The Casual Blog

Tag: tropical fish

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

 

Swimming with sharks and other remarkable creatures: our scuba trip to Honduras

For Christmas week, our family did a scuba diving trip to Roatan, Honduras. We saw a lot of beautiful sea creatures, and had fun hanging out together.  I managed to lose my prescription sunglasses on the way down, and was quite bummed.  Returning to Raleigh around midnight, after 13 hours of travelling, I left my iPad and book on the plane.  I’ve been in touch with American Airlines’ lost-and-found bot, which says it’ll let me know whether they can find them within 30 days.  Argh!

But we really liked staying at Coco View Resort, which is on the east side of Roatan. Coco View is perfectly arranged for diving, with rooms just a short walk from the equipment lockers and docks. Their dive staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the dive boats were large and comfortable.

A queen angelfish

The dive sites were easy to get to with boat trips of only 10-20 minutes. We went out with the boats after breakfast and after lunch, and did two dives each trip.  Our deepest dives were around 90 feet, but more typically at 60-70 feet. The second dive was usually a drop off near a wall, and we’d work our way back to the resort.  

A school of blue tang

The waters were mostly calm, with little current and only occasional surges.  The bottom temperatures were around 81 degrees F. Visibility was generally around 40 feet. It rained heavily at times, though mostly at night.  The locals said the visibility was worse than normal because of an unusually intense rainy season.

A banded coral shrimp

We didn’t see as many big animals around Coco View as we had hoped, but there were some good ones: two spotted eagle rays,  green moray eels, a hawksbill turtle, many lobsters and crabs, some scorpionfish, and some large Nassau groupers, among others. There were schools of smaller tropicals, and occasionally one of the glamour residents, like French, gray, and queen angelfish, butterflyfish, scrawled filefish, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and porcupinefish. We also spotted some sea horses and interesting tiny shrimp.  We didn’t spot any sharks at Coco View.

A scorpionfish

But one morning we took a special trip to a neighboring resort to look for Caribbean reef sharks. We knelt on the bottom while the sharks came in. Fourteen or so females showed up, and they gradually swam in closer and closer, getting close enough to touch. Then we swam with them for a few minutes. For the final act, we hunkered down, and the guides gave the sharks a large closed paint bucket with some fish inside. The sharks worked the top off the bucket, and then there was a short but intense feeding frenzy. It was awesome.

A Caribbean reef shark

Jocelyn with the reef sharks

We worried, of course, that the reefs and resident creatures would be struggling and declining because of rising ocean temperatures, acidification, agricultural run off, or other problems.  We did see some coral bleaching and what might have been algae (fuzzy brown stuff) coating some areas. The locals said there had been a major bleaching episode earlier in the year, but much of the coral had recovered.  They hadn’t detected a general drop in fish life, though they noted that the fish seem to go elsewhere when the water is murky.  

A crab

As always, there were minor equipment problems and physical challenges.  Sally’s low pressure inflater hose went into free flow when she was starting a dive, and needed an emergency repair.  Gabe’s BC (inherited from me) didn’t fit very well.  Jocelyn’s computer was balky at one point.  My fin straps (a spring-type) were too loose, and so my fins came off a couple of times when I hit the water.  On one dive I couldn’t get my BC to inflate (probably from a poor hook up job) and was sinking too deep, so I took out my regulator and inflated with my mouth.  Sally got a lot of bites by some insect (perhaps sand fleas) and got miserably itchy.   

A seahorse

Sally, Gabe, Jocelyn, and I got better at staying together as the week went on, and had progressively fewer moments of wondering if we’d lost someone. I got worrisomely low on air on one of the early dives, and Jocelyn sweetly checked from time to time after that to make sure I had a good supply. Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn all developed keen eyes for some of the tiny exotics, like arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp, and brittle stars. We had a lot of fun.

A green moray eel

I almost finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and hope American Airlines will return it so I can read the last twenty pages.  I know a lot of people have enjoyed Ferrante, which made me somewhat resistant to reading her, but I shouldn’t have been.  She creates a compelling world, and takes you inside a rich female consciousness.  

Jocelyn and Sally

Gabe is OK

Ringing out the old year with a diving trip to Cozumel

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We flew back from Cozumel on New Year’s eve, which was a good excuse for doing what we usually do at the end of the calendar year: nothing special. We changed planes in Charlotte, but didn’t have time to get food there, so after we unpacked, I walked over to get bean burritos at Armadillo Grill. Glenwood Avenue was hopping with lots of young people going to the bars and clubs, all dressed up and ready to party! Lots of happy energy.
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So we begin another calendar year, with a clean slate, sort of. I began my Sunday as I usually do, with breakfast, coffee, and the big ole Sunday New York Times. I read an affecting piece on the lives of several New Yorkers over age 85. They had their problems, but most were still hopeful about the future. One noted that as farmers choose to cultivate different crops, we can choose what to cultivate in ourselves, like appreciation of science, art, and nature.
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We had a great time scuba diving in Cozumel on the coral reefs. There are still so many beautiful and amazing living things there. Highlights for me included seeing 7 octopuses on a single night dive), a nurse shark sleeping with a giant green moray eel (didn’t know they did that), a moray eating a lionfish (offered by the divemaster), a big goliath grouper, a bat fish, numerous Hawksbill turtles, and several spotted eagle rays. And of course the many varied tropical fish. Seeing a queen angel fish always makes me happy.
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I made my 286th dive, with Sally’s tally not far behind. Jocelyn and Gabe are still fairly new divers, but you wouldn’t have known it. They looked relaxed and in control, and were finding some hard-to-spot creatures, including splendid toadfish, scorpion fish, and arrow crabs.
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Our days were mostly sunny and mild, with some clouds. We stayed at Hotel Cozumel, which was great for our purposes, with had adequate rooms and a staff that was friendly and responsive. In the afternoons it was pleasant to sip a pina colada and read by the pool. We went out every morning with Dive Paradise, which has a shop on the hotel premises. Their boats and equipment were just fine, and we adored Santos and Victor as divemasters. Boat rides were mostly about 30 minutes. We did drift diving, at times in strong currents, which made photography challenging. The water was a pleasant 81 degrees F, and visibility was generally good (50-70 feet).
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Jocelyn took the lead in arranging our dinners. We particularly liked Kinta and Kondesa, with contemporary Mexican cuisine, and met the warmest, sweetest waiter in the world, Ray, at El Moro. We had a long and frustrating wait for a table at Casa Mission — no one would acknowledge our presence for 40 minutes — though we enjoyed the food. We liked the Italian food and margaritas at Rinaldi, and Le Chef, another Italian place, was also good. We had good talks, and also good cab rides. I was happy to hear the family speaking some Spanish, and to do a bit myself.
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Our dive trip to Cozumel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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.

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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.
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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.
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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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