the history of Jules. Knowing guests want privacy, the guide left as we learned of Jules’ beginnings as an aquatic research station in the 1960s or 1970s. It was interesting at first, but the dated documentary, with its grainy old film, crackly soundtrack, and the slow pace didn’t hold our interest once the guide had returned to the surface.
Later in the evening, the guide brought our dinner. The spaghetti and birthday cake (from a nearby restaurant) were fine, much like the area’s traditional key lime pie. But the [once fluffy] garlic bread had become harder than Chinese algebra. Something to do with the cabin’s pressure and it was like biting into wood. Before and after dinner, I had to continually get in and out of my SCUBA gear, and keep showering, every time I wanted to check my video-footage! I could only remove the housings on dry land, and this whole procedure was so cumbersome, repetitious, tedious and time-consuming that my girlfriend Jocelyn just stayed below while I was up at some park bench, checking my footage. Mind you, I’m not complaining swimming, diving & snorkeling around the lagoon is fun. There was a large nurse shark (that just wanted to be left alone), and some interesting statues, exhibits, barnacle-covered antiques and things to see. Perhaps an old pirate-cannon (or whatever) taken from a Spanish galleon, or something like that.
The only Emerald Lagoon dive I didn’t enjoy was the night dive. The murkiness and darkness was intimidating, and we could only see what was directly in front of the flashlights. So we decided to spend the rest of the night in the lodge. There were these really friendly shrimp at the port-hole, apparently following us into the entrance. At first I thought they were attracted to the light, or were hiding from the predatory fish. Maybe the shrimps craved our attention (climbing onto our hands and staying there, even out of water) because they were eating parasites or dead skin off us. Man, they’d probably make very affectionate pets! Regardless: We stayed in for the evening, and I wish I’d brought my own movies to watch. We ended up sitting through whatever the lodge had (an old silent version of 20 THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and a Tom Hanks movie where he’s on an island). I could have used a beer, but alcohol is understandably forbidden.
Waking up the next morning was surreal. Sleeping near a large round window, I could gradually see the sun fading in, with water-ripples. It’s a unique experience, so if you go to Jules, don’t sleep in! After breakfast, the guide packed up our suitcases and we did our final dive, back up to dry land. The morning sun lit up the lagoon and I was able to see way more than before (visibility was a good 40 or 50 feet I think). I accidentally swam under the barricade (not allowed) and was on some other property.
All in all, it was a great trip, and a truly unique experience. I recommend it to anybody who had a taste for the unusual.