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Malaphax
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I may have mentioned previously but a few years back I got my scuba certifications (Open Water, Advanced Open Water and Enriched Air Nitrox).  I did my diving/education in Turks and Caicos on vacation and Bali for Nitrox training. 
I've wanted to continue doing scuba diving on any tropical vacations, but sadly there was a small issue of a global pandemic that put some plans on hold. 

As things are starting to slowly open back up, I decided to sign up for a local dive here in California, I dragged kuhla along with me. 
I had never dived locally and didn't know what to expect so I rented a thick 7mm wetsuit and tried to keep an open mind. 

We went diving out on the oil rigs near Long Beach, specifically Eureka and The Twins.  Overall I had a great time and got 3 solid dives in. 

  • The water in California is quite cold, it varied from 59° to 55° during the dives.  I was warm for the first dive, but on the second dive we hit a thermocline at around ~70' and that's when it dropped to 55° and was noticeably colder.  The third dive I felt fine, but I did start shivering about halfway through.  It didn't ruin the dive for me but I was definitely starting to get cold. 
    • I didn't have a hood, but I suspect that could have helped with the cold.  I didn't get anything obvious like brain-freeze but it would be an easy way of keeping warm. 
  • The ocean was pretty rough - it got progressively worse as the day went on.  Half the boat was puking (myself included) and the third dive was a bit rushed because of the rough seas. 
    • I was fully kitted up and doing the penguin walk to the back of the boat for the second dive when the urge took me.  Puking into your regulator isn't pleasant, but it didn't stop me from doing the dives or ruin the day. 
  • While the first dive was pretty sloppy, I did feel like I was getting my bearings back during the 2nd and 3rd dives.  There was some persistent surge, both horizontal and vertical, which made me feel a bit uncertain about my buoyancy but overall I still felt safe and reasonably competent. 
    • I definitely have room to improve, from doing a better job of setting up my gear pre-dive, to handling my buoyancy better. 
  • The Rigs themselves basically have no bottom (the bottom is 700' for Eureka and ~350' for The Twins.  I have had some form of sandy bottom for most of my dives, although there were some reef walls in Turks and Caicos that appeared bottomless. 
    • The super structure of the rigs is pretty massive, with the cross braces looking like they were 2' in diameter and some of the main structures looking thicker than that.  You also have to be careful since the structure can also be overhead, I mostly avoided bumping into the structure and considering the surge and my experience level, I'd count that as a win. 
    • The visibility was solid, probably 40', which was good enough for me.  It was noticeably darker than the dives I'd been on previously, both of the more experienced divers had lights. 

This video isn't mine, but it's very recent and shows some of the same dives on the rigs. 

The local shop I used for this trip was also mentioning some dives at wreck ally in San Diego in another month or two.  I'll probably be interested in that as well. 

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  • 5 weeks later...

Semi-Organized dump of random information, thoughts and research. 

Scuba Gear:
BCD - The internet says that jacket style BCDs aren't good anymore and you should use a backplate and wing (BPW) setup.  After some research I can agree with that assessment.  BPW setups generally provide better trim by forcing you into a more horizontal diving position and allow for substantial customization because you can place D-rings, pockets and weight pouches where you want and not just wherever the jacket BCD has available.  The few advantages I've seen for jacket style BCDs are that they have more storage capacity and they provide more comfort, especially on the surface - doesn't seem like a great tradeoff to me. 
Current front runner for that setup looks like this: https://www.divegearexpress.com/dgx-custom-dgx-singles-harness-backplate-wing-package
Some minor considerations about BPW are the backplate material.  I see plenty of people suggesting anything cold water should be stainless steel and considering my size/weight and need for lead regardless of water conditions, I'm inclined to go with stainless.  Aluminum is ~3lbs and stainless ~5.5lbs, seems like a no brainer to go with stainless because the math says I'll never be able to dive without at least that amount of lead on me.  The soft plate options don't appeal at all, even for travel.  I briefly considered some options with more adjustable harnesses, but the only real advantage for those is the ease of donning/doffing which is nice, but you do lose some level of customization.  Nice thing about BPW being so modular is that if I find a standard single piece harness to be frustrating, I could switch it out with an adjustable harness without much issue. 

Regulators - There's 2 standards for regulator connections, Yoke (international) and DIN (GERMAN STEEL).  This isn't really much of a choice because DIN is not only a newer/better standard, but you can buy a $20 DIN to Yoke adapter.  You can't adapt Yoke to DIN without literally rebuilding the regulator.  Almost all the major manufacturers offer both styles but DIN seems to be winning out.  Also most tanks are now sold with a pressure port that has a DIN insert, so a dive center can accommodate your DIN connector easily and then swap it back to Yoke in about 30 seconds.  Obviously any purchase I make would be DIN and then I'll throw in for the adapter just in case. 

I also read plenty about cold water rated regulators, since California waters are considered cold water.  One point of consideration is environmentally sealed regulators (diaphragm) vs non-sealed regulators.  An environmentally sealed reg has some advantages, especially if you're diving in silty/gross conditions, but I don't really plan on doing that.  There's other differences like piston vs diaphragm or balanced vs unbalanced, but most of what I was looking at was balanced and cold water capable.  Most cold water regulators are heavier construction with some heat exchange fins.  There are other features like a swivel turret that seem present on most moderate to high end regulators, or 2 high pressure ports.  I do like the idea of getting 2 identical second stages.  I think that makes more sense than cheaping out on a lower quality octo.  Also I think the braided hoses are a cool upgrade, they're substantially lighter and more flexible, the only complaint I've read is that they're more neutrally buoyant in the water, so they can get a bit floaty compared to rubber hoses. 

I saw some weird brand recommendations. 
Option A - many people on various internet forums seem to have high praises for a small ODM based out of Florida.  They're not super cheap (still cheaper than major brands at retail prices) and they also include the first service for free.  The downside is that you're probably going to struggle finding a local tech to service the regs, so you're basically stuck with mailing it back to them.  More importantly, since this is a small shop, I have some concerns if this place would ever go out of business or stop supporting these regulators. 
https://www.deep6gear.com/signature-recreational-single-tank-regulator-package.html
Option B - knockoffs (kinda).  Dive Gear Express again has their own regulators, which they flat out admit are basically rebadged scubapro mk25 & g260 products made at the same manufacturer (WMD) in Taiwan.  Aside from the fact that this is once again a much cheaper option, there's also some appeal that even if the seller went out of business, you could probably find a scubapro tech to service this equipment.  Additional bonus is that Dive Gear Express is a huge proponent of right-to-repair and sells parts kits for all their products. 
https://www.divegearexpress.com/dgx-gears-xtra-streamlined-ow-reg-package
Option C - is HOG, they're also Florida based and are well respected.  They offer regulator servicing classes for people (not just resellers) which could end up being an option although that scares me more than a little. 
https://www.divers-supply.com/hog-d3-din-env-w-zenith-reversible-regulator-set.html
Option D - is to go with a more traditional name.  I see plenty of respect for Apeks, something like the xtx50 is a strong recommendation I saw multiple people make.  I've also heard you can get better pricing buying from a EU based shop and paying the shipping costs.  Alternatively you can go for the new hotness with xdeep's new regulator sets which just released, but again they're EU based so you may need to pay a premium for them here in the US or deal with an international sale.  I suppose you could go with scubapro or mares or something sold by a local dive center, but man do you pay out the ass for that.
If I wanted to roll all the Dive Gear Express purchases into one bundle they offer that as well: https://www.divegearexpress.com/dgx-custom-dgx-singles-harness-backplate-wing-xtra-reg-package

Other stuff:
I'm also seeing a bunch of dive professionals and various organizations (not PADI) start recommending or even requiring a long-hose setup.  I've seen comments and videos extolling the virtues of this setup and I certainly understand the mechanics of it.  But at this point I'm not interested in it.  Aside from the obvious that I'm not trained on it; I feel strongly that since PADI is the largest scuba agency, I'd rather conform to their style so I don't need to give a small lecture to any potential random dive buddy about why I don't have a bright yellow alternate/octo. 
Some of the advantages of a long-hose setup also make less sense for my use case.  The longer hose is designed so that if you're doing wreck penetrations with single file entry, you have enough length to provide the hose to your buddy and still clear the entry without issue.  Guess who isn't a wreck diver? <this guy>  Also in an open water dive, I'd rather the random dive buddy know he can yank a bright yellow hose off of me than have them start pawing at me looking for help, let alone yank the reg out of my mouth. 
Final point, is that hoses can be easily adjusted, you just buy new ones and fit them to your existing gear.  So if at some point the winds of change to swap everyone to a long-hose setup or something like that, it's not a huge deal. 

Wetsuit: This is one of the few things I'd absolutely make a concerted effort to try on in person.  For California diving I'd want 7mm and probably buy a 5mm hood as well.  Some random contenders include: Bare, Henderson (especially their talon line since it's made in america), and others.  There's also some potential considerations of a semi-dry suit which is basically a 7mm on steroids.  I'd prefer to stick to a more reasonably priced suit if possible since this would only be used for California diving.  I also briefly looked into dry suits and immediately decided not to deal with that.  Dry suits are very expensive and require special training, seems like major overkill unless I suddenly decide to start diving every weekend. 

Cutting Tool: https://www.divegearexpress.com/eezycut-line-cutter
That's basically the go to, it's safe, compact and capable of cutting through anything.  I've also seen it come in tons of colors and the blades can be easily replaced. 
Other option is EMT shears.  https://www.divegearexpress.com/dgx-titanium-emt-shears

Compass: https://www.divegearexpress.com/dgx-tech-compass-w-bungee-mount-and-cord
I should probably get one, it's low on the priority list.  I prefer the idea of having a dive guide, but it's arguably a piece of safety equipment. 

There's other stuff like weight pouches, quick release cam bands and other minor considerations that would need to be taken into account, but they're much lower on any priority list. 

This post is a goddamn essay already, I'm just hitting submit. 

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  • 2 months later...

I tested my gear at Catalina last weekend.  I didn't die, and everything seemed to work properly.  I still have some minor adjustments I need to make especially regarding storing accessories, but I'm basically there. 

Catalina was cool, not cold, only 65 by my computer's measurements, but it was crowded as hell.  I've never seen a dive site that crowded before, probably somewhere between 150-200+ divers on site.  Saw a couple of giant black seabass, which was neat.  I felt like the dive guide was a bit of a cowboy.  Overall a good experience, but I'd probably prefer more boat based diving.  I'd like to try out wreck alley down in San Diego / La Jolla, maybe that's a plan for another trip. 

At this point I'm mostly looking to just increase the amount of diving I do before I make any adjustments or look for any additional training.  I'm not expecting this to become an every weekend type of thing, but I do want to try and dive somewhat regularly.

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  • 1 month later...

I just got back from doing some extensive diving in Saba.  I may break more details about the vacation into a separate thread at some point. 

  • Diving wise this pretty good.  Quick stats:
    • 27 total dives, 5 of which were night dives, 1 was a dawn dive.  Every day was 4 day dives & 1 night dive, except the final day which was 1 dawn dive & 1 early morning dive.
    • 21 hours and 40 minutes spent underwater in 6 days of diving
    • Deepest of 96.6' - average of 63.3' | Longest dive of 1 hour - average of 48 minutes
    • All diving was done on 32% Nitrox
  • Water temp was 83 the entire time, so I went with just a long sleeve rash guard and board shorts. 
  • Visibility for the first 4 days was poor, some dives were 20' and others were a bit better at 30' - however on the last 2 days some current must have run through and the visibility jumped to 100'+ arguably the best visibility I've ever experienced - I say 100+ because you honestly couldn't make good estimates with visibility that good, one dive guide suggested it could be as much as 200'+.  You could look down from the boat and see the reef at 70' no issue, that night dive was so clear the only limit on visibility was the range on my flashlight. 
  • Night Dives - I had never done them before now I have 5 under my belt.  They're certainly unique, probably not my favorite but I did see some bio-luminescent squid.  I didn't bother with the gopro on the night dives because gopro's have notoriously bad low light performance and I didn't feel like juggling a dive light, my buoyancy controls and a camera all at once. 
  • Very little in the way of rough conditions, only a few drift dives, most were static. 
    • EXCEPT - one dive where we had absolutely ripping current.  That dive actually had me a bit concerned for my safety.  The current was so strong the group was almost blown off the dive site, and we all had to make a very challenging swim back to the mooring line.  I flat out dropped to the sandy bottom and half swam half clawing along the bottom.  I did get to the mooring line first and started pulling other people onto the line - until I realized I had blown through most of my gas and had to make a fairly swift exit after my safety stop.  For reference I was normally making it back to the boat with between 400 - 1000 psi remaining but that dive I was down to 250, some group members made it back lower than that, I think two people said they were at 190 and 110 (yikes).
  • Gear held up very well - I got some genuine compliments from two of the dive guides for a "clean" setup
    • Still need to do some additional tuning, I think I'm going to try going back to my shorter SPG hose and mount another d-ring on my belt behind a weight pocket. 
    • Dive light was fantastic, during the day I could quickly turn it up to full to help point out something interesting, night dives I did on the lowest setting and it was plenty to navigate by. 
    • Dive computer is an absolute monster - took the 6 days of diving ~22+ hours of on time and was still reading 60% battery life.
    • Fins chewed up my feet, need to invest in some lycra socks or very thin neoprene booties - the small booties I brought were too large to use with my travel fins. 

I'll add or edit more later if I remember something worthwhile. 

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Some additional details about the mechanics of my live-aboard trip to Saba. 

I was on a boat (115' long), arrived in St. Martin on Saturday afternoon, checked in on the boat Saturday evening for dinner, and then the boat made 2-3 hour crossing to Saba.  I was informed at dinner that the last crossing back had been rough, ~7/10 and that I should take some anti-nausea medicine and go to my room, turn out the lights and hang on for dear life.  It was in fact a very rough crossing.  Once we woke up the following day we settled into the wake up, dive, eat, dive more and sleep pattern for the duration of the trip.  The schedule looked something like: wake up at 6:30, breakfast, dive 1, snack, dive 2, lunch, dive 3, snack, dive 4, dinner, night dive, shower, maybe a nightcap and then sleep.  The boat itself did not have any sort of stability system (some new ones do) and really did rock constantly and significantly.  It wasn't uncommon to see both guests and crew stumble or catch their balance quite often, or see some utensils slide off a plate during meal times.  There were also some very narrow stairs, and I found myself using the hand railings whenever I was going up or down the stairs. 
As we were on a boat near a relatively remote island, I had basically zero cell service until day 4 when we were within site of a port town on Saba - this didn't bother me as I was expecting zero internet for the entire duration on the boat.  The point of most liveaboard ships is to sail to places further afield than most dayboats, so I suspect most of them have very limited internet connectivity - some probably have satellite internet and are willing to sell access to guests for additional fees. 

The boat can handle 18 guests (9 rooms with double occupancy), I was on with 7 guests and 7 crew (captain, 1st mate, cook, engineer, 3 dive guides).  Everyone had their own room and frankly it would have been an unpleasant experience if I had to share a room with another person.  The other 6 guests I was with were all from northern California and part of a group, which was fine - no issues getting along and almost all of them were more experienced divers than I was, one being a master diver and another being a dive master/instructor.  The other guests were all 60+ so there was a clear age gap, I've heard liveaboards tend to skew older, and I wasn't surprised by this.  The only issue I had was the group took ages to suit up and get into the water, one of the dive guides even complained to me about it saying we were the slowest group he'd had.  4 out of 7 guests completed all 27 dives (this includes me) and the other 3 only missed 1-2 dives each. 

The accommodations were spartan but reasonable.  However the cabins themselves were very small.  My cabin was on the lower deck near the middle of the ship.  The bathroom was a marine toilet complete with "oh shit" handle (which you genuinely need when the boat is rocking hard) and a shower smaller than some coffins I've seen.  The shower was in fact so small, I could not stand up straight.  The shower also had no temperature control, the water was hot, but you have a simple on/off lever.  Likewise the AC in the room had no temperature control, with a simple damper that you could close/open slightly - I found the AC a bit on the cold side at night but the provided bedding was enough to keep warm.  The lower bunk bed was wider than the top bunk, but it was roughly 14" between the bottom bunk and the top bunk, meaning I could not even sleep on my side under the top bunk section, my shoulders were too wide.  Also while I don't consider myself claustrophobic, I wouldn't want to wake up at night in the pitch black with 4 inches between me and the bunk above me.  We were also encouraged to keep the room door open during the day to help let the air circulate throughout the quarters.  There were quite a few low ceilings on the boat and I did bang my head on a few lights and door jams throughout the voyage, but nothing too terrible.  You basically only use the room to hold your bags, get ready and sleep, it was perfectly fine but by no means as nice as some of the resort rooms I've been in. 

The food was very good.  The cook was a relief chef and the crew was thrilled because the usual cook sticks to a set weekly menu (which I can understand could be obnoxious to have week after week for 12 weeks straight), the cook we had was fantastic.  Breakfasts were simple, normally different types of eggs and an option for something unique, like french toast or eggs benedict, you had to option of just asking for simple eggs instead as well as some toast, bagels, cereal and fruit provided.  Lunches were solid with some standouts being taco Tuesday and a greek meal with lamb and various add-ons with pita bread.  Ingredients were fresh with most dinners offering a soup and salad alongside at least 2 different meat options and some veggies.  There was even one meal with filet mignon.  Desert was provided after each dinner, from crem brule to freshly made nutella ice cream and even key lime pie when one guest requested it.  Snacks were generally a variety of freshly baked cookies, fresh fruits, and even granola & yogurt.  The food was good and it was impressive to think that this was being done in a small kitchen while the boat was rocking constantly.  Alcohol was included but you couldn't dive after you started drinking, this was strictly enforced, so people didn't have any drinks until after the night dive.

The dive deck was fine, there was a reasonably sized "camera table" in the middle, as well as plenty of tanks lined up on both sides of the boat.  The water entry was rather high, it looked like a 6 foot drop from the side of the boat into the water.  The rear portion of the dive deck had two sets of very narrow stairs and multiple guests opted to have some or all of their gear/weights removed before climbing up to the main dive deck.  Several group members had very large underwater cameras and lighting setups, these were often lowered into the water after they had jumped in on a special rope/fastener system.  We did do a few live drops and live pick ups which involve everyone lining up to jump off the boat in rapid succession or staying in a tight group while the boat comes past and you grabbing onto a rope at the back before pulling yourself up onto the rear ladders.  Towels were provided and they had some bungee cord and wooden clothes pegs to hang anything wet - warm towels were provided after the night dive.  Again, with 7 people the dive deck was not crowded, but I imagine 18 would have been absolutely cramped as hell.  Tanks were filled on the boat between dives, and we were provided an analyzer to check the oxygen content on all nitrox fills, with the crew requiring we document the percentage and tank pressure before every dive.  The crew would help you if requested but you were generally expected to be able to manage your own equipment in a safe manner. 

Dive guides were solid.  They were knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, including finding a few rare species of very small creatures and pointing it out to the group.  They led the dives well, with a good eye towards safety, including calling one dive when the group was split up in low visibility.  The captain was another fill-in, he was really solid and very much a people pleaser - however he would often talk in circles instead of saying a simple no, which I'm sure he learned from dealing with entitled guests.  The captain also lead some dives and was very experienced dive master in his own right.  I believe all the dive guides were very well credentialed with at least 2 of them having degrees in marine biology or similar, and thousands of dives each.  They were not the most attentive guides I've had, opting more for a hands off approach with an understanding that most of the guests were experienced divers that could be left alone - they very rarely proactively asked your tank pressure, instead opting to have you inform them when you hit half tank or 1000psi depending on the dive.  Most dives used a mooring line and safety stops could be performed on this line, the boat did not have safety stop bars at the bottom of the boat (I've been on boats that have had these).  Some dives included a swim from the mooring line out to a dive site, where the guides would use a reel and lightly filled DSMB on the sandy bottom as a landmark.  While they did request that all divers have a light (and recommended a backup light for night dives) as well as a DSMB, they didn't have much else in the way of equipment requirements.  Only the captain had a non-standard equipment configuration, he had a backplate and wing as well as a long hose setup with an integrated inflator/second stage, everyone else including guides were in a more default recreational setup with yellow octopus hoses and standard jacket style BCDs. 

I did ask for some critiques from the dive guides on my diving.  Most said I was doing quite well considering my ~30 dives I had at the start of the trip, with some mild praise about my buoyancy and trim.  The captain attempted to show me how to fin backwards, I couldn't get it and although it's a rather specific skill I would like to practice my finning technique.  I was overweighted for about half the week and once I resolved that felt like my buoyancy became a bit better - I still have room to improve on this.  My gas consumption was fine, I was never the first one running out during the dives and I was the largest person on the boat, one dive guide even commented that my gas consumption was good for my size.  I have some minor adjustments I still need to make to my gear setup, but it performed quite well.  One thing I noticed is that I needed to really crank on the waist strap otherwise it would hang a bit loose resulting on some of my weight pockets shifting or hanging a bit off my body when horizontal. 

Stuff for next time?  Having experienced a dive trip with 5 dives a day, I have a hard time thinking I'd accept a simple 2 morning dives vacation again.  While it was borderline excessive, I'd rather be offered more diving than deal with empty afternoons.  I'm still a big proponent of nitrox, one group member was on air and had to either cut some of his dives short or float above the group on successive dives, none of the rest of us had to work about no-decompression limits - I also consider it a safety factor (even though PADI gets mad when you say that).  I probably won't push for nitrox on a local dayboat but any sort of repetitive diving I will want to push for nitrox.  I did some brief research regarding liveaboards before this trip (duh) and I have some ideas for what might be next, but I was also told that some dive resorts will do 5 dives a day, so I'll keep an eye out.  Some locations that were recommended to me were: Philippines, Indonesia (Raja Armpat & Komodo), Costa Rica (Socorro islands), Truk Lagoon (holy grail of wreck diving) and Palau.  I also decided to bite the bullet and register with DAN for dive insurance- it wasn't expensive and it covers me when I'm diving here in the US, I still would need separate scuba trip insurance (which I had for this trip) but I feel I should be a responsible adult and make sure I'm properly covered in case I end up needing medical care. 

Minor tangent - I had initially booked a trip to the Bahamas.  About 1.5 weeks before I was set to go, I was told that some fishing boat had rammed the liveaboard late at night (how fucking stupid do you have to be to hit something in the middle of the ocean?).  I had to panic rebook with the Caribbean, and everything worked out well enough.  Wasn't exactly a fun experience to re-book flights and handle travel details on that short of notice - I was lucky that I was using a travel agent and they sorted out some of the details for me.  I'm leaning towards using a travel agent for trips like this moving forward - one of the group members was the travel agent that handles these types of trips and traveling with a group makes a fair bit of sense. 

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 4 months later...

I forgot to post about a day trip I had to Catalina to do some boat diving. 

I was contacted by the woman from northern California I met on my liveaboard trip at Saba - she works as a travel guide and plans multiple scuba trips throughout the year.  She had arranged for 2 days at Catalina and I opted to join them on Sunday for boat diving, since I've done Casino Point before I wanted a bit of a change. 
The boat was ultra crowded, there were 25 divers on the deck all with 3 tanks, they did not do airfills on the boat so 75+ tanks were onboard.  It was a major pain in the ass to shift my gear from one tank to another in-between dives, keep in mind it wasn't just the BCD but also the 26lbs of weight I needed to lift up over the tank and onto the new tank.  I buddied up with a very exuberant dude, didn't have any issues with him.  The diving was mediocre.  The visibility was phenomenal, about 60-80' which is the best I've personally seen in California.  Sadly the actual dives themselves didn't have much going on, very little marine life and a ton of kelp and sargassum (which is basically thinner kelp, think of the seaweed we get on the beaches locally).  I did get tangled at least once, but didn't have an issue extracting myself - I still had my cutting tool in case I was really stuck.  I was again reminded that Catalina operates on "island time" because we were late to depart and didn't even start the first dive until ~10:30.  I feel like I'm getting more comfortable with California diving.  I did get some comments about not wearing a hood, one diver in particular called me crazy - although I didn't feel cold until near the end of the last dive.  I might look into getting a neoprene beanie, but I have very little interest in a traditional scuba hood.  I'm also glad I bought a big water parka for after the dives, that kept me plenty warm on the boat ride back and waiting for the return ferry.  I have to make a very minor adjustment to my scuba gear, but otherwise I'm getting more comfortable with my current setup. 

It was a long day for me but enjoyable. 

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