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Member Since 02 Sep 2004
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Turks and Caicos Explorer II

29 September 2008 - 06:03 PM

With a certain amount of trepidation we stepped aboard the Turks and Caicos Explorer II and joined the future stars of the dive industryís first reality TV show.

The fine print on the Wetpixel / Liquid Assets trip on board the Turks and Caicos Explorer II read ďReality television as no one has ever seen it: chronicling the highs and lows of a live-aboard dive crew as it unfolds...a month in the life of a captain, purser, engineer, dive crew and diving guests. The dramatic interaction that unfolds between them has, until now, gone virtually unpublicizedĒ. In the UK, where I come from (although I now live in Boston, MA), the words Ďrealityí and Ďtví when put together are not synonymous with personal integrity or particularly inspiring to anyone with an IQ greater than that of a sponge (no offense to sponges... youíre doing a great job guys). Having been on a number of liveaboards across our oceans, I had visions of artificially heightened tensions, set up conflicts and Big Brother at sea.

Hurricane Ike had clattered into the Turks and Caicos almost two weeks earlier, damaging 80% of houses on Grand Turk and affecting property throughout the island chain. Fortunately, the island of Providenciales where the boat was based, appeared to have escaped relatively lightly, but even then as we travelled from the airport to our first night hotel, we could see the torn roofs and damaged road signs that accompanied us up the island.

The Turks and Caicos Explorer II, refitted and renovated in 2007, had avoided Hurricane Ike in the Dominican Republic and escaped unscathed.
The boat was well set up with a roomy dive deck which comfortably served 20 divers with air and Nitrox fills which varied daily from 32-36%.

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The salon air conditioning had been impacted by a faulty compressor and struggled to keep the area pleasantly cool, which sent many people upstairs to the first sun deck or further up to the third deck to take advantage of the welcome sea breezes. We stayed in an upper deck cabin, which was very clean, with separate air conditioning and plenty of cat swinging storage space.

When you go diving 13 days after a Hurricane has blown through, you donít expect to get great visibility, and that was pretty much the theme for the week. Back scatter was the most photographed model and conditions tested most photographers and cameras on board - and there were many. Get close, or have fun - the most successful shots of the week were macro shots or silhouettes of divers or sharks against the sun. A compass was the critical piece of kit with every dive being a refresher course in navigation and a few dives being cut short by some because of disorientation or simply lack of anything to see.

The boat itself has a unique attribute - itís a swinging boat... Now I donít mean in the car keys in a bowl in the center of the room kind of swinging (sorry if thatís a disappointment!) I mean in the sense that it was a moving target which added a unique challenge to the navigation. The T&C Explorer II swings nearly 180 degrees about its mooring. So if you donít look where you are in the course of that swing when you jump in, you might find yourself somewhere other than where you planned during the dive briefing. If you have ever had problems locating a boat on a night dive, imagine trying to find one in less than 15ft vis, that appears for a few seconds every 5 minutes or so and then disappears off into the cloudy water. When you did follow the sounds of the boat ladders, or were clever enough to know where in the radius the boat was going to appear, you could grab the hang line and be treated to the roller coaster ride of being towed through the water at warp speed - it had been clocked at a little over 2 knots on the bow - if someone has the time and inclination, they might like to work out what that means for the stern of a 124 foot boat. Much fun was to be had on the safety stop, from the flying Superman pose,the multi-person fin chain or the reverse camera tow :-)

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A great addition was the daily photo competition which added an excellent dimension to the days diving, with everyone hunting down the best shark photo, indigo hamlet, silhouette, comedy photo or diver photo . Itís something I will suggest on every liveaboard as it really bought people together in the evenings and, with the poor vis, gave everybody a challenge or a different skill to practice in the quest for the winning shot.

Like most liveaboards, itís the people you are with that make of break the experience. The group of people who had decided to join the trip were not the star struck wannabees I had imagined might be attracted to the presence of a film crew, but some of the nicest, funniest and most down to earth Americans I have had the pleasure to dive with.

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For this particular week, sponsored by Wetpixel, the addition of Shawn Heinrichs certainly added a welcome dimension of photography masterclass, advice on editing in Aperture and an eye opening perspective on the state of our oceans. It seems he's also quite the joker...

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Shawn is passionate about shark and marine conservation, a passion shared by the crew of Liquid Assets TV, and off gas times were spent watching some of the most moving and informative films about our oceans and the creatures man exploits. If you havenít seen Sharkwater (http://www.sharkwater.com/), it brings together an incredible view of how sharks are being senselessly wiped out in order to fuel the sharkfin soup demand and efforts to stop it are being hampered by alleged corruption at government levels. It showcases the efforts of those trying to make a difference and brings together a great deal of information into a single, powerful and often distressing source. Itís difficult to watch, but a must see.. Everyone can do something to make a difference, whether itís not ordering something on a restaurant menu, or helping to fund the organisations that are trying to make people aware of whatís happening to our oceans. I have been successful in getting shark taken off the menu at one of the largest UK commercial caterers by making the people that create policy and dictate purchasing decisions aware of the information that they otherwise wouldnít be aware of. Get reading and be informed. Another film to check out is that of Mark Santa-Maria, the camera man with Liquid Assets, which uncovered the less than ethical operations of some Manatee tour operators in the Crystal River area of Florida. (). OK, short rant over, back to the main feature...

For me, the thing that I couldnít help noticing on nearly every dive, was the decaying condition of the coral on the dive sites that we visited. It was not only coral bleaching, but coral clearly dying.

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I saw amazing cascades of what was clearly once stunning coral formations, but couldnít help seeing that much of it now appeared to be rock, not coral. I likened it to taking a tour around the forum in Rome - seeing the ruin of what was clearly once something magnificent with the occasional beautifully preserved mosaic or frescoe. Having said that, due to the weather, I know we were restricted to just a small portion of the wonderful diving that is available in the TCI - if there is anyone reading that went the wee before, Iím told they witnessed some fabulous dive sites... The highlight for me though was the shark encounters that we had - and there were many. Carribean reef sharks coming in close, and often. The particles in the water made photographing the magnificent creatures somewhat infuriating,

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but I still find every shark sighting an exhilarating experience. Bringing everything that I have discussed in the last paragraph right on to our door step (dive deck?) though was the news on the final morning that the T&C police had caught a poaching boat in T&C waters. I only have this information second hand, but I was told that there were also shark fins found on the boat. Iím told that the film crew were able to get footage...

Despite my initial fears, the reality tv cameras were very unobtrusive to the guests and certainly didnít impact the service delivered by the crew on board.

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There was no guest baiting, no hidden cameras in the toilet and no suggestions of nude diving... The crew of the T&C Explorer II were good humored and extremely attentive, despite having one member down due to an infection, a broken compressor, a broken toe and and an irretrievable regulator situation on the first dive! I would be happy to go on another trip with Liquid Assets and am hoping to keep in touch with the crew - knowledgable, professional, and fun!

Film crew or no film crew, I would recommend a week aboard the Explorer II. Great boat, great crew and great company. Oh, and the first liveaboard that Iíve ever been on where all of he drinks are included in the price... :-)

Thanks to everyone involved for a great trip and look out for for more information on the documentary at www.liquidassets.tv