Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lion In Wait

Today, Saturday, is supposed to be the Great Weekly Lionfish Hunt, where the resort sends out its spare dive masters and instructors with sprearpoles to catch as many lionfish as they can.

Ought to be interesting, if they'll let me film it. In fact, they might need my help, because I seem to have a knack for finding the little shits.

Take laswt night. I'm heading out on a dive with my daughter. On our way in, a dive master surfaces and we start chatting. Turns out she's looking for the three lionfish that were reported earlier in the week, to set markers to aid in the search.

Couldn't find them. Mind you these were the same three fish I had found already this week, including one earlier in the day.

Did I mention I'm diving again? Oh, right. I am. My ear problem seems to have mitigated now. I dropped down to 80 feet on my first dive and my second, this one, was to 65 feet to show my daughter the lionfish.

Night diving is an intriguing experience, particularly when some of the predators have learned that "dive lights = exposed prey". We are taught as divers not to shine our lights on fish in the night because there's always a tarpon, grouper or other big fish looking to snare food.

One night last year I was doing a solo dive at night on this same reef, and let my light linger near a small soldierfish too long. A tarpon tried to swoop in and it was only the quick reflexes of the solider fish that got him out of the way. The tarpon swung in, tried to snap the fish up and missed, swimming directly into my mask.

Literally. He was inches away, close enough that I had to take my light and push him aside so I could continue swimming.

Same damn tarpon that shadowed me on this dive. Anyway, I drop to 65 feet looking for the lionfish. My daughter hadn't seen one yet. She had her own issues to deal with that prevented her from diving.

I orient myself with the landmarks and start to search.

Nothing. Not even the hint of one and this one was big, close to five inches long with an additional fin span of two or three inches. You see, Lionfish have developed their dorsal and other fins into an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to use the fins to intimidate prey and predators, turning them into long, sharp venomous needles.

They sacrifice speed and agility, however, which means they're easy to find once you locate them. This guy, ehhhh, seemed to defy that expectation. Usually they only patrol an area a few feet wide.

We span out and begin to scan, drifting slowly up the reef. I have my video camera rig with me. The hot light for this rig can throw a beam that's actually brighter than sunshine at this depth.

Nothing. Scoot up a few feet higher. Still nothing. We shrug and begin to swim off into the current. At about forty feet, out of the corner of my eye, I see my daughter stopped at a coral head, her light fixed on one spot. Not unusual, except my daughter has about 150 dives, most on these reefs, so there are few fish or animals she has not seen. It's not ordinary for her to come to a complete stop and stare.

I glance over and it looks like she's got her eyes on a brittle star.

Brittle stars are a form of starfish that is photophobic: that is, they tend to come out at night to eat and avoid light of any kind, including dive lights.

Then the tentacles start to move. It's not a brittle star. It's the lion fish, out on a coral head instead of under one. The sucker moved 25 feet in the matter of a few hours. That's unusual, to say the least. I turn on my rig and begin filming. He ducks under the coral head. I swim around and find him in the crevice of a split in the head and film him again.

My daughter still has a ribbon to tag the location of lionfish that resorts used to hand out, so I tie it off to a close-by rock outcropping and note the location to report later. Lucky. It's hard to describe a location on a reef without some clear visual clue, like a boat mooring or a piece of trash.

Meanwhile, that damn tarpon is still hovering close by. I keep my light on, hoping he'll scoot in and grab the lionfish, but because lionfish don't swim in the water column much, the tarpon doesn't recognize it as prey.

We turn to go. I shut my light off.

Diving at night has one very unique moment, one that I urge all divers to try at least once: turn off your lights and enjoy the scenery. Near a resort, there's usually enough ambient light to see pretty well anyway (I take my dive lights only to check my air and depth, and to signal to my dive buddy). Out in the blue, a dark dive is a lot of fun. You can't see many fish except for outlines, and when they come in close, you really get a sense of how small and alien you are in this world.

And your every moment is lit up like Vegas as the bioluminscents swirl around your hands and fins. It really is quite spectacular.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ear To The Ground

Lemme see...glands swollen, nose running, throat scratchy...yup! It appears I've caught a cold of some sort! Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be an horrific one so I should be back diving shortly.

Yesterday, I attempted to visit a site that I've dived before by drifting over to it, but that usually meant I was about half-way thru my dive and was about to turn around anyway. I attempted to jump in (so to speak) and drop in on the Cliff site.

Bonaire is pretty unique for a Caribbean island in that it doesn't have deep wall dives, that is to say the coral and reefs slope rather gently down, making Bonaire a very safe place to dive if you worry about falling off into the depth by accident: you just stay a few feet above the reef and you can pretty much go as deep as the PADI police will allow.

Cliff is one of this rare sites that allows you the sensation of flying, even if it bottoms out at about 55 feet. It is a wall to be sure (along with the Small Wall site, practically next door) and so you can get a sense of wall diving in a very safe environment.

Wall diving is different from reef diving in the sense that on a reef, your attention is pretty much forced down in front of you, while on a wall, you're looking out and up mostly. Too, you can "stand" in front of the wall and take some of the load off your back without kicking coral.It just feels more natural, like browiswing a bookstore.

I slipped under the waves and almost immediately an alarm went off in my head: my ear felt like someone pierced it with a hot poker. If you've ever had an earache or ear infection (I have had both), you know the feeling.

A little physics: diving requires the body to be under pressure. At the surface, the pressure on your body is about 14 psi. Your body is adapted to this, and you never notice it.

Also, your body is an ugly ugly bag of mostly water...OK, in some cases of my female readers, not ugly at all. Anyway, liquids are infinitely compressible. I can take a gallon of water as deep as I'd like and it will become as dense at a thousand feet as the surrounding water.

Where humans have a problem is in any chamber of their body that contains gases.
Lungs, sinuses, ear canals. Because we can't extract air from water, we have to carry a tank of it on our backs. Since we could not possibly carry a sac filled with enough air for an hour's breathing, we force the air into a compact container.

As you decrease the volume of a given amount of gas, you increase it's pressure and here's where it gets tricky. The lungs, being flexible bags, usually don't have a problem adjusting to the regulated pressure you breathe underwater (unless you have a cold which creates a dead air space, but you'll understand that in a second).

But because things like the ear canal and sinuses are essentially caverns, you can trap surface pressure air in them as you descend. Meanwhile, the higher pressure water around you is pressing against them, creating what's called a "squeeze". You feel this most intensely in your ears, because the ear drum is all that stands between that water and that under pressurized air, and the water is pushiung hard against it.

Something's gotta give, and unless you can find a way to get equal pressure into your ear canal, your ear drum will pop if you go deep enough.

You don't need a tank even to prove this: go to any swimming pool, take a deep breath and try to swim on the bottom. You'll feel a gentle pressure against your ear drum.

Divers equalize by forcing the higher pressure air they are breathing into those spaces using techniques they are taught in classes. But if you have a cold, a sinus infection, or something blocking the way, you can't get the newer air in.

This is essentially what happen to me at around ten feet. I did complete an hour long dive and did manage to make it down to 35 feet, but I did not do this at Cliff. I swam along the top of the wall until i could slowly descend. Exertion helps your adrenaline clear your congestions, so that was the only way I could equalize at all.

Meaning I missed the dive I was most looking forward to making.

I's OK. Things happen and as it turns out, I have another week down here to get better and do that dive again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Milestones Can Be Millstones

Yesterday saw me make my 200th dive. Later this week, I will crack 150 hours underwater. The difference? Air consumption. It's nearly always been an issue for me, and it's a metablolic mystery, much like Sarah Palin's inability to say anything appropriate when confronted with her own ugliness.

Anyway, I did report the two lion fish and was assured that Saturday the dive team will go out, spearguns in hand and hunt them down, along with two others that have been spotted. I haven't decided if I want to witness this, but it might be fun.

The idea is to train predator fish to eat the invasive species by killing them and leaving them on the reef to be picked at. Once grouper get a taste of the fish, the hope is nature will kick it up a notch and work lionfish into the ecobalance.

Lionfish really are lovely to look at, deadly to an unmanaged reef. Of course, the very species that would make meals of them, like grouper and turtles, are the ame species we've driven to near extinction.

Nature finds a way.

The exciting news from yesterday is that sponges seem to be making a comeback after the recent hurricane and other near-miss by one. The devastation the inlet took a few years back during Omar, which basically shot right thru the inlet, was pretty severe to the large tube sponges. Yesterday, we saw a few small buds in the sand and on coral heads.

The rain we've had the past 36 hours...yes, rain, altho it's more the shower variety than the storm kind...creates a murky visibility in the water, and the winds roiled up the sand bottom quite a bit. That, plus a crop of divers finishing their certifications made the diving on the house reef a little iffy, but between injuries and illnesses, it was all we could do to get a group into the water.

By twilight, tho, four photographers and one videographer (yours truly) were in the water, shooting "rush hour" on the reef, the time when the day fish are looking for beds and the night fish are starting to stir.

Tomorrow, we will finally get off-site for most of the diving, splitting up into smaller groups and finding under-dived sites to document the impact bleaching and other natural and man-made phenomena are having on the reefs.

I really should shave...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Face To Face

Well it didn't take long for some harsh realities to set in.

First, any group that hangs out 24/7 is going to have some weird interpersonal shit going on. One spouse dives, the other doesn't and on Bonaire, things get weird because there's really not much to do besides diving. Or snorkeling. Or swimming. Or lying in a chair sipping tropical drinks.

That's fine for a few days, but the wife in question has a little more active mind than that and she's frustrated. Her husband is keeping up with her as best as he can, but he's down here to complete a dive certification, and so he's kind of forced to get wet.

Me, I'm lucky. I just get to dive when I want, where I want and how I want. First dive yesterday was to a site called "Something Special" which is what its name implies. We didn't go deep, one of our group had equalization difficulties, and even so the dive delivered some amazing stuff, including yours truly getting both a manicure AND a teeny little moray eel bite at the same time.

See, cleaner shrimp will come out and trim your cuticles if you want long enough around the cleaning station. So I did, totally oblivious to the baby moray eeel sitting under the same coral head, and a little upset at the intrusion.

Oh well...wish I had my vidcam working but it's a little hard figuring out the angles and lighting under a coral head...

The dive included some beautiful Frecn Angelfish and a goby that kept popping up and spinning around like a dancer.

The second dive, later in the afternoon, saw me come face to face with two lionfish. This is not a good thing. They were within yards of each other, meaning they were probably from the same spawning event and had enough to eat. Lionfish usually do not like imposing on each other's territory.

Duly reported to the proper authorities, of course. I'll post videos when I return.

The Northeast is being hammered by a snowstorm as I write this. Sorry guys.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Island Time

I think I'm finally into island time. I haven't shaved or changed clothes (except to dive, of course) since Sunday, and actually showered with soap once, last night.

Hey, protecting the environment! They have to pump out the septic tanks, process the merchandise and ship the residue off island. It costs money.

I shot some video yesterday, and tried to wrap my mind around the whole phenomenon of intrusive species. You see, Bonaire is the latest (and most remote) outpost of the dreaded lion fish. Its first prey is a species of really beautiful animal called the Spotted Drum, which likes to linger in the same nooks and crannies that lion fish prefer.

I finally saw a Spotted Drum yesterday, but it was huge, which means old, and I haven't seen any fry.

I'm hoping that, as heavily dived as the house reefs on the hotel strip on Bonaire are, this somehow keeps the lion fish at bay, that thru either fear of the bubble blowers or thru careful management practices (meaning capture, kill and eat) lion fish have been kept away from this part of the island.

Time and dives will tell.

But then the follow up thought occurred to me: if divers have managed to stress out the lion fish, how many other species of fish have we prevented from living a normal life on the reef?

It's not that divers are evil or anything. Most are very careful to respect the reef life and to even put the coral and fish ahead of their own safety. But accidents happen, and then there's the small percentage of yutzes who just have to ruin things for everyone by poking fingers into holes and carelessly dropping stuff, kicking fins willy-nilly and just being assholes.

But even careful divers, like me, how do we affect the reef ecosystem? After all, often I'll glide over a cleaning station where a grouper is having his teeth brushed, and he'll panic and swim off. What if some parasite takes the opportunity to cause an infection? And what if that one grouper who might have ended up spawning the line that finally takes out the lion fish, dies instead?

I can't worry about it much, but it's a nagging thought on the periphery of my consciousness.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunday Stroll

Yesterday was a day to become re-acquainted with dive gear and to check out important dive matters such as buoyancy and weighting.

See, you don't need weight to get down as much as you need it to stay down. It's important to be neither underweighred (which can have you ascend from your dive too quickly, thus creating a scenario where you could get what's called "the bends") or overweighted, which can cause a different, albeit less fatal, set of problems.

Three dives in the day, one to 120 feet, and my first impression of the reefs of Bonaire is there was some event that has caused mass bleachings. This is not global warming, at least as far as I can tell, because the bleaching was widespread and happened in the course of a year.

If memory serves, there may have been an oil spill either a year and a half or two years ago. Bonaire is reliant on imports by sea, and there's a petroleum processing facility on the same coast as most of the pristine reefs.

Man does the most bizarre things with nature's bounty. The same protection offered to divers and fish makes Bonaire's channel the best place to site piers of all kinds, from cruise ships to tankers to the occasional military vessel.

Drug interdictions, you see.

I can't post pictures to prove the difference mostly because I haven't taken my camera with me yet. Once I've processed some photos, I can show you some startling and direct contrasts. It's very sad to see how many of my old friends have died off with more to come.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dispatch From The War On Animals

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm down in the Caribbean for two weeks to document the underwater life of one of the most pristine reefs on the planet.

Imagine a day that started at 2:30 AM, included 15 hours either on an airplane or in an airport, and then arriving to find an island-nation in the midst of a tumultuous change.

That was my day yesterday, and yet I managed to go to bed with a smile.

I'm on Bonaire. Bonaire recently re-formed as a municipality (I have to understand what that terms means better) of Holland. It had first been a member of a class of islands under Dutch control called the Antilles. A few years ago, Aruba broke off, and now all islands in the class have been dismissed to direct control by Holland.

The island also changed its official currency from the guilder to the American dollar, and waived an entry visa for all guests (I think you still need one if you plan to stay longer than 90 days, but that's more to insure you don't take a job from a Bonairean).

Construction that began in 2007, the height of the housing boom, remains unfinished and in some cases, there aren't even signs that completion will ever come. The main industry here is dive tourism, and naturally, Americans are a huge part of that. I guess that went by the boards when the markets crashed too.

That certainly implies that as America goes, so go many smaller countries who have become dependent upon the American economy, tourism and imports.

A chilling sign was the appearance on local television (satellite, I think) of two channels catering to Chinese). One wonders how quickly the focus will turn from Americans to Chinese, as it has in Brazil, Peru and any number of Latin American nations.

including Venezuela, a nation that lies just fifty miles or so to my south as I type this. Hugo Chavez has made noises about wrenching these islands from Dutch control and seizing them for himself, but I seriously doubt he has the resources to do it.

I'm sat on a porch overlooking an inlet from the ocean that surrounds an island about a mile away. That island was owned by Harry Belafonte, who prohibited development while he owned it (he's a resident down here as are many celebrities who want to get aweay from the media). He gifted it to Bonaire a few years back with the same proviso.

So far, they've held steady. Looks like they will for a while.

Speaking of media, the only American "news" network I get with any regularity here is FOX, so I heard about the shooting in Arizona, but figured it had to be exaggerated in some way. Little did I know it would be understated. See, they never reported in the half hour I watched about Sarah Palin's Facebook posting targeting her.

I must undergo a dive orientation today, followed by a "mandatory" check out dive. The orientation is required annually of anyone who wants to dive in Bonaire, along with a $25 annual fee to help with the upkeep of the national park.

Hard to think of an island only 20 miles long as having a national park, but there it is.

I'll write more as jet lag sets out and island time sets in. Until then, ayo!