The Casual Blog

Tag: Down Under Surf and Scuba

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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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.
SeaLife DC1400

SeaLife DC1400
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.

SeaLife DC1400
SeaLife DC1400
SeaLife DC1400

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.

SeaLife DC1400
SeaLife DC1400

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!

Helping bluebirds, and some good and not-so-good internet experiences


Since 2004, Sally has tended a group of bluebird houses in Cary on the Lochmere golf course, near where we used to live.  She keeps fourteen houses in good working order and keeps track of the numbers of eggs and numbers of hatchlings, then passes the data along to the North Carolina Bluebird Society.  Bluebird rely on human-built boxes for breeding spaces, and Sally likes helping them.  It’s the breeding season, and this week she invited me to come along after work to see the activity.

She already had secured a golf cart when I arrived.  It was a sunny, mild afternoon, and there were plenty of golfers out on the course.  She started with hole number 1, where Sally opened the door, pulled out the nest of pine straw, and found several dark gray nestlings, which snuggled together quietly.  Their mama was not at home, but at the next house, the mama bird shot out as we got close to the house and nearly hit my face.  

At the third house there were both bluebird and chickadee eggs. We saw several others populated by hatchlings and eggs that must have been close to hatching. In one, where there had been eggs the week before, there were none.  Sally said a snake had probably got them.  It seemed sad, though not, I guess, for the snake.  Anyhow it was most pleasant to see the birds and birds-to-be with my dear one, and learn more about their lives.

We have tickets for a trip to Cozumel next week for several days of scuba diving, and this week we met with our group at Down Under Surf and Scuba to get briefed on drift diving and other procedures.  Back home, we began our preparations — checking over the gear, refreshing on protocols, and paging through our sea creature identification books.  My underwater strobe wasn’t working properly, so I’ll need to get that over to the dive shop for a consult.  

Cozumel is English-language friendly, but even so I’ve been inspired to try to advance my Spanish.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, I’ve been working on verb conjugation at a very helpful web site that generates drills for every tense. I’ve been focusing on the preterite and the imperfect, and improving.

I’ve also been sampling lessons at Livemocha.  This service invites native speakers of one language, like Spanish, to help those interested in learning their language, like me, and they may also get help in another language, like English, from someone like me. I’ve gotten useful written feedback from folks in Columbia and Mexico, and have tried to give others some helpful tips on English.

The idea of the internet connecting language students is exciting. At the same time, it’s a little unsettling. Livemocha allows for “friending” requests, and I’ve gotten a few of these, but so far I haven’t accepted. I’m not quite clear on what the responsibilities, and risks, might be. I’m more or less constantly overcommitted already, and I would be sorry to disappoint my as yet unknown “friends” in, say, Columbia. And I would be particularly sorry if they turned out to be violent sociopaths of some sort.

Speaking of internet risks, I had an odd experience this week. I finished The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood, which I’d purchased from Amazon in the Kindle edition to read on my tablet device. The next day, I got an email from Amazon asking me how I liked The Self Illusion. !!! I hadn’t realized that Amazon had invited itself quite so intimately into my reading life. Of course, I didn’t read whatever they required me to click on (does anybody?), so it’s possible that I in some hyper legal sense agreed to let them monitor my reading. But really! That’s just icky!

Great N.C. wreck diving, compassion for sea creatures, and collective intelligence

For Labor Day weekend, Sally and I went down to Wrightsville Beach, NC, for some wreck diving and extended our lucky streak of exceptional coastal dives. Our trip was organized by our friends at Down Under Surf and Scuba, and we went out on the Aquatic Safaris I. The 48-foot boat I carried 19 divers.

Saturday was warm and clear, with mild breezes and fairly calm seas. We dove the City of Houston, a passenger-freighter that foundered in a storm in 1878. She lies about 50 miles from Wrightsville. It took two and a half hours of hard traveling to get there. Shortly after we anchored and I visited the head, I felt queasy and promptly got sick. Then I felt mostly better, and we jumped in and headed down the anchor line to the wreck.

The Houston lies at about 95 feet down. Visibility was good (perhaps 60 feet) and the water temperature was a comfortable 82 degrees. There was a mild amount of current on the bottom. There were thousands of small fish. Our most dramatic sighting of the day was a goliath grouper, an enormous fellow, almost six feet long. My camera battery gave out when I tried to get a picture. I did, however, get some other pictures, including Sally examining something tiny with her magnifying glass (above) and great clouds of small fish.

After a second dive on the Houston, we headed in. Our seats were metal benches along the sides, in front of our tanks, so we couldn’t lean back and sleep. Some of our dive mates stretched out and slept on the deck, so it was difficult to move about as the boat sped along at a quick 25-knot pace. Diving sometimes takes fortitude.

We had a good Italian dinner with Sally’s sister in Wilmington at Nicola’s. There were a number of appealing vegetarian offerings. I had the eggplant rollatini with pink sauce, which was quite tasty. We had a lively conversation about, among other things, the automation of higher education, and how it is threatening the traditional university.

On Sunday we went out again on the Aquatic Safaris I, this time for a two-hour trip to the Normannia, a Danish freighter that foundered in 1924. The seas were calm and the trip went smoothly. I didn’t get sick. The wreck is about 115 feet deep. Like the previous day, the visibility was about 60 feet and the water was comfortable.

Even more than at the Houston, the Normannia had an amazing profusion of life. Along with thousands of small fish, we saw barracuda, a couple of gigantic lobsters, a well camouflaged frogfish, and my favorite, queen angelfish (several). I went to some trouble trying to get a good picture of one, and though these don’t really do it justice, they were the best I could do.

It is such a great pleasure to swim among fish. At times we were completely surrounded by thousands of small ones, and at times we swam alongside large ones. As I dive more, I feel increasingly touched by their beauty. They are amazingly varied in size, shape, color, and ways of moving about. Recent research indicates that they are much smarter than we’ve thought. For example, some can very quickly learn complex topography of a reef environment.

As I’ve spent more time with these creatures, I’ve come to consider them sentient beings worthy of respect and compassion. I regret to say I’m in a minority on this point. Among my fellow divers were some with spear guns and one who was capturing lobsters. I found it really painful to see him take an enormous lobster, perhaps decades old, and break off its antenna and shove it into an ice chest to suffocate.

My shipmate seemed otherwise a decent and friendly fellow. I’m certain he was not trying to torture the creature, though that was what he did. He didn’t derive pleasure from being cruel. He simply couldn’t comprehend that the animal was capable of suffering. I think he and others would find that expanding the circle of compassion to more animals is a happier and more fulfilling way to live.

Speaking of intelligence, I read recently that the human brain was unlikely to get larger in the normal course of future evolution, because it would serve no purpose. Brains working in isolation are not how things get done. Instead, as E.O. Wilson has pointed out, it’s humans’ ability to connect their individual brains that has been the secret to their evolutionary success. We keep getting better at that, developing over the millenia the tools of gesture, spoken language, and written language, with the internet being the latest game-changing technology.

In the midst of the depressing mendacity and nonsense of the Republican convention, I find it somewhat consoling to look at intelligence as potentially expanding through better networks. The Republicans are profoundly mistaken in thinking that entrepreneurs act primarily as fully independent rugged individualists. It’s more accurate, and also more useful, to look at achievement in terms of groups cooperating and competing. Our future success, and perhaps our survival, depends on our ability to improve our systems of cooperation, including our politics.

Wreck diving off of Cape Hatteras

Sally and I did a diving trip out of Cape Hatteras last Thursday-Sunday. Although we live in North Carolina and love diving, these were our first NC dives. We’d assumed that the sea life in the vicinity would be sparse and the visibility poor, and that we’d find it a bit of a comedown after our Caribbean trips. It turned out this was way off. The NC ship wrecks we dove had a profusion of sea creatures and ample light. Thousands and thousands of little fish, and some very big ones.

The most dramatic species we saw was the sand tiger shark. These shark are large (around 10 feet) and look mean. Apparently they are often used as the stock image for news stories about shark attacks. However, we saw dozens of them, and all were placid. They didn’t seem frightened of us, as was true of most of the species we saw, and we swam within a few feet of each other. They are beautifully designed and graceful, and of course, imposing.

I try to think of sharks in the way I think of bears — creatures that are potentially dangerous, but also fascinating parts of the natural world. They are not programmed killing machines or embodiments of evil. Shark attacks on humans are rare, and fatal attacks are freakishly rare — about ten a year worldwide. The risk of being killed in a shark attack is substantially less than being struck by lightning, or by an elephant. Also, as I learned this week, way less than the risk of being killed by a dog.

Why do most people fear them so much more intensely than, say bears or lightening? Shark phobia runs deep, and it’s unfortunate both for sharks that become victims of humans (100 million a year) and for humans who experience pointless fear rather than rapturous awe.

On this trip I tried underwater photography with a beginner-level underwater camera by Sea Life. I was glad I’d waited till I was reasonably competent as a diver to try this, because it could distract from doing the things that have got to be done in diving and enjoying the basic experience. But I was ready to give it a shot. Most of the images I got were not great, but I liked a few, and I had fun hunting for interesting things and fun looking at them afterwards.

NC wreck diving involves boat rides to the ship wrecks. Our longest trip, to the Proteus, took about two and a half hours. I wasn’t looking forward the boat ride part of the experience, but we had good weather — mostly clear skies and calm seas. Our vessel, the Under Pressure, was a 41 foot former commercial fishing boat that was substantially unfitted to accommodate six diving customers. It had a special lift on the back of the boat to haul out divers.

Once well offshore, out of sight of land, I was struck by how horizontal the landscape was. 360 degrees of flatness. At the same time, the quality of the water, its color and its energy kept changing. We saw flying fish, jumping dolphins, and one sea turtle on the surface. There were various gulls, pelicans, terns, and other sea birds. I spent part of the travel time recalling some of the great poems of Yeats, Frost, and Stevens.

Besides the Proteus, we did dives on the Dixie Arrow, the Kashena, the Monihan, the Abrams, and the tug near the channel. The wrecks were in varying states of ruin, but had attracted lots if life. Besides sharks, we saw a good number of sting rays, barracuda, tuna, snapper, a large sea turtle, and the occasional butterflyfish. Several people saw an octopus on the Arrow, but we missed it. We saw enormous clouds of thousands of tiny fish, which the locals refer to as “bait balls.”

Visibility for most of our dives was good — more than 70 feet. Our deepest dive, to the Proteus, was about 120 feet down. Bottom temperature was around 80. Current and waves were minimal for the first three days, though more challenging for the final day. I had an oxygen leak (which turned out to be from my BC inflator), which required me to cut the dive short and to ask Sally to share her air as we came back. Fortunately, she agreed. It was a learning experience.

Speaking of learning, I need to give a special shout out to Scott Powell, owner of Down Under Surf and Scuba, who organized the trip, led our group, and taught my course in wreck diving. Scott is a diving professional of the highest caliber, but he seems to really enjoy helping those of us less accomplished. He’s one of those rare gifted teachers that just loves his subject, never make you feel inferior, but make you excited about getting better. His passion and enthusiasm for diving are infectious and inspiring.

Diving Key Largo

Sally and I just got back from a four-day mini-vacation diving out of Key Largo. I’m a bit battered. My hands got sliced in several places from razor clams, my wrists itch from some sort of bites, my neck got stung by fire coral, I bruised my thigh climbing into the boat in rough water, and something took a slice of skin off my left ankle. I had a low air/decompression scare (apparently a computer malfunction). We spent quite a few hours moving fast on small boats in up to three-foot seas, and early on I had a couple of bouts of sea sickness. But it was fantastic.

I did thirteen dives (only four without Sally), including two deepish wrecks (the Spiegel Grove and the Duane), a night dive (at the Benwood), and a lot of shallow coral reefs (including Molasses Reef, Elbow Reef, North Dry Rocks, Eagle Ray Alley, North North Dry Rocks, Christ of the Abyss, and Horseshoe Reef). I got certified on nitrox the week before, and used it for the first time on several dives. The trip included my fiftieth logged dive.

The reefs were really beautiful. There were thousands of reef fish, including quite a few new to me. Among many other fish, we saw several schools of barracuda, a goliath grouper, a nurse shark, green and spotted morays, and such exquisite creatures as gray and queen angelfish. The coral and plant life were also incredibly varied and amazing. It was really cheering to see the reef looking healthy.

We had our moments of anxiety (wondering, where are we, and where’s the boat?). At times there was current or surges to contend with. Visibility was not always great. But most of the time it was so peaceful. Floating weightless. And more and more, my body seems to know how to maneuver in the water with very little effort. There’s a feeling of wonderful freedom.

We went with a group of sixteen or so other divers organized by Dan P. and Down Under Scuba. The price was amazingly cheap, and it was great not to have to worry about the flights, hotels, and such. It was also good to spend some time with experienced divers, who were generally good folks who shared interesting tips. Dan was an inspiration, as a diver and a person, and we’ll look forward diving with him again.