The Casual Blog

Category: scuba

Ringing out the old year with a diving trip to Cozumel

We flew back from Cozumel on New Year’s eve, which was a good excuse for doing what we usually do at the end of the calendar year: nothing special. We changed planes in Charlotte, but didn’t have time to get food there, so after we unpacked, I walked over to get bean burritos at Armadillo Grill. Glenwood Avenue was hopping with lots of young people going to the bars and clubs, all dressed up and ready to party! Lots of happy energy.

So we begin another calendar year, with a clean slate, sort of. I began my Sunday as I usually do, with breakfast, coffee, and the big ole Sunday New York Times. I read an affecting piece on the lives of several New Yorkers over age 85. They had their problems, but most were still hopeful about the future. One noted that as farmers choose to cultivate different crops, we can choose what to cultivate in ourselves, like appreciation of science, art, and nature.

We had a great time scuba diving in Cozumel on the coral reefs. There are still so many beautiful and amazing living things there. Highlights for me included seeing 7 octopuses on a single night dive), a nurse shark sleeping with a giant green moray eel (didn’t know they did that), a moray eating a lionfish (offered by the divemaster), a big goliath grouper, a bat fish, numerous Hawksbill turtles, and several spotted eagle rays. And of course the many varied tropical fish. Seeing a queen angel fish always makes me happy.

I made my 286th dive, with Sally’s tally not far behind. Jocelyn and Gabe are still fairly new divers, but you wouldn’t have known it. They looked relaxed and in control, and were finding some hard-to-spot creatures, including splendid toadfish, scorpion fish, and arrow crabs.



Our days were mostly sunny and mild, with some clouds. We stayed at Hotel Cozumel, which was great for our purposes, with had adequate rooms and a staff that was friendly and responsive. In the afternoons it was pleasant to sip a pina colada and read by the pool. We went out every morning with Dive Paradise, which has a shop on the hotel premises. Their boats and equipment were just fine, and we adored Santos and Victor as divemasters. Boat rides were mostly about 30 minutes. We did drift diving, at times in strong currents, which made photography challenging. The water was a pleasant 81 degrees F, and visibility was generally good (50-70 feet).
Jocelyn took the lead in arranging our dinners. We particularly liked Kinta and Kondesa, with contemporary Mexican cuisine, and met the warmest, sweetest waiter in the world, Ray, at El Moro. We had a long and frustrating wait for a table at Casa Mission — no one would acknowledge our presence for 40 minutes — though we enjoyed the food. We liked the Italian food and margaritas at Rinaldi, and Le Chef, another Italian place, was also good. We had good talks, and also good cab rides. I was happy to hear the family speaking some Spanish, and to do a bit myself.

Enjoying the Olympics, a short scuba trip, and a piano lesson

We can go literally for years without any special yearning to watch gymnastics, swimming, or beach volleyball. Yet every four years, like a periodic cicada, our inner fan emerges, and we are rapt before the summer Olympics. Of course, it is annoying to watch the same advertisements over and over, and listen to the commentators’ unhelpful hype and drivel. But the athletes are stupendous! It makes you proud to be part of the same species. All that drive and dedication, for years and years, and then the ultimate mastery at the decisive moment. It makes you wonder how much more each of us might be capable of.

These photos are from our diving trip last week out of Wrightsville on the wrecks of the Gill and the Hyde. The water was murky — only 10 feet of visibility in places. But we still saw a lot of life, including sand tiger sharks, barracuda, and lots of little fish. On the Hyde, about 80 feet down, I lost Sally and Gabe near the end of the dive, as can so easily happen in poor visibility. Then I couldn’t find the anchor line, which was the planned route back to the boat. My air was getting low, and it occurred to me that things might turn out really badly. But I surfaced in an orderly manner and found the boat close by, and family safely aboard.

Last week I had my last piano lesson with Olga for a while, since her baby is soon to arrive. We worked on Liszt’s Sospiro and Chopin’s first Intermezzo. As usual, she made me listen more closely, and think about new musical possibilities. And as always, there were little technical issues to address. For a long time now, she’s been trying to make me practice each hand separately. The idea is to get out in the open the little rough spots, and also to allow for the hands to have separate personalities. I’ve quietly resisted this kind of practice, because it just isn’t that much fun. I’ve decided, though, to make a point of it. I like getting better.

A Wrightsville scuba weekend

Last weekend Sally, Gabe, and I drove down to Wrightsville Beach for some scuba diving. We stayed in the Hilton Express in Wilmington, and went out to the wreck of the Hyde on Saturday, and the wreck of the Liberty ship on Sunday. It was good to gear up and get wet again.

The Hyde is about twenty miles out of Wrightsville, and getting there took over an hour, in seas that were a bit choppy. With seventeen divers, the small Aqua Safari boat was quite crowded. Once the tanks were all connected to the gear, there was a ledge of about 5 inches to sit on. It was not comfortable. Several divers got seasick.

We did two dives on the Hyde, which was about 80 feet down. Visibility there was about 40 feet. We saw sand tiger sharks, southern sting rays, barracuda, and hundreds of small fish. I tried out my new Olympus TG-4 camera with a PT-056 housing and two Sea and Sea strobes. Although I didn’t get any career photos, I liked the feel of the equipment, which much smaller and easier to work with than my last rig, and ran glitch-free.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening we met up with my sister-in-law, Anne, and ate at a very nice restaurant called Manna. It was relatively upscale for Wilmington, with women in dresses and none of the men in tee shirts. Although there were no vegetarian entrees on the menu, our waiter explained that the chef could whip them up according to our directions or, if we preferred, according to his inspiration. I gave some directions based on the day’s non-meat accompaniments, and Sally decided to trust the chef entirely. We were all delighted with the food and the service.

On Sunday morning, it was only a short boat ride to the Liberty ship. The visibility about 40 feet under was quite limited – about 10 feet – and the creatures we saw on our two dives were all small ones. We were hoping to find an octopus, which didn’t happen, though we did see some oyster toadfish and a striped burrfish. We were happy that we didn’t lose each other in the murky gloom, and that we managed to find our way back to the anchor line and the boat.

The diving Tillers do Belize

We got home at about 4:00 a.m. Sunday from our trip to Belize. There were various minor setbacks and challenges, like weather, malfunctioning gear, and cancelled flights, but all in all it was a good trip.

One of the great satisfactions for me was getting the last member of our little family certified as a PADI open water diver. Jocelyn did the course in 2014, and Gabe decided to buckle down late in 2015, while juggling his grad school course work. He completed everything but the open water dive requirements with two days before the trip to spare.

Jocelyn flew in from NYC on Christmas Eve, full of energy and humor. As will happen this time of year, I felt the spell of Christmases past, and needed to read through some Christmas carols at the piano (Joy to the World! We Three Kings, What Child Is This, O Come, All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels, etc.). We listened to the Nutcracker during our present exchange.

But for our family reunion dinner, we listened to the Beatles, whose work had just become available on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming services that day. Starting with I Want to Hold Your Hand, we worked through a good part of the canon. That music is densely evocative of adolescence for me, but it still has a cheery, lively power, too, and a lot of variety. We talked a lot about the Fab Four, and it turned out that Gabe and Jocelyn knew every song and a lot of the backstories.
We left for the airport at 3:30 a.m. Our first flight took us to Houston, where we waited a while and then got a plane for Belize City, where we eventually got into a single engine plane for a 15-minute flight to Ambergris Caye. I got to sit next to the pilot and monitor the instruments, which was fun. We landed at sunset, then took a short cab ride to a nearby dock, where we and our stuff got loaded onto a speedy water taxi for a twenty-minute trip north.

We stayed at Costa Blu Resort, which, we came to learn, had just opened for the first time two weeks earlier. We thought it was pretty, comfortable, and well situated for diving, with a dive center on the property, along with palm trees and swimming pools.

The next day the wind was blowing hard – perhaps 25 miles per hour – and so morning diving was cancelled. We came to learn that the wind had been going like that for the previous two weeks or so, and even old-timers couldn’t recall so long a stretch of hard wind at this time of year. The skies were mostly sunny. We got out in the afternoon for a shallow (12 foot) dive in the afternoon, and Gabe completed the first of his two open water certification dives. The weather the next day was the same, which meant the small boats at our dive operation could not get out beyond the reef, so we did another shallow dive nearby, and Gabe completed his course. We were so proud!

On Tuesday, we took a longer boat ride out to Turneff Atoll, and did three separate dives. The visibility was about 50 feet, and the water was a pleasant 82 degrees F. We saw the locally common tropicals, such as durgons, surgeonfish, parrotfish, blue wrasse, butterflyfish, yellowtail snappers, and three kinds of angelfish. There were lobsters, and a yellow ray. Our guide, Bernie, speared five or six lionfish, which are beautiful but very destructive for the ecosystem. The dive was fun, though I was a little disappointed not to see sharks or other larger creatures.

We’d found the restaurant at Costa Blu adequate. The food was good, and the service was friendly, but really really slow. We deduced that the staff was mostly very green, and just learning. Anyhow, we walked along the beach to Temple Run resort for dinner on Tuesday. The walk was a little tricky in the dark, and we had to make our way through thick sargassum and other flotsam on the beach, but the dinner was good.

It was still blowing hard on Wednesday, so we decided not to dive, and instead to explore the little town of San Pedro. This required a 20- minute water taxi trip, on a little boat that was speedy, and crowded. It started to rain hard for the first time that week during the short trip, and it looked like we might have a damp and bedraggled afternoon. But it stopped raining and the sun came out just as we pulled up to the dock. San Pedro proper is colorful though bit down at the heels, with rust and peeling paint, but its narrow streets are full of local people strolling and buzzing around in golf carts. We ate at Casa Picasso, a highly rated spot run by friendly expats from Connecticut. We loved their Carrot Chic cocktail, and my eggplant napolean entree was excellent.
On Thursday, we tried to take a larger boat to the Blue Hole, the famous deep circular structure about three hours’ ride from San Pedro, and planned to do two other dives. The trip started badly, very early in the a.m., when we discovered that our equipment had not all been delivered to the boat, and we had to do last-minute rentals. Then, about 45 minutes into the trip, the boat developed engine trouble. We limped into a local village, and waited for a mechanic. The ultimate diagnosis was a blown gasket, which meant a blown trip.

But we did get in an afternoon shallow dive near Costa Blu at Mexican Reef with just us Tillers and our guide, Giovanni. We saw a pair of large sting rays that seemed to be courting, and a friendly green turtle that swam close enough to be petted. There was a large green moray eel, spade fish, and several nurse sharks, as well as many pretty small tropicals. It was especially sweet to be with my loved ones, and see our new divers keeping a good eye on their gauges.

Throughout the week, I’d been trying to get some pictures with my Canon G16 camera with an Ikelite housing. The equipment would work fine when I tested it out of the water, but under water there was one problem after another. On the Thursday dive, it worked fine when I took a few test shots, and then quit responding to any directions. I couldn’t even turn it off! It was disappointing to miss a lot of good shots. I couldn’t figure out why this equipment was so glitchy, but it was, and I made up my mind to get rid of it. I haven’t been able to find the camera (mislaid, or stolen from my bag?) so the problem may have resolved itself.

On Friday, the wind finally let up, and we were able to do three tanks outside the reef near Costa Blu in the morning. We got down to about 100 feet and admired the varied coral and tropicals, but didn’t see many larger creatures. I feel like we saw more marine life when we were last there in (I think) 2009. But we all know or should know that the long-term prospects for coral reefs all over the world are not good. For now, there’s still a lot of beauty to be savored.

Diving in Mozambique

Heading to Africa week before last, my dream was to dive with some really big creatures, including manta rays, whale sharks, and humpback whales. My research indicated that these and other species should all be present in October (spring) in southeastern Mozambique. The diving didn’t turn out as well as hoped, but I was not sorry we tried. We saw some amazing sights, and learned some things.

Our first dive destination was Zavorra, in Inhambane province. We stayed at Zavorra Lodge, a somewhat rustic hotel at the end of a long sandy road. It was very windy when we arrived, and we were warned that the wind was making the waters rough and murky. It was less windy when we went out early the next morning, but visibility was quite poor. And it was chilly (65 Farenheit). We saw medium and small fish, including a large group of barracudas, but no giants.

This was basically the story for the following two days – cold and dark. I had some suspicion that unregulated fishing had reduced the fish populations, based on some of the locals’ comments about government corruption and Chinese factory ships, but who knows? There could have been a lot of creatures that we didn’t see, since we didn’t often see more than 10 feet.

One afternoon we took a short walk to a nearby village, where there was a shaman who for cash purported to tell fortunes. We were surprised that most of our group of mostly Dutch tourists paid up and sat still for quite a bit of this nonsense. But it was interesting to see the local people, the grass roofed dwellings, goats, and chickens.

Our last afternoon we went horse riding on the beach. It was many years since I’d been on a horse, and my mount, a handsome white horse named Obsession, may have noticed this. We were behind Sally, and Obsession kept wanting to pass her, and I kept having to apply the brakes.

But it was lovely riding on the beach. For a bit. Then, when we were moving just inside the backwash of the waves, Obsession unexpectedly flopped onto his side. Happily, I got my bottom leg out from under him in time and didn’t get crushed, though I did get wet. Obsession went straight out into the breakers for a dip. Our guide finally got him to come out, and we found he’d lost one stirrup in the water. The guide gave me one of his, and we finished the ride.

Next we went to Tofo. This place has the widest white sand beach I’ve ever seen, and a lively little town. Here we learned how to launch a pontoon boat into the waves (push when they say push, and then hoist yourself up and in). The ride out on the little boat (30-45 minutes) was generally bumpy. Once at the dive site, we got into the water by rolling backwards on the count of three. At the end of the dive, we took off your heavy equipment and hand it up, then hoisted ourselves up into the boat.

That's Caso do Mar in the background, and Sally with a young woman who rushed over to be photographed

That’s Caso do Mar in the background, and Sally with a young woman who rushed over to be photographed

Our first day out, the dive was down to about 100 feet. The current was quite strong, and we had to fight it to stay near the reef. Here, too, it was dark and chilly, with visibility less than 10 feet. We enjoyed seeing some pretty small tropicals. But this is not diving for the timid or out of shape.

We liked our hotel, the Caso do Mar, and we liked the dive outfit, Peri Peri. Our main divemaster, Frieda, was unfailingly cheerful, and consistently safety minded. We had some good talks with her about great dives past, and ones we hoped to make. We liked walking on the beach as the young men played soccer and the young families played with their babies.

We saw a good number of humpback whales during our boat rides, and heard them singing when we were under water. We saw one white tipped shark, but no others, and a honey-combed moray eel. We never did see a manta.

But I finally realized my dream of swimming with a whale shark. Our skipper spotted the enormous animal near the surface, and we all slipped off the pontoon boat with snorkel gear. I found myself over the creature, just off its right side and perhaps 6 feet above. Even with murky water, I could see it clearly from tip to tail. My fellow snorkelers were not within view. The whale shark and I swam together for perhaps two minutes, and then it began to pull away. Soon all I could see was the tail, and then just dark water.

I spent a fair bit of money and energy getting ready to photograph the sea creatures of Mozambique, and it didn’t work out so well. There were various equipment problems (the strobes wouldn’t work, then the zoom wouldn’t work, etc.), but the biggest problem was the very limited visibility. So it goes; sometimes nature is uncooperative. I will surely be more appreciative the next time I’m in clearer waters.

Hitting the little white ball, the appalling debate, ocean concerns, and reading Hamilton

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

On Wednesday after work, I went over to Raleigh Country Club and practiced on the range for a bit. Lately I’ve been trying to get out to practice a couple of times a week, with a view to making prettier and longer parabolas. It looks so much easier than it is. The late afternoon was peaceful and mild.

Sally was waiting on the terrace looking out on hole number 10 when I finished, and we had dinner there. It was overcast, and looking west we couldn’t see the sun directly as it was setting. But suddenly the clouds lit up a bright orange-pink, and for a few minutes the colors were amazing.

After dinner, Sally had to go to her mom’s apartment to take care of Diane’s two greyhounds, and so I watched the Republican presidential debate alone. It was, of course, appalling, though also by moments fascinating. The eleven candidates were all, in their various ways, intelligent and well spoken, and also in varying degrees bizarre or utterly benighted. I watched a good chunk of the three-hour spectacle, and kept waiting for a serious treatment of the serious issue of climate change. From press accounts, it appears I missed a few brief comments on the subject, to the effect that either it’s a liberal conspiracy or there’s just nothing to be done about it, so there’s no point in thinking or talking about it. Appalling.

I read most of the World Wildlife Fund’s report this week on the state of the world’s oceans, and recommend it. The news, of course, is not good. About half the population of creatures that live in, on, and over the oceans have disappeared since 1970. Coral reefs, on which much ocean life depends, have likewise diminished, and may disappear by 2050. But the report presses the point that the situation is not hopeless. There are ways we can address the over fishing and climate change problems that largely account for the crisis.

Through diving dive on some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, I’ve developed a deep love for reef ecosystems, and will be seeing another one next week. Sally and I are leaving next Friday for a trip to see the reefs and animals of Mozambique. We’re hoping to see whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and many other remarkable creatures. We’ll also be doing a land based photo safari in Kruger Park in South Africa. This trip has been a big dream, and has taken a lot of planning, but it should be amazing. Anyhow, I expect to be offline for a couple of weeks, but hope to have some good stories and pictures to post after that.

For this long trip, I’ll need some good books to read, and I’d expected I’d be working my way through Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, a biography of the Founding Father who was our first Secretary of the Treasury. But I’ve been so fascinated by the book that I may finish it before the trip. The Times review is here.

Hamilton, it turns out, was a brilliant, energetic, and passionate person, who accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. Among other things, he helped win the Revolutionary War as Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, played a primary role in fashioning the Constitution, wrote most of the Federalist to win passage of the Constitution, established a financial system for the new republic, and served as President Washington’s primary advisor. And he was handsome and well-liked by the ladies, and also the gentlemen. Of course, he had his flaws of character, and his enemies, including the sainted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The politics of the time were at least as ungentle as now. This is a remarkable and remarkably relevant book, which I highly recommend.

Seeing Mission Impossible, trying a standup desk, and diving out of Wrightsville

RTillerbutterfly (1 of 1)Last week we went to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and liked it. This movie isn’t designed to provoke deep thought so much as to administer a dose of adrenaline, which it does admirably. There are various fine chases and explosions, amazing disguises, shoot outs, and, of course, some heroic computer hacking. It moves right along, and has an occasional wink as if to say, we all know this is a bit over the top.

Tom Cruise is remarkable, in that somehow, despite all we know about his incredible Scientology goofiness, he brings us in and takes us right along. Rebecca Ferguson plays his female counterpart from the British secret service. She is perhaps the most accomplished hand-to-hand fighter we’ve seen on the Mission Impossible team, and she looks particularly wonderful in an evening gown.

There was a moment or two when I thought, hasn’t this been done before? Yes, of course it has. With Jim Phelps, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and numerous comic book superheros. But who cares – it’s still fun.

Though it’s worth noting that the meta conceit of this Mission Impossible is potentially thought-provoking. I’ll not spoil it by just saying: what if a spy agency of a major power got out of control? And the spies had awesomely powerful weapons and no accountability? And the spying became detached from any ordinary purposes or values, except for – spying. Of course, that could never happen.

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I had a major and positive transformation in my work place technology last week – I got a stand up desk. This model is sturdy, roomy enough for two monitors and a keyboard, manually adjustable between sitting and standing with ease.

I’ve been concerned about the hazards of too much sitting for a while. There’s credible research that sitting more than three or four hours a day elevates various risks, from hunched shoulders, hip and back problems to cardiovascular disease and cancer. There’s info here, here, and here. My doctor agreed and recommended more standing.

My initial impression is, standing is invigorating. I feel more energetic and focused. I lower the desk for intervals to do certain tasks, like taking notes on phone calls, and also to change things up, but spend a lot more time on my feet.
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This weekend we went down to Wrightsville for a couple of wreck diving trips with Aquatic Safari. On Saturday, the seas were choppy, but we had a good dive on the wreck of the Pocahontas. There was reasonably good visibility, manageable current, and large numbers of small and medium fish.

But I was reminded of Murphy’s law. My BC started leaking loudly as I got ready to go in, and the captain advised unhooking the low pressure inflator and regulating by oral inflation under water. I said okay and went down. But blowing up a canvas balloon while 60 feet under isn’t so easy. And I had problems with my camera. The boat was pitching dramatically when it as time to get back in, and the metal ladder came down on my head, with blood resulting. Nurse Sally examined it and commented that it didn’t look like it needed stitches.

On Sunday we did two dives on the wreck of the Liberty ship. This required only a 15 minute boat ride, and the seas were calm. Visibility was not great – perhaps twenty feet at most, but we saw two octopuses (a rare treat). Also notable were oyster toadfish, porcupine fish, jellyfish, barracuda, and one southern sting ray.

Our holiday in Cozumel: diving, eating, and reading

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Gabe and Jocelyn joined us in Raleigh for Christmas for the first time in several years. We ate and drank well and had some good laughs. Gabe had given himself a Canon G15 camera, which he’ll be using to get scenic pictures of Telluride for his company’s website and other publicity. It was fun talking photography, and he was taking amazingly good pictures. I was struck and a bit envious of his natural talent.

Last year I offered scholarships to both Gabe and Jocelyn to get their scuba certification, with the kicker that graduates would also get a holiday trip with us to a dive resort. Gabe couldn’t work out the logistics, but Jocelyn found a dive shop in New York and took the course. Last weekend she, Sally, and I sadly said good-bye to Gabe, and gladly went to Cozumel, Mexico.
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We stayed at the Cozumel Hotel and Resort, and went diving with Dive Paradise. The good points of the hotel were: friendly service, large pool, beach (small), walking distance to town, good breakfasts, and dive shop and dock directly across the street. Dive Paradise was a large operation with several boats, but the service was personalized and friendly. Our boats were not overcrowded and the divemasters were knowledgeable and helpful.

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We did two morning dives each day. The boat trips were between 30 minutes and about an hour. Particularly good spots were: Palancar Bricks, Cedral, San Francisco, Tunich, and Delilah. Visibility was generally 60-70 feet, water temperature 81 degrees F. The current was strong in places; think Lost in Space or Gravity. Every outing was a drift dive. We were usually down for 50-60 minutes.
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Jocelyn spent the first two days finishing her Padi course by doing 4 open water dives , then joined us on the rest of our expeditions. She had no problem with the deeper dives (around 90 feet) or the places with strong current. She handled herself well, and I was a proud papa.

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We saw a great deal of sea life, most of it familiar to Sally and me. Particularly thrilling were a pair of spotted eagle rays, an enormous (beastly huge!) green moray eel, large lobsters, and several hawksbill turtles. There were many beautiful angelfish and queen triggerfish. We saw a few nurse sharks and barracuda. Sally saw a pair of squid, and quite a few tiny things for which she needed her magnifying glass. The coral in places was highly varied and gorgeous.
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I took photographs with my new Ikelite housing and strobes for my Nikon D7100. The equipment was heavy and bulky, and difficult to transport, but I was pleased with the way it performed under water. One of my objectives was to get a good picture of a queen angelfish, which are challenging both because of their normally shy natures and their wild colors. I was fairly happy with the ones here.
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We ate a lot of tasty Mexican food, including outstanding and creative meals at Kinto and Condesa. We also had Italian food one night at La Terraza, which we thought was good.

In the afternoons we sat by the pool and read. I made substantial progress on The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. I read and loved this novel in my early twenties, but it seemed new upon re-reading. It’s exuberant and Whitmanesque, exhilarating, but also challenging, resistant to skimming.
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I also got a good start on The Innovators, by Water Isaacson. This is basically a history of computers and computing that gives mini-biographies of leading actors but also emphasizes that innovation is primarily a product of collaboration, rather than lone geniuses. Isaacson’s writing is competent and engaging.

One other book worth mentioning is The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, by Christopher Leonard. It is an eye-opening account of the corporatization of the production of chicken, pork and beef, with a particular emphasis on chicken and Tyson Foods. There is nary a word about the horrific treatment of animals, but the story is still brutal from the point of view of the farmers and workers.

The farmers here were by degrees deprived of bargaining power, to the point that they stay in business only by the grace of Tyson or its few similarly enormous competitors. It’s also startling to learn about the extent to which government provided financial guarantees that allocated the risks to the taxpayers (that is, us) and farmers, but gave the big rewards to the food megacorps. This story deserves wider publicity. Another good reason to go veggie.
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A painful loss — our diving friend and mentor

14 05 08_9103_edited-1On Wednesday, we got shocking news: our friend Scott Powell had died. He was 44. Just the previous week, he’d led our trip to Dominica, where we’d done a baker’s dozen dives together. We also shared the first leg of an epic journey (for us, 34 hours) to get back home, which involved lost luggage and missed planes and an unplanned overnight stop in San Juan, where we had our last dinner together.

We’d known Scott for about six years – as long as we’d been scuba diving. As owner of Down Under Surf and Scuba, he provided the base for almost all of the diving courses we’ve taken, and helped me reach the level of PADI Master Scuba Diver. From Scott we got our first information on Bonaire, Roatan, the Galapagos, and Fiji. He personally introduced us to North Carolina coastal diving, and taught my course in wreck diving. And of course, he sold us almost all of our diving gear. Once you get the diving bug, it’s a powerful thing, and he was our prime mentor.
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Scott had seemingly limitless energy and an upbeat zest for life. Unlike a lot of intensely adventurous types, he also loved meeting and talking with people. He was a gifted storyteller, with a good sense of humor. He was incredibly generous with his time, and kind and considerate. He was politically conservative, but genuinely interested in and tolerant of other perspectives. Even when I disagreed with his views, I was grateful for the experience of exchanging ideas with mutual respect.
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At the end of the Dominica trip, Scott strongly encouraged us to come to the next scuba club meeting scheduled for Tuesday to hear a speaker from Duke talk about dealing with injuries from poisonous sea flora and fauna. We did so, and so got to see him on his last night.

We got there a little late, and most of the tables were taken. When he spotted us having trouble finding a seat, he hopped up and introduced us to some congenial new people with spare table space. He kicked off the meeting with his usual warmth and wit, and wrapped it up the same way. When we were leaving, he mentioned that he’d read my new blog post on Dominica (see below) that afternoon, and liked it. Would I mind if he shared it with the group? Of course not, I said, thanking him.

The next day, I heard that he went back to his shop after the meeting and was working there alone when he collapsed. Someone (I’m guessing he himself) called 911, but when the EMTs arrived, they had to break into the shop. He was gone. I’d guess he had a heart attack, but have no further details.

His memorial service on Saturday morning. The crowd at Brown-Wynne in Cary was big – standing room only. There was a presiding pastor type, but the heart of the service was the words of his friends and family. I particularly liked the remarks of Bill, Jim, and Sid, Scott’s fellow dive professionals, who were plainly inspired by and devoted to Scott. There were also a couple of friends from Y Guides, which Scott seems to have very much enjoyed with his older son.

His wife, whom I did not know, spoke briefly and well, noting that Scott’s nature was to love people. She read a letter from their son to Scott about the fun things they did together, and looking forward to learning scuba diving. It was touching, and of course, painful. Painful in quite a different way was the closing sermonette by the pastor, who in stentorian tones pressed all present to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and be Saved from eternal Damnation. This didn’t sound at all like the Scott I knew, and was my least favorite part.

But the important point didn’t get lost: Scott touched and enriched many lives. It was good to share with others a moment of recognition of that gift. He was inspiring in his wide-ranging curiosity, his kindness and generosity, his energy and resourcefulness, and his understated courage.
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I imagined we’d have many more adventures together, and many more discussions about the greatest places to dive and most amazing things to see, and about the optimal gear and configurations. I expected we’d have many more good meals and good laughs. I’d planned to debrief him carefully about diving in Africa, and many other things he knew about. It’s hard to believe, what seemed natural and inevitable is suddenly impossible. This will take some time to process.

If it had ever occurred to me that he’d be leaving us suddenly, I’d have worked hard to get some good pictures of him, but, of course, it didn’t, and I didn’t. Still, I’m glad to have these.
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Coral Reef Diving and Hiking in Dominica, West Indies

14 05 07_8847Coral reefs are one of nature’s most amazing creations. Untold millions of miniscule animals form structures of wildly varying forms, textures, and colors, and extend them widely over thousands of years. Some of the structures resemble terrestrial plants or animals, but others look like modernist architecture, surpassing the most fanciful creations of Gaudi. They are home to 25 percent of the ocean’s creatures, and a fundamental part of the planet’s infrastructure.
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As a diver, I relish the incredible privilege of time with strange and beautiful coral. I’m also acutely aware of their perilous situation, and the urgent need for action. Global warming and ocean acidification are killing coral reefs, and the consequences for all life that relies on the ocean may be catastrophic. I was slightly cheered to see the UN and US reports in the last few weeks highlighting these threats. Perhaps reality is sinking in, and perhaps it is not too late. I have my doubts, but I try to err on the side of optimism.
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In any case, for the time being, there is awesome beauty to contemplate and celebrate. And so last week Sally and I made our first visit to the Caribbean Island of Dominica. I learned the correct pronunciation (doe-me-NEE-ka), and the location – part of the Lesser Antilles, to the south of Antigua and north of Saint Lucia. The terrain is mountainous, with peaks up to 4,747 feet, and much of it is covered with lush tropical rainforest. It is exceptionally beautiful.
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We stayed in the town of Roseau at a friendly, diver-oriented place called the Castle Comfort Lodge, and did our diving with Dive Dominica. The dive sites we did were mostly 20-30 minutes away by boat to the southern part of the island. Most days we did two dives in the morning and a land adventure in the afternoon, and twice we went out with the DD boat on night dives.
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The water was a mild 81 degrees F, with visibility of 50-60 feet and little current. The coral seemed fairly healthy, with little bleaching, and lots of variety in shape, texture, and color. There were lots of tube sponges and crinoids, and some anemones. The most interesting new fish to us was the frog fish, a remarkably well-camouflaged and strange creature. Other highlights were scorpion fish, snake eels, electric eels, sea horses, balloon fish, trumpet fish and squid. There were many small colorful tropicals (such as butterflyfish, damsel fish, goat fish, and squirrel fish). However, I missed my beloved queen angelfish, and there were relatively few larger fish (such as groupers and barracuda), which was mildly disappointing. We saw only one shark all week (a sleeping nurse) and only a few hawksbill turtles. On the other hand, we saw quite a few large lobsters, large crabs, and small shrimp.
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One afternoon we went on a whale-watching expedition and had good views of five sperm whales. The crew used underwater microphones to detect the whales’ signature clicks and then watched for them to spout. There was one pair that turned out to be a mother with a very large nursing daughter (pictured below as the mom descended). It was a thrill to see these remarkable creatures up close. We also were visited by a group of bottle nosed dolphins who came close to the boat to observe us.
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The next day one of our fellow divers, Shane Gero, turned out to be a sperm whale expert who’d spent several years studying the Dominica sperm whale families. We learned more about their family structure, habits, and culture. They eat giant squid, which live thousands of feet down. Family group are all females, joined by males only at breeding time. When orcas threaten the young, the family forms a circle around the babies, with heads inward, and ward off the attacker with their tails.
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Our most remarkable land expedition was a hike to the Boiling Lake, an area of active volcanic activity, which took about seven arduous hours through the rainforest and up and down mountains. Along the way there were spectacular vistas, rivers, and waterfalls. For much of the time, though, I was entirely focussed on finding the next safe spot to put my foot, and in some climbing points, my hand. With Sally’s encouragement, I took along a walking stick, and was glad I did – it was helpful in many situations, such as stepping from rock to rock over fast-moving streams. We did not bring along rain gear, which was an unfortunate oversight – it rained on us for much of the hike and we were well soaked.
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I’d thought of hiking as a relatively placid physical activity, but this was anything but. It required engagement and commitment at the level of double black diamond skiing. I was very glad to get back at last, but soon began thinking about how I’d like to do more of it. I was, however, sore and beat up by the end of the week. I took a fall getting on the boat early in the week and badly sprained my right (dominant) hand, and worked up a major blister on my right foot. Paradise can be hard on a body!14 05 07_8856

Our other land expeditions (including Trafalgar Falls, the Emerald Pool, the Carib Indian territory, and a boat trip on Indian River) were lovely and untaxing (aside from the twisty, bumpy drives to get there). We also had a good time soaking in the stone-lined hot springs named Screw Spa (sorry, but it’s true). A totally unexpected pleasure was meeting Miss Dominica 2013, Leslassa Armour-Hillingsford, a lovely and gracious young lady who helped us with our trip plans in her capacity as clerk for the family business (the Anchorage Hotel)
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The trip was led by Scott Powell, proprietor of Down Under Surf and Scuba, with remarkable energy and good cheer. Scott made sure we had interesting dives, good meals, and fun activities. On the van ride back to the airport, Scott and I noticed that the driver was falling asleep and barely keeping the van on the twisty mountain roads. He worked hard to keep the poor fellow awake (and us alive) by asking him everything he could think of about local geography and culture. We made it, obviously (whew!). Good job, Scott!
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