The Casual Blog

Tag: scuba diving

Our dive trip to Cozumel, and a word on behalf of science

French angelfish

For Christmas, Sally put together a scuba diving trip to  Cozumel, Mexico with our dear ones — Gabe, Jocelyn, and Kyle (our new son-in-law).   Our travel went smoothly, the weather was warm and pleasant, and the diving was revealing.

We stayed at the Hotel Cozumel and Resort, which has a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees, as well as a small sandy area near the boat dock.  For non-diving afternoons, we lounged about, read, and enjoyed pina coladas. Jocelyn, serving as our dinner concierge, found us some outstanding restaurants, including Kinta, Kondesa, and Alfredo di Roma Trattoria, and we had some good conversations with good laughs. 

But the main event for four days was the diving.  Each morning, we took boat rides of an hour or so along the coast to the south and did two dives of about an hour each.  Our depths were mostly between 40 and 80 feet, with visibility from about 60 to 70 feet. The current was strong at times, and good for drift diving.  Water temperatures at bottom were a pleasant 81 or 82 degrees Fahrenheit.   

Gray angelfish

Even in our small area, there was a lot of variation in the marine life.  Some of the coral seemed healthy and colorful, and other parts were brown and mossy, or bleached.  There were a lot of small tropical fish with vibrant colors. Among the most enjoyable tropicals: angelfish (queen, French, and gray), butterflyfish (four-eye, banded), blue tangs, surgeonfish, durgons, trumpetfish, queen triggerfish, honecomb cowfish, balloonfish, porcupinefish, smooth trunkfish, whitespotted filefish, stoplight parrotfish, yellowtail snappers, and French grunts.  We also saw a few barricudas, a few green moray eels, a few spotted morays, a few yellow stringrays, two magnificent spotted eagle rays, and one southern stingray.

We had no turtles until the last day, and then saw four Hawksbills on one dive (which was also the one dive when my camera malfunctioned). We were hoping to see nurse and reef sharks, as we have on previous trips here, but never did.

Gabe gives a thumbs up

I’m sure being a reef fish is tough at times, but in our reef visits most of the residents seemed at ease.  Some were clearly aware of us, and while some were shy, others were curious. Spending time close to them was both thrilling and wonderfully calming.  Looking hard at the animals and trying to understand them better gives new perspectives on ourselves.    

French grunts

Of course we’re worried about the future of the Cozumel coral reef ecosystem, as many coral reefs around the world are dying.  According to the IPCC, between 70 and 90 percent of coral reefs will perish by 2052 if global warming continues at present levels.    This would have a devastating impact on all ocean life, not to mention human life that depends on ocean life.  

Queen angelfish

But nature is amazingly resilient, and it’s certainly possible that we’ll figure out a way to stop killing coral reefs and other ecosystems.  It will take some work, though, since we’ve barely begun to understand the workings of reef systems. More research is needed.

This is yet another reason why we need to boot Trump:  Trump’s war on science. As the NY Times reported last week, Trumpians are shutting down federally supported science programs left and right, and threatening scientists who call attention to climate change and other health risks.  Scientists with specialized and essential knowledge are getting let go or quitting government service, leaving us less and less able to address our emergencies. This is perverse!  


A part of the explanation is probably the drive for more profits by fossil fuel, mining, agribusiness, and other corporate interests.  Preventing greater understanding and control of the damage they’re doing to the planet is certainly in their self interest. But at the same time, corporate interests need scientific knowledge to manage risks, and the oligarchs have to live on the same planet as the rest of us.  There must be more to it.  

Very possibly Trump’s war on science is driven by the same malign impulses as has his war on the mainstream media. Both science and the media increase knowledge and understanding, which is at cross purposes with Trumpism.  Science and serious media tend to undermine the administration’s preference for hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and ignorance. They give a basis for sensible political action, while their absence leaves an information vacuum that causes mass confusion and promotes political apathy.  

Jocelyn and Kyle say hi

There are all kinds of problems inherent in science — unacknowledged bias, methodological errors, and even occasional intentional fraud.  Individual scientists are as subject to intellectual and moral failings as the rest of us. However, the community of scientists is built for self-correction, so that errors by some scientists are often called out by other scientists.  The background methods of science have been amazingly successful over the last four centuries in increasing knowledge about the natural world and increasing human well being.   

Queen triggerfish

Science as a system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way we’ve come up with so far for understanding the world and addressing its problems.  It’s just bizarre that the richest, most technologically advanced country in history would systematically try to squelch it.  Even leaving aside every other Trump criminality, cruelty, and stupidity, Trump’s war on science is reason enough to vote him out.    

Sally says bye


Our scuba diving trip to the Bahamas


Sally and I got back on Saturday from a scuba diving trip aboard the Bahamas Aggressor.  After a week on the ship, our sea legs are still working — that is, the floor to our apartment has been rolling from side to side.  Our ears got a bit stopped up from a lot of time underwater, so we’re not hearing so well, and my poor toes have a couple of bad blisters from hours of kicking with fins. But it was wonderful to be at sea, seeing so many amazing creatures.  The pictures here were all taken by me during the trip, except the last one, which was by Brynne, one of our ship photographers.

The Bahamas Aggressor is a 100-foot vessel with a crew of 6 that sails out of Nassau.  The ship was, we learned, the oldest member of the Aggressor fleet.  It was a little cramped, but had all the necessities, and the various systems (water, electricity, AC, air compressor, etc.) worked fine.  Our only real disappointment was the hot tub, which looked inviting, but was unfortunately broken.    

Our dive sites were southeast of Nassau, in the Exuma and Eleuthera areas.  We had some spectacular sunsets, but it was mostly gray, and cooler and windier than expected.  The seas got a bit rough at times, and I was glad I took motion sickness pills. The water was generally around 79 degrees F, and I felt comfortable in a 5 mm wetsuit with a hooded vest.  The visibility was usually around 60 feet, though substantially less than that on a couple of dives.

We generally did four or five dives per day, including a night dive.  Most dives were a little under an hour. The dive sites were mostly either walls or coral reef structures, with a couple of wrecks thrown in.  We saw a lot of interesting sea life, large and small. To name a few, there were Caribbean reef sharks, southern sting rays, groupers, barricuda, jacks, Atlantic spadefish, filefish, queen triggerfish, porcupine fish, grunts, striped burrfish, and various types of parrotfish, along with various angelfish (gray, queen, French), butterflyfish, and lots of other small tropicals.  There were, unfortunately, a lot of destructive lionfish. We also saw several green sea turtles, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and conchs, and various tinier creatures. A few people saw a solitary hammerhead shark, but we missed that one. There was also one octopus sighting, but sadly, we didn’t get that one either.

There was beautiful coral in places, but a number of the dive sites did not look healthy.  There was some serious coral bleaching, and also a lot of green algae. We’d been well aware that coral reefs have been dying in many places, but had hoped they would be healthier here.  Over all, I found the conditions worrisome.

But we found many beautiful inspiring areas of life.  The crew, led by Captain Christy, was young, cheery, and supportive, and our eight fellow passengers were good diving and dining companions.  Five were of Chinese or Singaporean origin, and we very much enjoyed getting to know them and something of their culture. Caleb the cook fed his two vegetarians (us) well, and made particularly wonderful desserts.

On some dives we stayed close to the guide, but on most we explored on our own.  We had one major navigation snafu. After miscalculating the direction, we found ourselves almost out of air and surfaced a couple of hundred yards from the boat, and so had to be picked up by the Zodiac pontoon boat.  Also, on our very last dive, the plan was for a drift dive in strong current, with divers jumping in quickly one after the other off the side from the moving boat. I was the last in the line, and when my turn came, in I went.

Once in the water, I found the visibility very limited (perhaps 10 feet), and I could not see anyone.  I assumed the group must be a short way ahead, just beyond visual range, and so I let myself be carried along quickly by the current. It was fun to drift, but after a few minutes, I started to get worried.  I finally decided to call it and surfaced after 15 minutes.   Rob, the mate manning the Zodiac, quickly spotted me and picked me up, and back we went to the boat. It turned out that everyone else had surfaced 3 or 4 minutes after the start of the dive, and they were getting worried about me. As happens at times, I had marched to a different drummer.  It was good to be back.

Between diving, eating, and sleeping, there wasn’t a lot of time for other activity, but I did finish an interesting book, The Social Leap, by William von Hippel.  It’s a science-for-non-scientists account of how evolution shaped homo sapiens and their social systems. Von Hippel explores differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, and brings into focus simultaneous opposing strong forces of cooperation and competition.  I wish he’d  been clearer about what was well-established science (which much of it was) as opposed to creative speculation, but he throws out a lot of intriguing ideas. He suggests looking at fear and unhappiness as essential to our species, in that they keep us alert to danger and lead to progress.  He views our inability to live in the present as both a gift and a problem, and notes the usefulness of meditation.

On Saturday, we had a direct flight from Nassau to Charlotte, and then drove home to Raleigh.  We talked a lot about the week, and started to kick around where to go for our next big diving trip.  Maybe the Red Sea. We also enjoyed listening to a new-to-us podcast called Aria Code.   Hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, each episode has a panel discussing a famous opera aria from musical, historical, and psychological points of view.  We especially liked the episode on love at first sight in Puccini’s La Boheme.

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.

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 diving trip to Fiji

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Over the end-of-year holiday Sally and I went to Fiji for some scuba diving. It was a long journey with some rough spots, but also some thrilling spots, and on balance it was worth it. For those who might consider such a trip, here’s some of the nitty gritty on the diving, and also a note about our stop on the way home at the Getty Museum.

I’d always thought of Fiji as one of those “island paradise” places in the Pacific, but in fact didn’t know that much about it. The reason we decided to go was we’d heard the scuba diving was good, and it’s relatively uncomplicated to get to from the US. It is situated north of New Zealand, west of Tonga, and east of Vanuatu. Although it looks like a tiny speck on the world map, it is made up of 332 islands, though most of the population of 860,000 lives on just two of them. The large islands are mountainous and very green

It took us about 26 hours door-to-door to get there. Going out, we had three flights, a long cab ride, a wait, and then an hour boat ride to get to Beqa (pronounced Ben-ga) Lagoon Resort. The staff was on the beach under the palms singing and clapping as we floated up. This was sweet, but we were surprised that there was no dry way to exit the boat. You had to step into the water and then onto the beach, and Sally was still in stockings, but on she went. One of the staff put a little garland with flowers around our neck.

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The resort didn’t look quite as gleaming as its website suggested, but it had tropical charm, with palms, flowers, sand, pools, and grass-roofed buildings, and the staff was warm, friendly, and competent. We were in Bure (which I’m guessing means cottage) No. 5, which fronted on the beach and had thick hedges on the side – great privacy. That afternoon, I did a short checkout dive, but otherwise we took it easy and had a couples massage at the spa. It was marvelous.

The next day we did two boat dives in the area. The water was a comfortable 82 degrees, but choppy, and the visibility was mediocre – at most 50 feet, rather than the super clear water we were expecting. We were looking forward to the fabled soft coral, of which we saw some, but we were also struck that there were big coral areas that were bleached white (prematurely dead). It was nice to see many small tropical fish that were new to us, including new species of angelfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, anemone fish, fusiliers, wrasse, parrot fish, and my new favorite, the Moorish idol.
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At dinner that evening we sat down next to a youngish Swiss couple, Mark and Doris, who spoke excellent English and were charming and lively. We found a lot of interests in common, starting with diving but extending to skiing, travel, and world affairs. Our conversations that evening and for the rest of our stay were a highlight of the trip. As for the eating, the resort accommodated our request for vegetarian meals, and almost everything was tasty.

On the second day of Beqa diving, we enjoyed talking with Rick, a nice Mormon guy who owned a bunch of car dealerships in the heartland. He was up to speed on the self-driving car, a favorite subject of mine, and like me thinking about what this meant for employment and the economy. He was intrigued to hear about our scuba liveaboard trips, and wanted to learn more. He allowed, though, that he wasn’t sure he was passionate enough about diving to do a week focused entirely on that. I agreed – you’ve got to be passionate.
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The next morning we crossed back over Beqa lagoon, and got a ride to our dive boat, the Island Dancer II. It was 101 feet long, 22 feet in the beam, and well-appointed for diving. Our cabin was on the main deck past eating/socializing area. It was air-conditioned and quite commodious and bright by marine standards, with a queen bed, desk, large windows, and private bathroom.

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Our crew, led by Captain Joji (pronounced Cho-chee) and divemaster Moses, was all Fijian, friendly and hardworking. Our seven shipmates were from D.C., San Francisco, Sydney, and Moscow, and all were very experienced divers who’d all been to several exotic dive locations before.
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Our first night involved a nine-hour trip from Viti Levu (the main island) through the Makogai Channel toward Vanua Levu and Namena Reef. The weather was rainy, and the seas were choppy. The boat rocked enough to dump things off of countertops. Fortunately, our stomachs were up to the challenge (thank, Bonine). The next morning it was calm, and we did a check out dive – ostensibly to check how much weight we needed, but, I suspect, more to let the crew verify that no one was going to be a hazard to himself or others. That went smoothly, and we quickly settled into our routine.
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Our typical Island Dancer day went as follows: Up at 6:30 a.m. for pre-breakfast (e.g. yogurt, fruit, cereal), first dive at 7:30, breakfast of eggs or French toast at 9:00, second dive at 10:30, lunch at noon, third dive at 2:00 p.m., snack at 3:30, fourth dive at 4:30, dinner at 6:00, fifth dive (night dive) at 8:15, have a glass of wine at 9:30, and then sleep. In short, dive, eat, and sleep. In the background were gorgeous lush islands, lovely sunsets, and usually a mild tropical breeze. The water and air were both mostly in the low eighties. What could be more fun?13 12 31_5910_edited-1

OK, not everything was perfect. The visibility was disappointing. It ranged from a best of about 50 feet down to 20 or so – far from the 80-100 feet we were expecting. The captain said at one point it was as bad as he’d seen it in many years of diving the area. He said a tropical depression shortly before we arrived was responsible. So, that was unlucky. We were also initially struck that there were significant areas of the reefs bleached white with not a lot of animal life. There were fewer big animals (big fish, turtles, rays) than we had hoped. At least one person saw a manta ray, but we did not.

But still, there was a great deal to see. A typical site involved a pinnacle (that is, a column), of coral rising from the sand perhaps 50 feet. The top layer would generally be about 15 feet below the surface, and would have an enormous profusion of soft and hard coral, anemones, and thousands of tropical fish. With so many textures and colors, the coral looked in places like a fantastic garden – amazingly beautiful.
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Along with the fish, we saw quite a few other interesting and strange small creatures, including various kinds of nudibranchs, flat worms, sea horses, tiny shrimp, pipe fish, blennies, and others still more obscure. There were a few turtles, and a couple of moray eels. One morning we watched a banded sea snake (highly poisonous) swimming for several minutes, and a very well-disguised octopus, who changed disguises a couple of more times. On one night dive we saw three leaf scorpionfish and a giant clam at least four feet across.
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The fourth day in, off of Gau (pronounced Now) Island, we did two shark dives, where we saw dozens of gray reef sharks close up. With them were many red sea bass and smaller fish, as well as schools of barracuda. On the first dive we held in current behind a rock wall, while the sharks came in for fish heads. The second involved a drift dive in a fast current, with the sharks zooming in and out.
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On that second dive, I got low on air, and shared Sally’s with her extra second stage as we got pushed hard by the current to the exit point. It was a challenging situation, but we worked well together, as usual. We saw a spotted eagle ray during the safety stop.

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On the afternoon of the fourth day, we visited a little village on Gau island called Soma Soma. Our guide there told us that 114 people and 3 clans lived there. The people greeted us in a friendly way. Teenage boys were setting off fireworks with a palm cannon to celebrate the new year, and little kids were splashing in the water. We sampled kava, a watery drink made from soaking kava root. Supposedly it can produce a high, but I got only slight numbness in my mouth. The villagers did some singing and dancing, and got some of us to join in a dance.
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My Sea Life underwater camera quit working (wouldn’t turn on) after the second day of diving, and so I rented a little Canon G15 camera from the boat. Lacking a strobe, I used my Sola flash light for extra light, which was suboptimal. My photographic aspirations were simple, really – to get a few images that started to convey the incredible beauty down there – but it was still hard to do.

There were so many great shots that got away. A beautiful angelfish would present itself in all its splendor, and either the camera had gone to sleep, or wouldn’t focus. Or in the half second shutter lag interval, the fish would turn away, or another fish would swim between us, or another diver’s bubbles would mess things up. Then, after the shot, the camera would take a few second to recycle, during which time the subject fish would again look gorgeous, but as soon as the camera was ready to go – so was the fish. Some of those little fish are shy! Anyhow, I tried, and I a few times I got an image I liked.
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Our trip back was a total of 41 hours, including layovers, but we made good use of the eleven-hour layover in L.A. with our first visit to the Getty Center. The logistics were a bit challenging, in that we couldn’t check our heavy dive bags and so had to cart them by cab and tram to the Getty’s coat check room, but it was worth it.

It is a wonderful museum! It’s perched on top of a hill, surrounded by gardens, with a good view of downtown L.A. It has several connected buildings, with a vibe that’s modern but evocative. The crowd was all ages, international, multiracial, and friendly.

And there was an outstanding collection of European art. We spent time looking at the excellent collection of paintings of Rembrandt and his contemporaries, and of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. We also very much enjoyed the current exhibit of the works of Abelardo Morrell, a Cuban-American photographer. His works were highly conscious of texture and shape in a formal way, but also touched something emotionally powerful.

A dive trip to Hatteras with a harrowing episode, visiting Manteo, and reading Robot Futures

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We undertook a four-day dive trip out of Cape Hatteras beginning last Thursday, but the weather didn’t cooperate. We made it OK to our base at Hatteras Landing, but high seas prevented our going out for the first three days. We made the best of things, enjoying some time together, exploring the local points of interest, listening to music, and reading.
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For us the most interesting non-diving local point was the N.C. Aquarium at Manteo. I particularly liked the sting ray encounter tank, where Atlantic and cownose rays came up to be petted. There was a large tank with several sand tiger and sand bar sharks, which are impressive. Their keeper got in the tank in scuba gear with a full face mask and speaking equipment, and answered questions as they swam around her. Her high degree of comfort with these fierce-looking creatures was, I’m sure, an educational moment for the kids and adults in attendance.
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While in Manteo, we also visited the Elizabethan Gardens. Sally remembered my mother had talked about how beautiful it was, and we found it so. The first part is a formal garden with ornamental hedges, but the greater part of it is wooded, with enormous oaks and shade loving plants.
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With no other pressing business, I did some walking on the Hatteras beach, and took some pictures of the birds at work there. I got a few of sanderlings and willets on the edge of the surf that I liked.
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As for reading, I started a biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan by Ron Chernow, which seems lively so far. And I finished Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh. Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and his book describes the current state of the art in robotics and also gives a forward projection of what several decades might bring. Some of it seems science fictiony, but that may be unavoidable – technology has already surpassed some of the science fiction of my youth.

Nourbakhsh describes robots as “a new form of living glue between our physical world and the digital universe we have created.” He gently makes clear that robots are not limited in their mental or physical abilities to what humans can do. Forget the Jetson and their butler robot. Real robots can be stronger and faster, and move in different ways (like flying, or crawling like a snake). They can perceive parts of the visual spectrum we can’t, and hear pitches that we can’t. They can connect to the internet more efficiently than humans, and potentially process information from numerous sources that are far beyond our capacities.

Robot Futures recognizes that there will be many different types of robots with widely varying abilities, including ones that are closely controlled by humans and others which will be partially or entirely autonomous. It will not be easy for humans to tell the difference. Autonomous robots with access to robot Google and links to other robot databases may well know more about us when we encounter them than we about them.

Nourbakhsh imagines a distant future where we can smoothly enter the consciousness of various robot agents that in effect teleport us to different places and allow interactions with multiple people and environments at once. He also has a darker vision of a possible world where human bodies are purchased for use as the physical casing for robot intelligence. Impossible? Let us hope so. But there is little doubt in my mind that, barring global catastrophe, the world of intelligent robots is taking shape. Robot Futures does a good job at starting the conversation of what that might mean for humans.

We finally got to dive on Sunday with Captain J.T. Barker on his dive boat, the Under Pressure. As I noted last year, J.T. designed and built an elevator on the back for getting divers out of the water. This comes in very handy in rough seas. The vessel has a large air-conditioned cabin, which permits some relaxing on long boat rides. Some video of the boat and our dives in early August last year is on his web site.
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We did two wrecks: the Proteus and the Dixie Arrow. The first was, for me, nearly disastrous. Immediately after I reached the bottom (118 feet), I paused briefly to clear water from my mask and tune my buoyancy. Visibility was limited to about 20 feet at that point. Then I looked around and saw no one and nothing. In just seconds, the current had carried me out of sight of the anchor line.

I struggled against the current for a bit, then relaxed and started working on plan B – ascend and find the boat. I began to slowly go up, then at 80 feet I suddenly noted that the air was not working at all well. The air pressure gauge showed zero. This seemed impossible – I had been under for only about 20 minutes, and usually the air lasts two or three times that long. Anyhow, it happened. Plainly, I should have checked the gauge earlier.

Although I thought it unlikely I could make an emergency ascent on one breath from 80 feet, I saw no choice but to have a go. I really didn’t feel panic, even at this point, though I was seriously concerned. I remembered my PADI training and exhaled gradually as I kicked upward. I ran out of air at about 30 feet, and hoped very much there was one last breath in the tank. I breathed in, and there was a tad — just enough to make it the rest of the way.

On the surface, I felt relief, but also concern that I might well have some degree of decompression sickness, a/k/a the bends. I was hoping to get some oxygen, but the boat, with oxygen, was far away.

As I started kicking against the current toward the board and watching to see if I was going to get sick, I felt something bump me. I reached down and felt a firm, smooth animal. A shark? I thought how really unfair it would be, after all my speaking up in defense of sharks, to end up as shark food. I finally figured out it was a ramora, which apparently wanted to attach itself to me.

I swam for quite a while with little progress, until at last Bobby, the mate, came out with a line. As we kicked, our divermaster Jim reeled us in. It was, of course, embarrassing. But I was grateful to be alive and not even ill, and it certainly was a learning experience.

During our surface interval, Captain J.T. put out some fishing lines, and hooked a fish. As the fish came near the boat, J.T. Announced with excitement that it was a wahoo, and grabbed a hook, with which he impaled the fish and hauled him aboard. The wahoo was about 3 feet long and about 30 pounds – a fine specimen.

Several folks commented on what a delicious meal he would make. Then J.T. and others observed Sally crying. These were tears for the wahoo. Our fellow divers were concerned but really puzzled. They just couldn’t comprehend Sally’s sadness at the brutal torture and death of this creature.

Our second dive, the Dixie Arrow, was less exciting, thank God. I had only a minor equipment problem: the wire to my strobe came loose – so no pictures. We got close to a lot of sand tiger sharks (maybe 10), a lot of Atlantic sting rays (maybe 12), a number of barricuda and thousands of minnows in shimmering thick clouds. It was fantastic.

Beautiful diving in the Turks and Caicos

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One of my resolutions for 2012 was to try something new, like a trip or minor adventure, once a month. I didn’t keep strict count, but I came pretty close, and the last trip of the year was novel enough to count for two. Sally and I opted out of the final feeding frenzy of Christmas and instead spent the holiday week staying under water as much as possible. We flew to the Turks and Caicos Islands, and boarded the Aggressor II, a 120-foot vessel designed to take about 18 hardy and fortunate souls on week-long scuba diving trips. It was a fantastic trip.

We saw reef sharks, sting rays, spotted eagle rays, barracuda, hawksbill turtles, eels, grouper, jacks, grunts, tangs, porcupinefish, trumpetfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, squirrelfish, spadefish, parrotfish, and many small bright tropicals. On night dives we saw an octopus perform for several minutes, as well as a performing eel, enormous crabs and lobsters, and beautiful varied coral. Our most exciting siting was a giant manta, not common in those waters, an enormous and powerful fellow. There were also plenty of the beautiful-but-highly-destructive lion fish.

I got a tee shirt that says Eat Sleep Dive, which tells most of the story for the week. The schedule included five daily dives, including one night dive, from Sunday to Thursday and two on Friday, and I did all but one. We spent most of our time off of French Cay and West Caicos, with dives on the last day off of Provo.
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Most of the dives were wall dives, with a shelf around thirty or forty feet down dropping off mysteriously into the deep blue. My deepest dives were around 100 feet, but I spent most of my time in the 40-60 foot range. visibility varied but was for the most part reasonably good, with the best being about 70 feet and worst about 40 feet. Current was mostly very light to nonexistent. Bottom temperatures were mostly in the high 70s, which was OK, but there were a few chilly places (low 70s). Especially when the breeze was blowing, it was chilly getting out, and we were happy to use the yacht’s hot tub to warm up.
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We had strong winds the day we arrived, which led to big seas on Saturday night as we left Provideniciales. I learned later that there were swells up to 10 feet, with an average of 7-8 feet seas. Per the crew and experienced passengers, this was unusually bad weather. Even fortified with Bonine, the up and down, sometimes with a corkscrew twist, was more than my stomach could handle, and I spent the entire evening hanging over the rail, about as miserable as I ever recall being. By Sunday morning, the seas were calmer, and I felt better, though my stomach muscles felt sore for the next couple of days. It stayed tolerably calm the rest of the trip.
SeaLife DC1400
SeaLife DC1400

In preparation for the trip, I’d been reading up on underwater photography, and I signed up for a short course on the subject taught by our captain, Amanda Bryan. Amanda was a good teacher (as well as a good captain) and gave me encouragement and quite a few helpful tips. My camera had issues, with the strobe at first refusing to fire, and then the camera refusing to charge, and I ended up using a loaner for the last half of the trip.
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The reef environments we saw were really beautiful and abounding with life. One of our dive companions was a nudibranch enthusiast and inspired us to look for these and other small mollusks. This caused a shift in focus so that we saw more of the very small things. So much beauty! One could easily just bask in it. Photography works somewhat against the grain of that aesthetic and spiritual experience, because it’s necessary to think in a very left-brained way about technology and physics. I was glad I spent some of my time that way,though. I made a few images, shown above and below, that I liked and thought others might, too.
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SeaLife DC1400

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.