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Diving report – Santa Maria, Azores

The five amigos started out on Wednesday 7th September with a short trip to Manchester airport, check in was fraught with danger as the weight limit of 23kg was quite tight. The option of checking it all the way through to Santa Maria was quickly taken up by David, Brett & Nia while Peter & Dewi were less trustworthy and opted to collect in Lisbon, Peter came under much scrutiny from security officials due his hand luggage packed with pipes and suspicious computer equipment. David, Brett & Nia came under suspicion from Security and Anti Terrorist Police after David attempted some identity theft by passing through departures with Brett’s passports which left Brett stranded in check, I’m sure you can all imagine the colour of the language, some skilful negotiating by David saw all three eventually reunited. Dewi added to his weight at the airport with quickly purchased brownie points from the duty free for the women in his life. Food & drink was then the priority before jetting off to Lisbon.

A good flight was had, clear immigration, collect Peter & Dewi’s bags before searching for the hotel which was apparently a short walk out of departures. David with excellent pilot age spotted the signs on the pavement directing us to our home for the night. Check in was controversial with Peter bagging a room for himself and David & Dewi sharing. Dinner at the hotel whilst planning the tomorrow’s agenda whilst waiting for our connecting flight to Santa Maria. David Jones researched an aquarium trip to assist us with species identification whilst diving for the week.

Negotiating the underground couldn’t be that difficult, with the aquarium only 3 stops away from the airport, but what about tickets??? David was in charge and decided on the plan of standing in front of the ticket machine scratching his head and looking suitably confused,

his plan worked and a very helpful local sorted us all out at a cost of 1 euro, nevertheless the adventure began. Aquarium found which proved very good, but would be see one of these??

A quick return to the hotel for baggage collection, Peter & Dewi now regretting their decision not to check in the bags all the way through whilst they huffed and puffed from the hotel to the airport. Check in was again effortless and a meeting for refreshments prior to the onward journey. Everything running on my time and landing on the beautiful island of Santa Maria at 17.15hrs Thursday 8th Sept. We were met by Ruebens from the Hilarious dive school who got us all together in his transit pickup with a short transfer to the hotel. At first approach the hotel looked like Botwnnog Secondary school, dive gear deposited at the hotel dive centre and then to check in, on entering inside we were pleasantly surprised, and the rooms provided were all adequate and sea facing. Discussion at dinner was the expected week ahead and meeting at the dive school at 08.30hrs the next morning.

9th September 2016

Arrived at the dive centre at the allotted time, the centre was busy with other divers who seemed to know what they were doing, we on the other hand kicked our heels and shuffled about, until we thought perhaps we should also kit up. Sure enough Philip who seemed to be the dive centre manager pointed us in the right direction and we had a short journey in the minibus down to the harbour were our 8.9m rib was expecting with 16 divers and 2 crew on board, a bit of a tight squeeze to say the least but plenty of guts in the boat which was powered by 2 x 300hp engines. We were asked how much weight we needed, various replies came ranging from 9kg – 14kg, shock horror came from the French and Belgium contingent who all seemed to be diving on 8kg, we were all trimmed down i think by Ruebens before even hitting the water, David Jones given his own stash of lead in a pod similar to what Peter found on Maen Mellt last year, don’t think the boat could accommodate any more weight!!!!!,

Dive site no1 – Canyon Dos Menos

We anchored on to the canyon at a depth of about 16m and could see the bottom from the boat. Bit of a struggle kitting up with everybody across each other in a tightly packed boat. Nevertheless we were to follow Ruebens down the anchor and keeping the canyon wall to our right. In we all go but we had to fight the current all the way down the anchor chain, but once we were in the canyon the diving was great, fantastic viz 30m and at 24degrees with a range of depths – Brett was on a mission to record as many deep dives (25m+) as possible to satisfy the Llyn Sub Aqua training officer for his Dive Leader qualification. Plenty of life to see including Groupers, Morey eels and a huge variety of fish. On the return we had to fight some current and swell which effected Nia, causing Sea sickness & fish feeding, conditions on top had also become more choppy which didn’t ease her condition.

Dive site no2 – Ambrosio

This site was quite some distance from the first and a journey that seemed forever for Nia, no seating position or change in view could alleviate her symptoms. We eventually arrived and she continued to feed the fish, she decided that she was going to sit this one out. All the others had lunch and we the boat virgins only had biscuits and a cake supplied from the crew, clearly the French & Belgiums had raided the breakfast buffet in the morning, a motion was passed that this was to be adopted by the Llyn Sub Aqua club forthwith. This dive site was a Manta Ray experience, the bottom was at 60m and we were attached from the boat to the bottom. We were to hang on the rope and pick your depth to observe the Manta Rays swimming freely in the blue. We Peter and Dewi decided to leap frog the French & Belgium’s and positioned themselves at the bottom out of all the bubbles and were joined a short time later by Brett and David, with Brett racking up yet another 25m plus dive. We were not to be disappointed, the large Mantas arrived and swam gracefully amongst us all for what seemed an eternity, beautiful creatures who didn’t seemed phased by all the divers hanging off the rope, when weren’t there we were entertained by a Portuguese couple dancing together underwater.

We returned to the harbour by about 15.00hrs each day, a chance to clean the kit and store for the next day before adjourning to the hotel bar for a debrief. Following debrief David decided to go for a recci of the nearby town with a view to discovering a new location for dinner. On his return the news was good, the discovery of the “Central Pub” was indeed a find and where we spent many an evening relaxing and enjoying the good food.

10th September 2016

Dive site no3 – Ripadas

A different and far better rib today 8.5m powered by 2 x 150hp engines which we shared with 4 Portuguese men who gladly supplied Nia with pills to counteract any sea sickness, they worked a treat. We left the harbour and headed SE for our second canyon dive of the week. Not dissimilar to the first five great viz, plenty of life with depths in the region of 20-25m.

Dive site no4 – Pedrinha (small pebble)

This was in fact a large pinnacle, we anchored on and descended down, once everybody hit the top of the pinnacle at about 18m we descended further through a nice swim through to about 32mm where a very large grouper awaited our attendance, once at the bottom we preceded around the pinnacle gently ascending to a depth for prolonged dive time, a huge variety of life including large groupers, schooling Barracudas, Moray eels and a multitude of other species. Brilliant visibility and range of depths to suit all from 18 – 25m, we circled the pinnacle before returning up the anchor chain, on discussion this was probably rated in the top three of all dive sites.

11th September 2016

This day was an extra cost of 100 euros each with lunch included, we were assured the day before that the weather was suitable for the trip, David decided he was going to duck out and what a good call that proved to be. It was a to be a 30 mile 1hr 30min trip in the rib heading due East. It seemed ok as we powered across the bottom end of the island, once we headed out into the Atlantic we soon encountered some quite different seas and the ride was far from smooth, to say it was a bit bumpy was an understatement, it took over 2 hours to get there, however this was nothing compared to what was facing us on the return journey, the boat cox was certainly earning his money on this day.

Dive site no5 – Dollabarat

This was a plateau in the midddle of the Atlantic with the only land to be seen was approx 1 mile away, an aptly named “Ant Island” a rock outcrop with an automatic lighthouse thereon, a clear hazard to all passing sea traffic. The plateau had large swells going over it from all directions. The decision this time was not to anchor but to drop divers into the swells were we descended to the top of the plateau before and with orders to deploy an SMMB before ascending. The dive itself had a really nice wall with once again excellent life, unfortunately we were not to see the predicted Mantas and possible Hammerhead sharks. Dive guide deployed his SMBM and majority ascending with him p, Peter & Dewi decided to stay a little bit longer and came up on their own blob being entertained by the ever territorial trigger fish. On the surface they were met with 2m swells losing sight of the rib on occasions. A 20-30 minute ride saw us shelter at Ant Island for a well deserved lunch. This dive saw Brett accomplish hi 4th 25m+ dive which was his requirement for Dive Leader.

Dive site no6 – Formigas

The next dive was actually a wall dive off the Formigas, boat was this time anchored up and dropped us off on the commencement of the wall. It was basically to keep the wall on your left on the way out and pick your depth with the majority aiming between 18-28m and a slightly shallower depth on the return leg to prolong the dive.

Lack of concentration from Dewi saw him overshoot the anchor only to hear the rattle from Reubens summoning back. There the return journey started, seemed like an endless thump over the waves and swells which came from all direction, one club member even had a third dive onboard the rib thanks to the constant spray that came over and drenched him.

Dive site no7 – Baixa Do Sul

A dive site similar in appearance to Carreg Ddu only 3 x the visibility and teeming with life. The time we were joined by a Dutch couple and a lady from Finland. The plan was to drop us in about 12m and we work our way down and around the island, depth of dive could be chosen with most opting again between 20-25m. To return the boat required the deployment of the SMB. Again very nice topography, life with shoals of different fish inclusive of the predatory barracuda.

Dive site no8 – Gruta Dos Camaroes

This site was more commonly known as the Shrimp cave and with the hope of spotting a resident stingray. Plan was to be dropped off and shadowed by the boat for later collection following ascent with SMB. The cave entrance was in about 12-14m of water, we ascended into the cave to about a depth of about 8m with various nooks, crannies and ledges to be explored, the cave was teaming with shrimp but sadly no stingray to be seen. The cave dive was fully explored after about 10-12 minutes which left ample time to once again explore the coast without current heading in a general SW direction. Once again you could choose your depth with most opting for 20-25m mark, good lengthy dive times had by all, David, Nia & Brett ascending with SMB, Peter & Dewi electing to continue the dive with Ruebens who elected to perform safety stop and ascend without the deployment of SMMB, bit unusual we thought, but that said we could easily see exactly where the rib was parked.

13th September 2016

Dive site no9 – Penedia Da Maia

The morning dive was a very large pinnacle off the coastal village of Maia, once again we were able to anchor on to the top of the pinnacle which was in about 8m of water with a max depth of about 35-40m. The boat today had an additional passenger a silver haired lady from Belgium. The briefing was good, descend when you were in the water and keep the reef in the right, the Dutch couple from the previous day having complained about the current and speed of the diving wanted more attention, after all they were diving with a slide slung 12litre to compensate for their excessive air consumption! The dive was excellent we were able to negotiate the whole pinnacle with a basically pick your desired depth to what you wanted to see, very nice walls, loads of life and once again superb viz. A return to the anchor before performing the requisite safety stop and returning to the rib only to find the Dutch couple and had a fast ascent without using a safety stop which put paid to their second dive and mood for the day! Lunch was had on lovers beach not before Pete & Dewi decided to do some tomb stoning after Philip the guide gave them the idea.

Dive site no10 – Gruta Azul

The final dive site was to be a cave dive which was large enough to accommodate all divers. Brief was good, cave entrance was in about 13m of water, we would follow the cave through which would bend to the right before you again caught sight of the blue which denoted the exit. The expectation was to see a resident stingray and shrimps amongst other life, plenty of other side caves/nooks and crannies to explore. We were not to be disappointed when a stingray decided to show itself and swam amongst us I think in desperation to avoid which gave several photo opportunities for all. The rush of the water exiting from the cave wad deafening and you just had to hover for a short while before being literally propelled out of the cave through a small gap in the reef. A gentle return dive at a depth of between 10-20m then followed what turned out to be a pinnacle before returning to whence we started, ascending via SMB. Once again, plenty of life, great topography and crystal clear viz.

Wednesday 14th September

With the diving over it was a free day and an opportunity to explore the small island of Santa Maria. Two plans were hatched, David hired a car with Nia & Brett, whilst Peter felt a pedal cycle would be more preferable and coerced Dewi to join him. A very beautiful island, green with quaint sea side villages and stunning scenery. It was clear however that David, Nia and Brett experienced this in comfort of a Seat Ibiza whilst the other two idiots endured nothing but pain, for every downhill on the island of Santa Maria there is a massive up hill. Both parties ended up in the village of Maia for lunch where we were entertained by an absolutely bonkers host, a native Boston Azorean woman, an experience to behold.

In conclusion

It takes 9 days to complete a weeks diving, the island of Santa Maria is very beautiful, the hotel although looking like an old school was very comfortable and had all that we needed. The food was very good and reasonably priced and most of all the diving was very good, challenging at times, exceptional viz with good life but apparently not as good as it has been in previous years, but compared to back home it was like an aquarium. Good diving and excellent company, thank you David, Peter, Brett and Nia for making it such a pleasurable experience. The Azores are a bit of a jewel with 9 islands in total which runs both east – west and north – south, all apparently offering something different so watch this space people.

Dive report Sunday 25th September

The weekend had finally arrived when I could put my weeks of meticulous planning into action. Diving the Skerries lighthouse might be a tad challenging at this time of year but should be well worth the effort.

All we needed was the weather……..

As I sat on the Saturday afternoon, watching the rain come horizontally past the windows driven by the force 6, gusting gale 8 winds I pondered the possibilities. Forecasts, seaweed, goats entrails and runes all pointed towards 4-6 winds, that’s nothing for a 25 mile jolly with Dive Halitosis in the Azores but more than enough to put the rest of us lesser mortals off. Conditions deteriorated and I warmed to the idea of a Sunday lie in as only someone who had not been outside for three days, an extremely enthusiastic optimist or under the influence of certain illegal substances would even think of calling in. It would appear we have just such an agrophobe/optimist/junkie in the club in the form of Jake! I phoned Jake to give him the sad news that there being no other takers, shit weather forecast, shit vis etc we could not take the boat out. The disappointment in his voice was evident so I felt compelled to offer a crumb of comfort and suggested a dip in Dotty. The enthusiasm returned as he eagerly accepted but he went quiet again when I suggested doing some training. It took him some time to give me all the excuses as to why this should not happen. If he didn’t want me to train him then I would have to train myself so I decided to drag my drysuit out for it’s annual outing. We met at 10am on a surprisingly pleasant morning and made our way to the beach as I didn’t fancy walking up the hill with the twins. A short swim out from the beach then down into the green mist zone. It’s rather eerie in the green low vis and as we descended I was surprised to find someone or something was squeezing my testicles and other parts. It wasn’t Jake, I could see his hands. All the trailers for the ‘monster from the deep’ B movies swept through my mind before I remembered I was wearing a drysuit, push button to inflate! Much relieved but now heading back to the surface I now had to master the nervous shoulder tick to dump the air I had just put in, why on earth do people wear these things. Eventually we settled out in the clear at around 20 m and headed to the pinnacles. Swimming between the peaks I couldn’t resist doing my favourite superman vertical dive down the side but very soon remembered why people in drysuits do not do this. The recovery to a more normal swimming attitude required some rather less than graceful gyrations before my legs were vented and assumed a more normal size. Swimming back along the wall I found the ledge at 17m but with air in hand we carried on before turning and ascending into the green mist to return to the beach. I still have no idea who moved the beach but it became evident that it was not where I had left it. In search of a clue We surfaced into an overhanging tree and, having cleared the branches, I was able to ask a passing, rather startled, canoeist for directions to the beach. As luck had it, it had only been moved around the corner so it was only a short swim back. Sharing the beach with us were 3 techies from Manchester who had dived the ‘car stack’ apparently the top is at 35m with the latest models, antiquity increasing as you go down. There is also a Ford Escort with it’s front end wedged into the wall face the rest of it sticking out at 25m. A sort of modern installation art exhibit, well worth a visit. Thanks Jake for getting me out, who says you can’t have fun diving on a windy weekend.

Peter James

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