Thursday, January 28, 2010

Night diving at the RMS Rhone

Scuba diving opens a totally new perspective on how we view ourselves in relation to our surroundings, so it would seem to be a natural direction to explore the water as the sun says its goodbye and as the moon really starts to glow. Actually, I would prefer to go on a night dive rather than a day dive. Why? Because at night, the sea is totally transformed and there are things underwater that you can only see at night. It's like seeing Times Square on New Year's Eve in NYC for the first time at night after walking around it during the daytime in the summer.
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A few days ago we had the chance to dive the world famous RMS Rhone, a mail-carrying steamer that sunk in 1867. This wreck is consistently ranked among the top wrecks to dive in the world and easily in the top 3 of the Caribbean. Colin and I made the dive on a clear Friday night with a great group of divers from Mississippi, whom we'd dove with several times over the years. Colin gave a great briefing as the sun set behind Salt Island, including the history and events leading up to the ship's eventual fate under the ocean, and we finally entered the water around 8pm.

The dive was absolutely fantastic. As we explored the outline of the wreck, we ran into several huge pufferfish, saw a lot of reef fish and their behaviors at night, and countless other really cool animals. The behavior of the fish on the wreck changes as the sun goes down, too! For example, a s toplight parrot fish will actually secrete a slime-like substance from it's mouth and coat itself in a thick layer of it, then lay on its side sleeping during the night. Also, the lobster and various crabs that are usually in hiding during the day can be seen curiously combing the top of the wreck for food using the cover of darkness to protect them. I actually had a huge hawksbill turtle completely sneak up on me while I was looking over the bright red and purple corals coating the Rhone's structure. I briefly looked down and his watermelon sized head was a few feet below my weightbelt buckle! A really fun thing to do, if the moon and tides are right for it, is to completely turn out everyone's lights for a minute or two. Let your eyes dilate and adjust to the darkness, and then flail your arms and legs wildly and watch them illuminate with the biofluorescent creatures surrounding you in the water. Everybody appears to have a surreal blue glow surrounding their bodies! You will also see all kinds of blinking and shining creatures floating around in the ocean around you, and it almost looks like stars in the night if you look out away from the group.

If you get the opportunity to make a night dive anywhere, but especially the Rhone with Captain Colin, seize it. A fe w things to remember: 1. Orient yourself with the dive site and pay attention to your briefing; 2. Pay particular attention to your dive buddy at night; 3. Carry a good dive light, then carry one more for backup. After that, enjoy your experience and keep your head on a swivel because you never know what you will see!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Protect Our Reefs

Coral reef ecosystems, around the world but particularly those around the BVI, deserve special attention and effort to protect our natural heritage. They play an important role in sustaining biological diversity, global biogeochemical cycles, and the economies of many countries, as well as incredible potential for new pharmaceuticals. Our business depends on taking our guests to pristine coral gardens covered by tropical fish, turtles, rays, etc! Despite these values, many coral reefs around the world are being rapidly degraded.

We've had quite a "rum front" in the BVI this weekend, so I'm taking a break from all our diving and adventures. This blog post is dedicated to tips for keeping the reef healthy, and any single one of these that you can practice can make a difference in keeping our reefs pristine for future generations.

1. Support reef-friendly businesses. Ask what your dive shop, boating store, tour operators, hotel and other coastal businesses are doing to save the coral reefs. This is especially important in coastal areas with reefs. Let them know you are an informed consumer and care about reefs.

2. Don’t use chemically enhanced pesticides and fertilizers. Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products end up in the watershed and may ultimately impact the waters that support coral.

3. Volunteer for a reef cleanup. You don’t live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the world’s treasures while helping to preserve it for future generations.

4. Learn more about coral reefs. How many different species live in reefs? What new medicines have been discovered in reef organisms. Participate in training or educational programs that focus on reef ecology. When you further your own education, you can help others understand the fragility and value of the world’s coral reefs.

5. Become a member of your local aquarium or zoo. Ask what they are doing and what your donation can do toward saving the world’s coral reefs. The answer may pleasantly surprise you.

6. When you visit a coral reef, help keep it healthy by respecting all local guidelines, recommendations, regulations, and customs. Ask local authorities or your dive shop hot to protect the reef.

7. Support conservation organizations. Many of them have coral reef programs, and your much-needed monetary support will make a big difference.

8. Spread the word. Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet’s coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Sharing this excitement gets everyone you speak with involved.

9. Be an informed consumer. Consider carefully the coral objects that you buy for your coffee table. Ask the store owner or manager from what country the coral is taken and whether or not that country has a management plan to insure that the harvest was legal and sustainable over time.

10. Don’t pollute. Never put garbage or human waste in the water. Don’t leave trash on the beach.

11. Recycle. This is the first step each of us can take to make a change. Recycle anything and everything. If your community doesn’t have a program, do it anyway, and get one started.

12. Conserve water. The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater that eventually finds its way back into our oceans.

13. Report dumping or other illegal activities. Environmental enforcement cannot be everywhere, and your involvement can make a big difference.

14. Keep it clean. You may be in the habit of picking up your own trash. You may even participate in an organized cleanup. But have you considered carrying away the trash that others have left behind?

15. Only buy marine aquarium fish if you know they have been collected in an ecologically sound manner. In some areas, marine fish harvested for the pet trade, are stunned with sodium cyanide so that capturing them is easier.

16. Surf the net! Many different addresses exist to link you to information about coral reefs and what you can do to become involved. A good starting point is at http://www.noaa.gov/public-affairs/coral-reef.html

17. Don’t start a liverock aquarium. Although this living rock is still harvested legally in some places, its collection is devastating to the reef organisms habitat.

18. Hire local guides when visiting coral reef ecosystems. Not only do you learn about the local resources, but you will be protecting the future of the reef by supporting a non-consumptive economy around that reef.

19. Don’t anchor on the reef. If you go boating near a coral reef, use mooring buoy systems when they are available.

20. If you dive, don’t touch! Take only pictures and leave only bubbles! Keep your fins’ gear, and hands away from the coral, as this contact can hurt you and will damage the delicate coral animals. Stay off the bottom because stirred-up sediment can settle on coral and smother it.

21. Participate in the Great American Fish Count. What better way to enjoy your vacation time than snorkeling or diving in America’s coral reefs and helping scientists better understand reef fish populations?

22. Volunteer. Volunteer and community coral reef monitoring programs are very important. If you do not live near a coast, get involved in your local save the river (bay, lake, or other estuarine environment) program. Remember, all watersheds affect the oceans and eventually the coral reefs.

23. Support the creation and maintenance of marine parks and reserves. Encourage your friends to get involved with projects to protect special areas.

24. Be a wastewater crusader! Make sure that sewage from your boat, from others’ boats, and from land is correctly treated. The nutrients from sewage feed growing algae that can smother and kill corals.

25. Inform yourself. Find out about existing and proposed laws, programs, and projects that could affect the world’s coral reefs.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Needle in a Hay Stack

Last Sunday, I experienced one of the most rewarding diving experiences of my life, and it didn't come on one of the many spectacular reefs or shipwrecks around the BVI either. It happened on an 11 minute dive in 25 feet of water on a sandy, uninteresting bottom just outside of Trellis Bay. I recovered a diamond wedding ring that was lost off the back of a chartered catamaran the night before!

A couple contacted BVI Scuba Co. about the lost ring and asked us to try to recover it. Although we have plenty of experience on search and recovery jobs (and I personally love doing them myself), we explained that the typical lost object is a pair of nice sunglasses or a larger boat part and that the chances of finding a small, quickly sinking object such as a ring are remote at best, but we were definitely willing to give it our best effort and search for it until the sun goes down.

The reason the ring is so special is not because of its monetary worth (although it was a very nice ring), but because of the sentimental value attached to it. The stones in the wedding ring originally belonged to Kathy's grandmother, the were reset by Kathy's father into another ring with a clasp so that her grandmother could still remove it and put it on depsite her problems with arthritis. The ring was passed down through the generations and eventually landed on Kathy's finger as her own wedding band.

I arrived at the coffee shop in Trellis Bay to meet Bruce, who then drove me out to the catamaran in the dinghy with all my dive gear and tanks to start the search. I could already tell the loss was a big deal when every boat we passed asked us if they had found the ring yet and wished us all luck. I was definitely feeling the pressure at this point! After the whole party gave their best recollection of exactly where the ring might be, and I judged the wind speed, current, and how the boat's position may have changed since the previous evening, I dove to the bottom and quickly realized the chance of finding the ring is optimistically 1 in 1,000,000! There was a decent current on the bottom, the sandy bottom was very uniform and indistinguishable, and the initial search area was at least going to be about a 50 foot square.

I spent the majority of the dive making the most accurate grid possible with my compass and rubbish I found on the bottom (broom handles, snorkels, beer bottles, etc.), and was prepared to spend an hour or two sifting through the sand and employing making my best effort to find the ring. Suprisingly (or luckily you could say), within 2 kicks of from my northwest corner of the grid, I noticed no more than 1/2 inch of the rings clasp barely poking out of the sand. "No way this is it!" I thought. I pulled it out, it matched Kathy's description perfectly, and it sparkled in the sunlight coming down through the water. I was so excited that I literally laughed hysterically underwater. I knew Kathy would be absolutely elated too.

I casually made it to the ladder to the boat and started removing my fins and gear as I told Kathy and Bruce about the bottom appearance and my difficulty navigating with the current. Kathy's hand were around her mouth as Bruce asked me what my plan do next was. I waited til I boarded the boat to reply then said, "Well I'm not sure, it's going to be tough to find anything down there, but I did come up this pretty nice ring..."

The two families were sailing the BVI for a week, all close friends in Ohio and together because the two fathers were college roommates. Most of them were over in the dinghy at a dock near Marina Cay about 100 yards away, and rushed back saying they could hear the screams and laughter all the way over there! So after only 11 minutes in the water, we spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating and taking pictures and leaping off the boat, and I met some great new friends and a great story. It's such an amazing feeling to be able to recover something so valuable and sentimental for someone when the chances of finding it are like finding a needle in a hay stack.