The Casual Blog

Tag: sharks

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!  

Porcupinefish

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

 

Diving out of Wrightsville — the good, the bad, and the ugly

SeaLife DC1400

We had a dive trip this weekend out of Wrightsville Beach with Aquatic Safaris. We were scheduled to go to two wrecks on Saturday afternoon, the Hyde and Markham, but rough seas prevented that. Plan B was the Liberty Ship, which sits just three miles offshore. Things were bumpy with some current, and I found my heart rate and breathing increasing as I went down the anchor line. There were still a few leftover thoughts of my near death experience of a few weeks back.
SeaLife DC1400

Visibility was quite bad – perhaps 5-10 feet. We followed a line laid out by the mate. There wasn’t much we could see besides the line. It was nice to be diving again, but this was not pleasant diving. The second dive was similar. There were several divers taking a wreck diving course who laid out lines, and we got their lines confused with the mate’s line at one point. We finally figured it out and made it back to the anchor line and the boat.
SeaLife DC1400

Saturday night we stayed in Wilmington with Sally’s sister, Anne, and went to Cichetti, an Italian restaurant. We had a nice meal and a lively conversation. We discussed Shakespeare’s concept of evil, Greek playwrights, and youthful experimenting with psychedelics and pot.

We also talked some about slavery, which I’ve been reading about in a new history of the pre-civil war and civil war period called Ecstatic Nation by Brenda Wineappple. The book brings vivid life to the 1850s when there were slave states and free states, and it was by no means clear which would ultimately prevail. It require real imagination to understand the pro-slavery viewpoint. Wineapple is certainly not pro-slavery, but she gives a sense of the incredible intensity and complexity of the struggle.
SeaLife DC1400

Early Sunday morning the skies were clear and calm, and the seas were calm as well. We left the marina about 7:30 a.m. and made it to the wreck of the John D. Gill in about an hour and half. The Gill was a tanker sunk by a German u-boat in WWII. Visibility was pretty good – perhap 50 feet. We saw several barracuda and thousands of small silvery fish, and we also spotted two large flounder.
SeaLife DC1400

For the last dive, we went to the Hyde, a wreck that still look like a ship, though with lots of things growing on it and lots of fish around it. Visibility was less good – maybe 30-40 feet – but the wreck itself was interesting, and we could see thousands of little fish, along with many barracuda. One sand tiger shark passed close by.
SeaLife DC1400

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 in the Galapagos Islands

Sally at Darwin's Arch, Galapagos

On Christmas day, we did our third day of scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, at the foot of Darwin’s Arch. There was a strong current, and so we spent most of the fifty-minute dive clinging to barnacle-covered rocks. There were many patrolling hammerhead sharks, as well as a couple of large Galapagos sharks. We saw many large sea turtles and fine spotted moray eels. There were hundreds of small colorful tropical fish, such as Moorish idols, king angelfish, trumpetfish razor surgeonfish, Guineafowl puffers, barberfish and parrotfish, as well as huge schools of creolefish. It was fantastic!

After the dive, we hoisted ourselves over the side of the inflatable dingy (or panga) and returned to the mother ship, the Galapagos Aggressor II. It was Sally’s hundredth dive. The crew presented her with a certificate, and our fellow divers gave her congratulations and hugs.

The Galapagos Aggressor II

From the boat, we watched hundreds of flying boobies (large sea birds that resemble gulls with webbed feet) (Nazcas, red-footeds, and a few blue-footeds), frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, and storm petrols. Groups of dolphins came by periodically. Later that day, we did some snorkeling a few yards off of Darwin Island. The dolphins weren’t very interested in us, although I swam briefly with a group of six. We had better luck with a group of sea lions, who were curious about us, and came close by doing flips and loops.

Sally and a curious juvenile boobie (red footed, I think)

Darwin, like all of the islands we visited during the week, was the remains of a volcano that originated four or five million years ago — a mere babe in geological terms. It was mostly gray rock wall rising sharply several hundred feet to a plateau on top. It was very stark, but also thrumming with bird and sea life. We saw no other humans. It felt like the earth was brand new. The creativity and resourcefulness of nature was awe inspiring.

On the panga

During the trip, I finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. Pinker’s theseis is that human violence has declined dramatically over the course of history, and he explores the possible reasons for this. The book covers a lot of territory (all of human history) using a lot of tools (history, philosophy, statistics, biology, psychology), and still manages to be surprisingly lively and readable. Part of the book examines the increase in the last century of concerns for animal welfare — the sense that mindless cruelty to animals is unacceptable, and the suffering of animals is a moral concern. As with most violence, we’re ordinarily concerned with (and overgeneralize from) the violence and cruelty we observe, and tend to ignore examples of kindness and decency. It was cheering to learn of a trend toward greater respect for animal rights, and to consider that the trend could continue.

In our group of 11 divers, Sally and I were the only ones who did not dive with cameras. They were a cheerful, intelligent, and sociable group of folks, and all significantly more experienced at diving than we were. I’d taken the view that I’d prefer to look hard at what was in front of me without the distraction and intermediation of a camera, but especially after viewing some of their pictures, I was a little sorry that I didn’t get pictures of some of the amazing, strange, and beautiful things we saw under water. Perhaps next time. Here are some other above-water pictures from our trip.