The Casual Blog

Tag: coral reefs

Ringing out the old year with a diving trip to Cozumel

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Pope Francis’s vision

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It’s been ungodly hot in Raleigh this week, with a record high of Fahrenheit 99 on Tuesday. Humid, too. So instead of running on Saturday, I settled in to read some of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudito Si. From newspaper reports, I’d expected a sort of primer on the perils of global warming, but it turned out to be much more than that, and I felt enriched and inspired by the experience. It’s available online here.

Even though I’m a thorough-going non-believer, I’m a big fan of Francis. He seems to be a genuinely warm, caring, and thoughtful person. What are the odds? How daunting and disorienting to be considered by many as infallible, and fully realize you aren’t. (Remember his famous words,“Who am I to judge?”) How dissonant to live amid Vatican magnificence and rock-star adulation and try to focus on the problems of the poor. And who would volunteer to be in charge of cleaning up pedophile priest networks, bishop cover ups, money laundering holy bankers, and God knows what other crimes and misdemeanors? And after all that, who would have the courage and drive to speak truths that implicitly threaten the world’s wealthiest, most powerful interests on what are, for them, as well as us, issues of existential importance? That’s right: my man Francis.

I was hoping that Laudito Si would have an executive summary, but it does not. Still, I kept reading. The prose is lucid and emphatic, with an animating passion. Francis leaves no doubt that he agrees with the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the global warming crisis. He states that there is an urgent need to reduce such emissions and develop renewable energy. If he accomplished nothing more than calling more attention to this issue and inspiring high level discussion and action, that would be a lot. But Laudito Si does more than that, persuasively articulating a powerful ethical vision that calls for reforming both societies and our selves.
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Francis calls on the people of the world to recognize that we are in an ecological crisis, and need to expand our dialog and work together to address this crisis. The dimensions of the crisis include air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, rising oceans that threaten large cities, and increasing extreme weather events. Not to mention the extinction of many species. He states, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

At the same time, Francis reminds us of the vibrant beauty of the natural world. He has sections on rainforests and other wonders. On a topic particularly close to my heart, he writes of “the immense variety of living creatures” in our oceans which are threatened by uncontrolled fishing and the coral reefs that have been harmed by pollution and rising temperatures.

Early on, Francis rejects the reading of the Bible that entitles humans to dominate and exploit all earthly resources. He writes instead that humans are meant to be careful stewards of those resources, and regard them with awe and wonder, and recognize our essential connection to animals, vegetables, and minerals. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” He returns a number of times to the theme of our interconnectedness to each other and the world.

An aspect of this theme is concern for both the poor and for other living creatures. He writes, “We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.”
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Similarly, Francis draws connections between our treatment of animals and our basic humanity. Recently I’ve been feeling indignant about the new North Carolina ag gag law, which among other things protects industrial agriculture operations from those who propose to publicize their cruelty to animals. Let me just say, this is so wrong! This excerpt is apropos: “When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”

Part of the ambition of Laudito Si is to reset our relationship to technology. “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. . . . To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up it to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Francis envisions a world where the capitalism and technological progress are no longer allowed to drive increasing inequality and alienation, but instead are put in the service of human needs.

Of course, I don’t mean to endorse all of Francis’s views. I read the sections on God’s acts and intentions in much the spirit that I read the poetry of Milton. I think he’s quite mistaken about the value of building a market for carbon credits, which would creative incentives to reduce emissions. I also regret that he dismisses the serious risks of overpopulation, which needs to be moved way up on our list of priorities. But I’m finding the work inspiring, and hope many will read it and think about it.

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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Our dive trip to Cozumel

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Sally and I just got back from a week of scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico. As a friend recently noted, we like adventure vacations. If you do, too, you would probably like Cozumel. The diving was great, and the above-water scene was lively, too.

Cozumel is a warm and enterprising place. Most of the real beauty, for me, is in the reefs, but I also really liked the people. The Mexicans I met are mostly cheerful and good humored, but also polite and dignified. They worked hard to help us along our way.

The business of Cozumel is tourism, and there are many layers to this business, from high end hotels to street hawkers. A stroll through the main part of town takes you past many gold and silver jewelry shops, clothing shops, crafts establishments, restaurants, and shops selling Cuban cigars. Most of these shops have a person who will try to persuade you to look inside, some of whom are aggressive and insistent. It’s a bit annoying if you’re not interested in the goods, but the beautiful blue water fronting the main street makes up for any inconvenience.
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I’d been planning to use more of my Spanish, which is still a work in progress, but had little occasion to. The sales and service people of Cozumel have highly developed antennae for spotting los norteamericanos, and encourage expenditures by using English, which ranged from adequate to impressive. A couple of waiters gently corrected my usage mistakes, which I appreciated, and I think they appreciated my making some effort with their language, but it was clearly not required.

Our hotel was the Casa Mexicana, a mod-looking place on the water in the center of town. Our rooms was attractive and comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the courtyard restaurant where we ate very satisfying breakfasts. The lobby was on the second floor with a pool and deck chairs overlooking the water. Lots of restaurants were within walking distance, though we took a taxi to our favorite, Casa Mission. The hotel was only a few steps from the shop of the folks who took us diving, Aqua Safari, and the boat dock was just across the street.
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Our boats usually had about fifteen divers. These included our group of six organized by our friend Dan out of Down Under Surf and Scuba. We did two dives in the morning, and after returning to the dock, we either ate quickly and went out for an afternoon dive, or on two days relaxed and then went out again at 7:00 for a night dive. The boat rides to the dive sites were generally one to 1.5 hours. Our guides were experienced, and showed us many interesting places and creatures. Early May seemed a good time to be there – sunny, breezy, and not un-Godly hot.

Our dive environments fell into three main groups: coral walls that went much deeper than we could dive, coral patches separated by sandy areas, and large coral structures shaped like pillars, boulders, mesas, and canyons, which made me think of southwest Utah. There were dozens of species of live coral. Some were vivid colors (purple, orange, green, yellow, red), and we also saw the famous black coral. Their shapes and textures were fantastically varied, including ones that looked like cactuses, pillars, antlers, brains, and various vegetables.
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Cozumel is famous for drift diving, meaning a trip that goes where the strong current takes you. This can be exhilarating, but is also challenging at times. In the strongest current, there is no easy way to stop or reverse course, and it can feel by moments like Lost in Space. This requires alertness to avoid collisions with people or coral, and limits the chances to take photographs or look at things with deliberation. There were dive sites with little current, though, which were calm and sweet.

And of course, there were thousands of fish and other creatures. We’ve been trying to improve our identification skills, with the useful reference works on reef fish, creatures, and coral by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach. Sally was prepared to ID a green sea turtle, of which we saw only one, though we saw several hawksbills. She also introduced me to the whitenosed pipefish and various seahorses.

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There was no shortage of bizarre looking creatures, including the porcupine fish, splendid toadfish, flying gurnard, smooth trunkfish, trumpetfish, honeycomb cowish, scrawled firefish, and queen triggerfish. We saw southern stingrays, as well as yellow rays and a Caribbean torpedo ray, and spotted and green moray eels. There were also large spiny lobsters and crabs. On a night dive I saw two octopuses that transformed themselves into objects of varying shapes and colors. It was fantastic!

One species we we pleased not to see many of was the lion fish. These invasive predators reproduce quickly, have no resident enemies, and consume voraciously. They’re now common in the northern Caribbean. Our main guide, Miguel, said that the dive guides in Cozumel had been authorized to kill them, and the numbers have been substantially reduced in the most dived areas of the south coast over the lat three years.

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We also saw some big and medium creatures: nurse sharks, black groupers, barracuda, giant parrotfish, jacks, grunts, and snappers. I particularly adore the queen angelfish, and saw many, as well as French and gray angelfish. And there were untold numbers of colorful smaller tropicals – durgons, tangs, grunts, surgeon fish, butterflyfish, chromis, wrasse, and many others. The profusion of life is amazing, still!
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My camera strobe worked fine on day one and two, but then the supporting arm’s joint broke, and so my photographs after that were mostly by natural life. This was disappointing, because there are things that just can’t be captured without a strobe, but I liked some of the images I got. The pictures here are all mine, except the first, the one immediatelhy above, and the ones below of Sally and me, which were taken by Pete, a professional. (Yes, I realize his look a lot better than mine. My excuse is he had better equipment, though also probably more talent.)
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The morning before our flight home, we rented a jet ski and sported about for a half hour. The machine, a Yamaha, seemed very powerful. The water was choppy, and I never quite managed to take the machine to full throttle, as it jumped and bucked. Sally rode behind me, and proclaimed herself thoroughly shaken and glad to still be alive when we were done. But note, she never complained or requested that we slow down. That’s my gal!