The Dona Nelly and Deep Six
Growing up in Texas and knowing Texas’ coastal waters fairly well, I had never given diving off South Padre Island much consideration. I had been involved with many commercial dive projects along the coast so I knew what to expect close to shore. The water’s along the Texas coast are murky at best and the thought of paying to dive these same waters was not very appealing. More importantly, I would need to drive 5 ½ hours from Austin, where I live, and the cost of transportation, food and lodging as well as the cost of the dives themselves was roughly $100 less than it would cost to fly to Cancun, Cozumel or even drive to Florida. But, after much consideration, I finally decided to give it a try and see what South Padre had to offer.
I booked my trip through American Diving , a local dive shop in South Padre. And, upon their recommendation, I reserved a room at La Copa Inn Resort located only minutes away. I was told I might even get a break on the price if I let them know who referred me, but once I arrived and conveyed this information, the woman behind the counter only stared as if to say, “so?” During the summer months room rates almost double so expect to pay more. That is just the nature of high session. Rooms at La Copa run $100 a night for double occupancy on weekends and $69 a night during the week.
Overall La Copa was a reasonable choice, but I did have a couple of complaints. The most important was parking. Since beach front property is at a premium on South Padre, parking lots usually extend out in front of the hotels in long narrow strips. This makes transporting your equipment and luggage quite a chore. One item to note; don’t expect to find luggage carts at La Copa. I never saw one the entire weekend. I was told at the front desk they had 3 but they were never available. Even when I inquired at 6:00 a.m. there were none to be had.
This was a serious drawback considering the amount of equipment I had sitting in my truck. I did see one couple who was using a maid’s laundry cart to carry their bags, but when I inquired about it I was told there were none others available.
Another criticism was there claim of providing hi-speed internet access to every room. Since I wanted to post pictures taken during the trip as well as a report on the first day’s dives, having hi-speed access would have been a true advantage. So, when I got to my room only to find it not working I was a little put off. And, when I called the front desk the only suggestion they could offer was to come down stairs and use one of the two complimentary computers near the lobby. Unfortunately, these computers were either always in use or locked up for the night.
As for the rooms themselves; they were clean, comfortable and offered all the regular amenities you would expect including single or double queen beds, microwaves, refrigerators, alarm clocks and TVs. Since I would only be using the room to sleep, La Copa was manageable. I will say having hi-speed internet access would have been a plus, but all in all, it was adequate.
American Diving is owned and operated by Tim O’Leary, head of NAUI’s technical diving division. He is a friendly, knowledgeable, good-natured person. He knows a great deal about diving and about diving safely. He is also one of the few people who can make suggestions about your equipment without sounding arrogant. Tim has lived on the island for many years and knows the area well, and can quickly make snap decisions regarding which sites to dive. Likewise, his crew is professional and understands their role. I was very pleased with their performance, and how well they conducted the dives.
Tim runs 13 recreational dive trips off South Padre Island as well as other technical charters. Individual divers can buy trips for standards rates depending on the site or you can book the entire boat. Prices for the boat are determined by how far offshore you want to go; $1000 for 11-miles; $1500 for 22-miles and to go beyond 22 miles you would need to put up $2000. These prices are fixed however and are not determined by the number of divers brought onboard.
If you need equipment, make sure and have it arranged ahead of time. American Diving is a fully operational dive store so if you forget, loose or just don’t have certain pieces of equipment you can buy or rent what you need. They can provide tanks for $5.00 per fill including any mix of nitrox you are qualified to use, so make sure and bring all your certification cards. You can also use their analyzer if you don’t have your own. They have weights and weight belts which divers can also use, but the weights are not marked so you will have to estimate what you have on the belt.
Before making the trip down, you should always call ahead and make sure the trip is a “Go.” As with any dive service, weather plays a large role. If a trip is to be canceled because of weather, it will be done so one day in advance based on the information at hand. As you book your trip, you will be asked to provide a phone number where they can contact you with updates or to confirm your spot onboard. If the trip is going, they will also give you a brief description of the expected sea conditions, but this can also be found on their website.
The dive boat, Diver 1, is 60 ft long and weighs 48 tons. She can squeeze 17 divers onboard and still ride fairly well in the water. Her configuration is pretty simple; there is a main passenger cabin with 12 bench style seats, a very small closet-style toilet and a wheel house. They provide a fresh water barrel on the forward deck to rinse dive cameras and computers, but there are no fresh water showers onboard. There is a hose with a spray nozzle if you need to rinse off briefly, but their water supply is limited.
The bench seats have enough room to hold gear for two divers, but they are not conducive to non-collapsible containers. Mesh bags or collapsible duffel bags work best. It is also recommended to bring along a “dry bag,” because as divers come in and out of the main cabin, everything inside gets soaked.
One is free to wander about the boat while under way and if you keep on the lookout, you might see a few dolphins in the surrounding waters. On our return from the first day of diving, we were fortunate enough to see a pod of 12-15 dolphins. And, because Tim is a gracious host, he positioned the boat in front of the pod and allowed us to grab our mask, fins, booties and snorkel and jump in after them.
Divers assembled their gear at the marina before leaving the dock. This is just behind where the boat is moored. Each diver is then assigned a number which the crew uses to load and stow their equipment. All gear is stowed on top of the main passenger cabin in the determined sequence so when a number is called, the diver steps to the stern of the vessel to await their equipment. As the diver sits on the dive platform, a member of the crew grabs the diver’s rig on top and lowers it down to a dive master who helps the waiting diver don their gear. Once the seated diver completes a front roll off the platform and gives the “OK” signal to the dive master, they can head for the tag line that is attached to the boat as well as to the mooring line, and then follow it down to the dive site.
To exit the water, divers approach the ladder one at a time. Each diver hands up their fins first and any integrated weights the diver might be using. They then climb up the first two rungs on the exit ladder, where a member of the crew removes the diver’s tank and BC. Once in the main cabin, all divers remove their used tank and hand it out to the crew who place it in the tank rack on top of the boat. They then take a fresh tank and hand it back down to the diver who reattaches it for the next dive. They then hand it all back to the crew who places it back in order on top of the main cabin until needed.
If you use a back plate and wing that also utilizes a crotch strap, donning your equipment while sitting down is not ideal. As they place your rig behind you, you need to lift up for a moment and find the strap and pull it out from under you. As you cinch it up, you don’t get the feeling it is secure and will probably have to retighten it once you enter the water. To exit, you are required to bring the rig up into the main cabin where the crew helps you remove it. But, since Tim and most of his diver masters also use a back plate and wing, he understood this difficulty and allowed me to don my gear in the main cabin the next day and exit off the side using the giant stride. This was much more comfortable and I appreciated this gesture.
One area which needs some improvement is with the orientation to the boat and the safety equipment. Safety procedures were not discussed and the only reason I knew where the life jackets and 02 bottles were located was because I looked for them. There was no mention of first aid equipment, life jackets, life boats, or the ships distress signal (EPIRB). I guess we were just meant to follow the crew’s lead.
The main item of contention was in regards to the ever rotating dive sites. When I first booked my trip, I looked on their website to see what sites they planned to dive. For June 19th they listed the wreck of the Godfather and Lady D and for June 20th they were diving the wreck of the Albatross. So, knowing these sites were fairly deep, 110 ft and 130 ft respectively, I built out my dive profiles appropriately. Over the following week, I continued to monitor the website and looked for additional information regarding these sites. As I did, I noticed the dive to the Albatross had been switched to the wreck of the Dona Nelly, and the order had also been changed so that the deeper dive was now listed for the 19th. So, this meant the mix I had already prepared was wrong meaning I would have to dive shallower than planned if I wanted to keep my PO2 at 1.4. After returning to shore the first day, we again found the second day’s dives had been changed. We were now going to the wreck of the Deep Six and not the Godfather or Lady D. Fortunately, this wreck was lying in about 70 ft of water so our mix was not a problem.
When I asked Tim, he told me honestly each morning he has to look at a whole host of information and try and determine what he feels is the best site for the passengers onboard as well as the weather conditions at hand. Sometime he guesses correctly and sometimes not but it is always with the customer’s best intentions in mind.
The wreck of the Dona Nelly is a completely intact shrimp boat located 20 miles from South Padre Island. She sits in 130 ft of water with her top rigging at 85 ft and her deck at 110 ft. I will admit I was fairly disappointed with this site. During my dives, I had to dive through several different halocline layers, and with the added fresh water that has entered into the Gulf from rain and runoff over the past few weeks the visibility was poor. Above 100 ft visibility was 40-50 ft, but below 100 ft, visibility dropped to under 10.
The Deep Six wreck is an 82 ft shrimp boat located 11 miles from the South Padre Island jetties. This steel hulled wreck lies in 70 feet of water and was reported to have a wide variety of sea life including tropical fish, red snapper, turtles and sting rays. Even though it was shallower, I enjoyed this dive more than that on the Dona Nelly. Here there is a small ecosystem that has already developed on the back deck of the abandoned shrimper. For some reason it reminded me of a scene out of “Finding Nemo.” Still, most of what I saw was small in nature and nothing out of the ordinary. I did not see any rays or turtles. On the first dive, visibility was around 20-30 ft but on the second, conditions deteriorated to where visibility had decreased to 10.
I had already determined that for me to return to South Padre, the dives site I visited would need to be quite engaging to capture my attention. There would be no way I could justify spending the money or time to travel from Austin if the dive sites offered nothing more than my local lake. It would also be very hard to recommend the trip to other divers in my area if I could not find the value myself. So, based on what I experienced, I would probably not go back.
Now, there is one caveat to my conclusion. I would return to dive some of their deeper sites. So for now, I will keep my eye on their website and if an opportunity presents itself to dive something more meaningful, I will call down and book another trip. For those divers who have never been on a true wreck, these sites might serve them well but for any serious wreck divers, these boats have little to offer.