12 Jan My Eight Diving Highlights of 2018 • Alex in Wanderland
This post is brought to you by PADI.
The end of the year is always a time of reflection and taking stock. I have to admit, there are years when I look back and think, whoa, twelve months flew by so quickly! With so many passions, goals and priorities in my travels it can be hard to tend to all of them, and there are years when December creeps up and I feel like I’ve had nowhere near my annual allotment of dive adventures.
Friends, this was not one of those years.
In fact, I’m tempted to say 2018 was one of my greatest years as an aquaholic yet. In the last year, my love of diving brought me around the world, launched a new business, pushed me to live more sustainably, and filled me with awe and gratitude for this beautiful planet we live on. I learned, I dreamed, I dove. Read on for more.
Letting my readers pick my next continuing education course in Koh Tao, Thailand
I’m no stranger to cert card collecting – in recent years, I’ve completed PADI’s Self Reliant Diver, Enriched Air Diver, Sidemount Diver, and Cavern Diver courses. I love enhancing my undersea skill set, opening myself to new possibilities, and getting to know a new aspect of the scuba diving industry and underwater world. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I kicked off 2018’s diving adventures by letting you all pick my next continuing education course in Koh Tao, Thailand.
Honestly, I would have been happy to take any of them, but I was thrilled when y’all sent me off to take the official PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course. Obviously, I’ve been shooting underwater for years, but being mostly self-taught meant I had plenty to learn. And learn I did, from the very best! My friend Paddy of Peach Snaps Photography was the head of photography at PADI Five Star IDC Center Sairee Cottage, and together we designed a three-day course tailored exactly to my needs.
This was a turning point for me as it lead me to experiment with shooting underwater in full manual, and using strobes and wet-mount lenses, two accessories I’d been shying away from due to intimidation and anxiety over my ever-growing gear stash. But I’ll just have to get a bigger backpack, because I’m hooked.
Setting sail on a liveaboard in the Red Sea from Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
For someone as aqua-addicted as myself, it’s kind of wild to think that I’d only logged one liveaboard prior to 2018 – and it was back in 2010! I’ve tried many times over the years to hop aboard ones my friends arranged in Thailand and Myanmar, but the stars just never aligned.
So when I set my sights on the Red Sea this year, I knew I’d be sleeping at sea for at least part of the trip. I settled on a four day itinerary spanning the highlights of Sinai, from the awe-inspiring Wreck of the Thistlegorm – my new favorite wreck dive on the planet – to the teeming reefs of Ras Mohammed National Park – the most gorgeous I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Now, I can’t stop dreaming about my next liveaboard destination –The Galapagos? The Maldives? Sudan? I know one thing for sure – it won’t be eight years before I get there.
Diving the famed Blue Hole in Dahab, Egypt
There are very few dive sites that enjoy name recognition the world over. The Blue Hole is one of them. Located just outside the backpacker darling beach town of Dahab, the Blue Hole has a reputation as a dangerous dive site, and it’s true that many tragic dive accidents have occurred there when divers try to reach the famed underwater arch without proper training or gear.
Diving a site so often labeled “deadly” could have been intimidating. But with the badass instructors at our female owned-and-run dive school, I knew we were in good hands. By diving with a reputable dive center and adhering to the limits of our certifications, we had a beautiful and memorable dive here and at nearby Canyons — and perhaps someday, when I’m ready to tackle PADI Tec 40, I’ll come back to see that gorgeous underwater arch through my own mask. But even sticking to the standards, it was one for the books — er, logbooks.
A camel diving and glamping safari in Ras Abu Galum, Egypt
Do you ever read about something and just immediately say to yourself, “yup, that’s happening.” Come hell, come high water, from the moment I read about the overnight camel safaris to Ras Abu Galum, I knew I had to do one (luckily, neither was an issue.)
When divers first started exploring the Sinai peninsula, strapping a couple tanks to the backs of sturdy camels was the only option for getting around. Today, technically you could take a small speed boat to Ras Abu Gallum — or a very long, roundabout road that takes half the day — but where’s the fun in that?
After riding along the rocky desert coastline, we arrived in a remote Bedouin village with no cell phone service, no wifi, and no worries and settled into our seafront huts. We had the jaw-dropping reefs completely to ourselves, and later, the star-filled night sky. This wasn’t just one of my favorite dive adventures of the year; it was one of my favorite travel memories, ever.
Being one of a few hundred people to ever full face dive the Dead Sea in Israel
If diving The Blue Hole was skirting the edges of my comfort zone, going full face mask diving in The Dead Sea — yes, THAT DEAD SEA — in Israel was so far outside it, we couldn’t even airdrop. My guide, the founder of recreational diving in the Dead Sea, estimated that there are perhaps two or three hundred divers on the planet who have blown bubbles in the third saltiest body of water on earth, after lakes in Djibouti and Antartica.
The incredible salt concentration provided unique challenges: I’d have to wear a full face mask to prevent dangerous salt levels getting into my mouth or eyes, and wear over eight pounds in order to sink. The ladder I’d done once before while drysuit diving in Iceland, the former was new to me. It was one of the most challenging dives I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. I emerged on a euphoric high — ironic, since I’d just been 1,500 feet below sea level.
Israel is an insanely undercover dive destination. Did you know you can dive three (four, if you’re really gunning for it) seas in as many days, in a country the size of New Jersey? My other dives in Israel were memorable, of course — but I’ll be cashing in on bragging rights of this one for years to come.
Diving into sustainability in Florida, USA
Every year I challenge myself to make slightly more sustainable choices, and find new ways to serve this beautiful ocean that has given me so much. On my summer trip to Miami and The Florida Keys, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the number of eco-travel opportunities for ocean lovers — and of course, signed up for all of them.
I kicked things off with a visit to The Turtle Hospital in Islamorada, which rehabs endangered turtles across the US and pioneers research that will help turtles the world over — the center is entirely funded by donations and tours. Next, I spent a day with the Coral Restoration Foundation, cleaning growing staghorn coral at one of their nurseries and later outplanting it onto a nearby reef. We were out with a crew for ABC news who was filming a segment about the foundation, and it was so cool seeing a broadcast crew work behind the scenes! In fact, in 2018 I took not one but two coral propagation courses (the first being in Thailand), and look forward to blogging about each in depth, and pursuing further volunteer opportunities in that field in the future. The Coral Restoration Foundation actually offers a two or three day PADI Distinctive Speciality for those who want to dive a bit deeper into coral propagation, something I’d love to add to my cert card pile eventually.
We rounded things out with a cleanup dive in Miami, one of three I logged in 2018 — the other two being in Thailand and Egypt. I had a blast and look forward to finding ways to incorporate Dives Against Debris, and other cleanup activities, into my future retreats and travels.
Staying at an undersea hotel in Key Largo, USA
I mean, if this isn’t a bucket list experience, I don’t know what is: in 2018, I spent the night underwater for the first time at Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida. The lodge, originally built as an underwater research station in Puerto Rico in the 1970’s, now serves as nightly accommodation where divers can spend the night streaming Netflix, FaceTiming with family and friends above sea level, and feasting on pizza delivered on scuba.
While the diving in the Emerald Lagoon is more a mangrove dive than the reefs Key Largo is famous for, and frankly can be a bit swampy, it was one of my most unique and memorable underwater experiences to date.
Don’t miss our video tour of the lodge — I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I had worried that the experience might leave me a tad claustrophobic, and wondered well, how we’d spend a whole eighteen hours submerged. Turned out, we weren’t ready to leave when it was time to go! With four PADI Distinctive Specialities available only at the Jules Lodge and nowhere else, I rested easy with the idea that I’ll be back to earn at least one someday.
Hosting my first women’s dive and yoga retreat in Koh Tao, Thailand
My final diving highlight of 2018 is also a highlight of my career and, well, life — hosting my very first Wander Women Dive + Yoga Retreat in collaboration with PADI. I dreamed of doing something like this for years, and seeing it come to fruition just blew my mind.
Together with incredible women from around the world, we spent eight day diving Koh Tao’s best dive sites, doing yoga in the most scenic spots on the island, and practicing sustainability along the way. We did twelve unique dives, from a UV night dive to a wreck dive to endless beautiful reefs.
I loved getting to share “my” island and “my” kind of diving — on a private boat, surrounded by friends, playing our favorite tunes, eating healthy snacks, and using eco-friendly products onboard. The girls left exchanging numbers and planning future adventures together, and it was everything I dreamed of.
It was also an incredibly exciting opportunity to partner with female-owned local businesses, to hire wonderful PADI dive instructors and divemasters, and to work withso many of the dive businesses I know and love in Koh Tao to provide learning opportunities as part of the retreat. On a “choose your own adventure” day, the girls opted to take their PADI Dive Against Debris speciality with Master Divers or go for the PADI Basic Freediver experience with Crystal Dive. Another day, everyone earned their ever-valuable PADI Enriched Air certification with Ban’s Diving Resort, and another, we all geeked out on cameras for a PADI Digital Underwater Photography workshop with Sairee Cottage.
It was an honor to show my home island for the last several years to my guests, and to introduce them to so many new aspects of diving. I know that retreats will be a big part of my future moving forward, and I can’t wait to share my love of diving and different destinations around the world with many more of you in the future.
Thailand, Egypt, Bonaire, Maui… my mind runs constantly with dreams of future retreat destinations.
What a year! I feel blessed, which I know is an overused word, but there’s little else to describe how I feel when I think about how lucky I am to have had these experiences, to have shared them with you, and to get to live on and explore this incredible, watery planet called Earth.
What dive adventures did you log in 2018? What’s on your itinerary for 2019?