Diving West Palm Beach, FL
My first job out of college was as an Admission Counselor for my alma mater, and this job was when I got extraordinarily used to traveling by myself. I remember awkwardly eating alone for the first time at a little restaurant in downtown Chicago while killing time between high school visits. After that, it became the norm, and I began to appreciate having that alone time in the midst of an extremely busy travel season (which I didn't think could be topped, but I am now convinced there is nothing like Dance Marathon season). Another plus was that I could order a double stack of chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP all by myself, with zero judgement, which certainly happened more than once.
So, that was my thinking when I had the opportunity to attend CMN's Fall Business Meeting in Orlando, FL as work trip. It was a full conference with plenty of workshops, networking, and side meetings. The most valuable aspect of the conference was having the opportunity to talk to other CMN markets, and even though the conference focused on corporate partners, I always found a way to work some Dance Marathon best practices into conversations so that I could learn from others (I also always find a way to talk about Dance Marathon, period). But after three days of meeting so many new people and catching up on emails in between sessions, I was ready to disconnect and take advantage of my stay in Florida.
I rented a car (thank you to the very nice Enterprise guy who upgraded me!) and drove 2.5 hours to West Palm Beach with the windows down and a brand new Spotify playlist. I love driving. I will gladly drive for any road trip, as long as I have good music and can comfortably cruise at 80 mph.
Hotels in WPB - even the super average ones - were at least $100 a night, and I needed a place to stay for four nights. And there were no hostels, which is always my first try. I had decided to stay at a place I had found through Airbnb. I had only used Airbnb once before for a townhome during a ND football game, but otherwise hadn't had another opportunity to try it out.
I totally lucked out with the Airbnb I selected, but the place had great reviews to begin with anyways. First off, it was only $61 a night. When I was first considering a mini-vacation in Florida, I almost backtracked because hostels were nonexistent and a Holiday Inn costs $130/night (a Super 8 motel cost $64/night!).
So I am definitely happy with my $61/night, considering everything that was included: my own private bedroom and bathroom with a minifridge (stocked with yogurt and english muffins), a toaster, microwave, organic fruit, granola cereal, and a desk for work. And a bowl of chocolates and tootsie rolls, which I ate all of by the second night. The home was also 3 minutes away from Starbucks, Panera Bread, Wal-Mart, etc and only 20 minutes away from the marina where I was scuba diving. Easy.
My hosts were Aleta and Dave. They were in their sixties and they had literally traveled the world in a sailboat. A freakin sailboat. There were pictures all around their house, of the actual sailboat and of the places they had been. They lived for 6 years in Thailand. 5 years in India. 3 years in the Philippines. Their home was simple and clean - Aleta told me they wanted a small place that was affordable so that they could still travel to SEA a few times a year. Literally, I was looking at myself at age 60. At least I hope so. They were very kind and allowed me to keep to myself - I was usually either sleeping/napping, watching Netflix, or doing homework when I wasn't diving. That's how it typically works with an Airbnb - you're given a housekey and just come and go as you please, doing your own thing. So it's not like I was eating meals with them or constantly had to interact with them. I'll definitely be trying Airbnb again in the future.
As for the diving, I had originally chosen the dive company with a friend whom I had met in Thailand. He was going to come to Florida with me, but ended up not being able to go because he couldn't miss grad school, which I understand when said grad school is MIT...
One of the reasons we decided on the dive company was because the Dive Master fee was included in the diving fee. In Thailand, there was always a Dive Master (the DM actually dives with the group and points out cool fish and makes sure everyone descends/ascends safely) and there wasn't in extra fee. In the US, they try to squeeze every penny out of you, so they charge extra for a DM. If you don't have a DM, you are essentially just diving on your own, whether you've dived 20 times or a 100 times. Which is great for people who are advanced and familiar with the dive sites, but I would have had no idea where to go 60 feet below the surface.
Anyways! I dove four times while in WPB. The first dive was actually really cool. It was at Blue Heron Bridge, which is one of the best shore dives (you enter from the shore instead of off of a boat) in the country. It was a good way for me to get used to being back in the water. In Thailand, I dove every day, with the same dive company, the same equipment, the same instructors, the same DMs. I was nervous that I going to suddenly forget how to scuba diva or that diving would somehow be different in Florida than it was in Thailand... It's not. Diving is diving is diving. As long as you've got a regulator, you're good to go.
Blue Heron Bridge was a shallow dive BUT THERE WAS SO MUCH TO SEE! I was amazed at how much marine life was teeming its shallow depths, right under a huge highway overpass. The DM was really nice and pointed out a lot of neat things during the dive, but she also poked at and touched a lot of marine life. She would shake shells to see if there was a crab in them and picked up a huge starfish so I could touch it. I don't think you should touch anything while diving and this was something that I learned with Roctopus in Thailand. I always want to cause the least amount of disturbance while diving, so I keep my hands to myself and just look. This is also because I witnessed my Roctopus instructor angrily yell underwater at and flip off a tourist who was skewering a piece of coral. So, there's that.
The next morning I had scheduled three dives, so the boat loading time was 6am. But the sea was calm, the sun was out, and there were only three of us diving. Probably one of the most spectacular moments was when we realized a pod of dolphins was following our boat - there were seven of them and you could hear them communicating to one another. They were so close that I could see scars on their dorsal fins from being hit by boats. It was a really, really cool moment to be apart of, if only a little surreal to see them against the backdrop of the West Palm Beach skyline.
There was a hurricane coming in that weekend, so the waves were a little choppy and the current was extremely strong. We descended for our first dive but within a few minutes, it was clear that we were only surrounded by sand. Lots of sand. There were no reefs or coral. The DM kept swimming around and looking at her compass, but I got frustrated and communicated (by lots of agitated hand movements) that it is was bad drop; as in, the boat had dropped us off at the wrong place. She agreed and we ascended. We tried again after the boat captain re-positioned the boat, but again, we were looking at a whole lot of sand. We were swimming for another 10 minutes before I decided to ascend - we were wasting good oxygen tanks! We never found the dive site and I was a little peeved that we were still charged for three dives, even though we technically only dived two sites.
However, the last two dives did make up the mishap! Somewhat. The current was still really strong and the visibility was poor due to the sand being churned up. But we dove a really cool shipwreck and I SAW THE BIGGEST SEA TURTLE EVER. IT WAS HUMONGOUS. I kid you not, it was as long as my body (well over 5 feet). None of us had a Go Pro or camera on us, but I was somewhat relieved because I was less distracted because I wasn't carrying around a camera. We also saw a HUGE grouper. Groupers like to hang out creepy shipwrecks - I saw some big ones in Thailand. This grouper was the daddy of them all, though. It was massive. So I just have the memory in my head, but I'm content with that.
I was really happy to get some dives in, but I ended up cancelling my Sunday dives because the waves were getting choppier and I honestly did not want to wake up at 6am again. Plus, diving in WPB was expensive. I still can't get over the fact that I was paying $20/dive in Thailand. My one tank shore dive in WPB cost $75 and the three dives on Saturday cost $150, even with the bad drop. They also charged me a cancellation fee ($35) for backing out on Sunday. So even though the flight to Florida was paid for because of the work conference and the rental car was free due to my points, I still spent $673 on the trip overall. It was worth it for the long weekend and to have some time to myself, but I hate paying costs like that when I know I can do the same thing for cheaper elsewhere.
Between the scenic drives, diving for the first time since getting certified, and finding an amazing Airbnb, I couldn't have asked for a better weekend for myself. Hopefully the next time I dive in Florida, it will be in the Keys!