It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Monday, May 28, 2007

Scootering Lobos, Take 2

In an earlier post, I reported about a failed attempt to learn to scooter at Lobos. Today I tried scootering again, this time with Kevin. It was really fun! We went over the details of using the scooter on the surface, and did some land drills (how to go, how to speed up, slow down, turn, etc.). Then Rob swam our scooters out to the buoy he had setup (I'm still not down with walking into the water carrying the scooter, even if it is "only" 45 pounds). Then we geared up and headed into the water. Kevin was leading, I was #2, and Rob was #3. Rob has a little bit of scootering experience, so they put me in the middle so they could each keep an eye on me :)

We scootered out on the surface just a little bit, and descended in about 10 feet of water. Here we practiced scootering around in a circle (we each did it, while the others watched, Kevin first, then me, then Rob), and then we practiced how to handle a runaway scooter (Kevin demonstrated first). Then we surfaced (the viz was pretty bad that far in), and scootered out a bit further. Then we descended into the sand channel in about 20' and headed out through the channel. The plan was to go out to Granite Point Pinnacles (which I've never been to before), max depth 80ish, max time 100 (but shooting for 90, since I expected to be cold from scootering). The sand channel is a great place to practice, since there aren't very many obstacles to run into. At some point I was thinking... this thing doesn't go as fast as I was expecting, and then I noticed we were already in 40' of water :) It's amazing how it doesn't feel like you are going very fast, but you cover a lot of ground quickly. At some point I was having trouble with a sticky trigger, so Kevin traded scooters with me. Apparently there was just a little salt encrusted in there, which dissolved after a little while. As we were heading out along Middle Reef, I played around with my tow cord length a little to find a comfortable position.

When we got to the end of Middle Reef, we all signalled and agreed to head out to Granite Point. We passed by "V Mount" which Kevin had told us was a landmark on the way to Granite Point. Then out we went over the sand towards Granite Point. Again, a good place to practice scootering. When we made it to the wall, I was surprised how quickly we got there. I almost ran into Kevin, because he'd stopped in front of the wall :) We clipped off the scooters and swam around Granite Point from there. I'd been promised lots of hydrocoral and I quickly saw one or two small stalks. But then I didn't see any for a while, so I was like... what's with that? There were plenty of surfaces covered with strawberry anemones and various sponges and tunicates. Finally we got to some rocks with hydrocoral, and there was tons of it! It was very pretty. Rob took some pictures -- he was trying to setup some pictures with Kevin in them, but it was quite surgy (even at 60+ feet), so that didn't work too well. We were weaving in and out of the various pinnacles. I can see how it would be really pretty with better viz. We had about 30' of chunky viz. It was still nice -- there were lots of juvenile blue rockfish out in the water. I was getting cold when Kevin signalled for us to start heading back.

We whipped out our scooters and headed back. The first thing we did was head down to the sand (about 80 feet), which was pretty fun to do on the scooters. It was like we were weaving our way down a hill. We saw a rock with around 8 to 10 Metridium on it in this deeper area. Pretty cool! I've only ever seen 1 Metridium before at Lobos (the Lone Metridium). We headed back out over the sand, and on the way, we saw a Torpedo Ray. He was small, maybe 8 inches (definitely under a foot). He was so cute. And not at all skittish... he let us look at him up close and Rob took pictures for a few minutes. After that, we headed back in, and before we knew it, we were at V Mount. On the way in on the sand channel, I decided to see how fast this thing could go :) Pretty much for the entire dive (except when I was playing around in the very beginning), I left the scooter in 3rd gear (which is the default when you first start it up). So I took it up to 4 and then 5, and I flew past Kevin. Yea, I am a bad teammate, not staying in my position :) I was also having fun weaving through the kelp. Of course, that is mild compared to the tricks that Kevin and Rob were doing. Basically every time we were about to head in some direction, Kevin would start out facing the opposite direction and do some sort of loop or corkscrew turn to get himself going. Near the end of the dive, we encountered two other divers in the water, and while I was concentrating on not running into them, Rob buzzed by them and did a barrel roll. What a showoff :) I am sure when I become more proficient at scootering, doing tricks will be fun.

By this point it was time to ascend. Once I stopped scootering, I noticed that I had a terrible cramp in my right leg. It was so bad, that I couldn't lower my leg to vent the gas in my foot. I signalled this to Kevin, and he rubbed my leg until the cramp went away. I managed to vent the gas in there, and then it was cramped again. So I was kind of helpless during the ascent -- couldn't back kick, couldn't vent gas effectively. But we were only ascending from about 13 feet :) Once we were on the surface, we scootered back to the ramp. We went back down to look for the eel. Rob found him, and was pointing into this hole where I absolutely could not see any sign of an eel. Then after looking and looking and giving up and then going back and looking again at Rob's insistence, he popped his head out and hung there for a while. I offered him some kelp, but he wasn't interested. 91 feet, 92 minutes, 48 degrees

There are two (related) things that really surprised me about scootering. First, my gas consumption sucked. I totally expected it to be better because I wasn't kicking. But I think I was breathing hard because I was so excited. And because I was probably not being very efficient at first -- I was moving the scooter around, trying to figure out the right place for it to be, plus it took me a while to grasp the fact that I don't need to kick AT ALL when scootering. I was finning a little bit on the way out. Second, I thought I'd be cold while scootering. The only time during the dive that I was cold was when we were swimming around at Granite Point. I was totally warm while we were scootering, again probably because I was very excited!

So now I am a big fan of scooters. I think I am addicted. Thanks Kevin for taking us out!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

NCUPS Beach Dive Competition

On Saturday, Rob and I did the Northern California Underwater Photographic Society's Annual Beach Dive Competition. Well, technically Rob was the only one who participated, but I was his spotter and model :) The rules of the competition are basically this: pictures must be taken on the day of the competition, from shore (no boats, scooters, kayaks, etc.), and cannot be editted at all (no cropping, etc.). You submit up to 5 underwater images across three categories: macro, portrait, and normal/wide-angle. There are separate categories for novice versus everyone else (Open). You can also submit 1 above water photo (which must contain divers or dive gear), and 1 humorous photo. You get points for each place/honorable mention you get for the UW pictures, and the other two categories can be used to break ties. Novice winners get fewer points than winners in the Open category. Rob entered as a novice.

Our plan was to dive the barge and the Metridium field. We anally planned the dives, down the times by which we had to walk into the water for each dive, in order to make the cutoff time for submitting pictures (5 PM, but we'd have to review them first). We wanted to hit the water for the first dive by 10 AM, leaving a half hour of surface swimming (and general bumblef***ing) on each end, and 90 minutes for the dive, to be out of the water by 12:30. Then we'd enter the water by 1:30 for the second (slightly shorter) dive, with the goal of being out of the water by 3:30.

In order to pull off at least 2.5 hours underwater without getting a fill, we each took an Al80 stage bottle. You may remember from last week my plan to steadfastly resist Rob pressuring me to start diving with a stage bottle. But it made the logistics so much easier for doing barge + Metridium field, and with 3 to 5 foot swell and diving the Breakwater, I figured it was a good time to try it out. A month or so ago, Beto did a little stage bottle clinic (just a lecture and land drills), so I knew all the theory about the gas management and procedures and I'd tried them on land before. We ran into Captain Jonathan (as Rob and Ted like to call him) at the Breakwater a few minutes after we arrived, so he and Susan helped us get our stage bottles down to the water line. Jonathan also showed us a useful trick for walking into the water with a stage... if you clip the nose to your hip D-ring, once you get into the water at hip depth, you can just let go of it while you are putting your fins on. It was still a little scary walking into the water in doubles and carrying an 80. But there was basically no surf, so it was alright. First we headed out to set Susan's float (she was doing an OW class, and since it was on our way out, we agreed to set the float for her). I also thought that it would be good to descend in 20 feet of water, and play around with the stage bottle, getting used to the effect it had on my buoyancy and trim. When I first started to descend, I sort of rocketed to the bottom, since I guess I'm programmed to add a certain amount of gas to my wing at a certain rate as I descend. But with the added weight of the stage, that didn't work too well. Once I sorted that out, it was like the stage wasn't even there (like everyone has been telling me). The only difference was that I had to remember that I don't have the same vertical clearance I am used to (can't swim right above a rock, etc.), and it's way easier to check my SPG! We had a little problem with the float (namely, Rob lost one of the lines on the way out, sorry Susan!), so that took some time to deal with. But we still managed to descend ahead of our 10:30 goal (a little after 10 in fact). The swim out was pretty tiring... that's the one thing I didn't like about the stage, it added a lot of drag on the surface. I think that's because I didn't have it clipped properly. I left it clipped at the nose to my hip D-ring for the first half of the swim, which caused a lot of drag. Once I clipped it off properly it was alright.

One of the main goals for diving the barge was to visit Rob's pet fringehead (who I've nicknamed Googly Eyes). He lives somewhere on the way out to the barge... I've never seen him in real life, only in pictures. But Rob has consistently found him on every dive to the barge. So, we dropped on the wall around the "8" on the wall, and headed further out. We saw quite a few Dendronotus iris's on the sand just off the wall. Rob stopped to shoot a few pictures. I saw a few other nudis on the wall, but nothing too interesting. We finally found the cinder blocks that mark where to leave the wall. I was starting to worry we'd missed them. Viz was terrible... there were times where I could just barely make out Rob's fins, like 3 feet in front of me. But it was basically terrible in patches, and then it would get a little better (but it was consistently very dark, due to a consistent layer of bad viz on top). Luckily we were on the wall, so I knew right where he was. Rob tied off with a spool at the wall near the cinder blocks. The original plan was that I would run the spool from the wall to the permanent line, and then Rob would run the reel from the end of the permanent line to the barge. But right before we descended I asked him to run both lines, because the stage bottle was enough new stuff for one dive for me (I've never run line before, except in our hallway at home :) and it seems much easier to tie off to door knobs and drawer handles than real rocks). So Rob ran the spool out for a while, we decided we must be far enough and we started searching for the permanent line. Rob eventually found it, and I guess he tied off to the stake where the permanent line begins. I guess, because I was still looking for the line while he was doing that, and then he pointed the line out to me. So I never saw the stake. The line looked slack, so we were immediately like.... hmmm... So we followed the line out for 50 to 100 feet maybe, and it ended. Hmm, that sucks. Rob initially started reeling out from where it ended to see if he could pick up the other end, but that didn't work. After a heated wetnotes debate about what to do, we decided to just head back into the wall and dive the wall. We considered looking for the fringehead, but in that viz, I really didn't want to be roaming aimlessly over the sand out there.

So we went back in to the wall. In hindsight, we should have pulled the line since it's basically just sitting out there waiting to entangle something/someone. On the way, I found a nice black-eyed hermit crab for Rob to shoot (one of the critters he specifically told me to point out if I found one). Along the way, I noticed that my stage bottle was getting a little buoyant, so I reclipped it to my crotch D-ring (which Beto suggested in the stage clinic he gave). That also makes it way easier to get to my SPG on the hip D-ring. Once we got back to the wall, we started seeing lots more Dendronotus iris's, of various sizes (but all in the red/orange color range... no whites or pinks). While I was patiently waiting for him to setup a shot of one, I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye... a small fish perhaps? I shine my light on it, and it's a squid! Only the second squid I've seen around here, and the first one was at night. How cool! I signal Rob to get over here and get some pictures of this! He managed to get a few shots, until the squid became quite fascinated with the lens of his camera, and swam right up to/into it. Can't exactly take a picture when he's attacking the camera. A little while later, I saw a free-swimming Dendronotus iris, which I've never seen before! And it was a big one. Rob got several shots of that, and several with me looking at it and shining my light at it. It was really cool. This was all along the wall. At some point we switched off of our stages (when air hog Bob got down to a couple hundred PSI). That went smoothly, although Rob said my second stage was a little dangly, so he cleaned it up for me. It was getting a little crowded along the wall, so we circled out over the sand on the way in. We saw a few more Hermissendas in the sand, but they were mostly small. When we got to about 15 feet, we ascended, near the gate on the wall. By this point I was insanely cold. But even more agonizing, I really really had to pee! The swim back in was painful... I made Rob take my stage because having a tank banging around on my crotch strap was really not helping the situation!! We finally made it back to the beach (okay, it didn't take that long, but felt like forever), and I walked out with Rob's camera and he walked out with two stages. Hehe. Lame, I know. We dropped the stages just beyond the water line, and went and dropped our gear off on the tables we setup on the beach. Then began the non-trivial process of getting out of my gloves and drysuit and running to the bathroom. Someone really needs to design a P-valve for chicks. 50 ft, 96 minutes, 49 degrees (chilly for Breakwater)

On the surface interval, I chatted with Jim Ernst, who was also doing the photo competition. His buddy had ditched him, so he said he'd done a solo dive on the wall. I told him he really shouldn't solo dive and asked if he wanted to join us on our next dive. Unfortunately he'd already broken down and rinsed his gear. We also whined about the cut line to Susan and Chuck, and Chuck told Rob about the lineups he uses to get to the barge. I was trotting to the bathroom as he told Rob, so I missed most of it, but it sounded kind of complicated. I also ran into Scott (from Glenn's Aquarius II) walking Molly and Maggie. Maggie had gotten wet and was looking mighty cute (basically like a wet rat). Rob got some cute pictures of them frolicking next to his stage bottle. We marveled at how many rainbow nudis we'd seen, at least a dozen.

We got back into the water for dive 2 a little after 1, and headed out to the Metridium field. The walk across the beach in doubles was tiring, it was nice to get in the water :) But at least I wasn't carrying a stage! We swam out a little ways, and Rob suggested dropping just a little closer than we usually do. I told him he didn't have to talk me into cutting the surface swim short. So we dropped in maybe 25 feet of water. The viz was a lot better on this side of the beach, even fairly shallow. And it wasn't nearly as dark. That was actually a little disappointing -- usually on dark dives to the Metridium field, I can find octopus out and about, so I was thinking this would be a good day for octopus spotting. But no, it was quite bright out. Our plan was to do a dive that was "at most 80 minutes, but preferably more like 70" since I was expecting to get cold (gas would not be a limiting factor, just getting Rob's pictures in on time and me getting cold). We wanted to spend some time looking for critters on the pipe, and then head out to the 'trids, and then swing around to the west and maybe spend some time in the kelp beds to the west of the pipe.

We ended up spending tons of time on the pipe, because we saw lots of critters. First, along one of the stretches where the pipe comes up off the sand, I found 2 Hilton's nudibranchs on a rock under the pipe. Hilton's is perhaps my favorite nudibranch (but definitely near the top), but I have only ever seen 2. I was just telling Rob on Friday night that one reason I like MacAbee is that I've seen a Hilton's there, but have never seen one at the Breakwater. Well, now I've seen two. One was pretty big, and the other was medium sized. The big one was pretty far back under the pipe, so hard to shoot. But Rob got lots of pictures of the smaller one. We continued on, passing Chuck (I think) on the pipe, and then passing Clinton, Mike, and Dave. I didn't know who they were at the time, but they waved so I waved back. Then Clinton told me afterwards that it was them. We saw tons of Hermissendas on the pipe. Everytime I pointed one out for Rob to shoot, while I was waiting for him, I'd see like 5 more. I think I probably saw at least 50 Hermissendas on this one dive. We also saw a lot more rainbow nudibranchs, on the sand next to the pipe (and on tube anemones of course), and some were on the pipe. We ended up spending a lot of time just on the pipe.

On the sand on the way out from the pipe to the field, Rob spotted a new (to us) nudibranch -- Aeolidia papillosa (the "shaggy mouse nudibranch"). After Rob pointed out the one to me, I found two more. We finally made it to the Metridium field, and Rob took some of his usual pictures of me posed behind some 'trids. I found some more Hermissendas, some laid out in really beautiful poses, and he took a lot more pictures of them. I also saw some nice blue ring top snails. On the way in, we found two rainbows in the sand, one very big and one quite small, right next to each other. We were looking at them, and then the big one took off swimming. It was really cool. Rob took some more pictures of it swimming, and of me looking at it swimming. I noticed the time, and couldn't believe how un-cold I was (I wouldn't say warm :P). The dive ended up being longer than 80 minutes, but it was a really nice dive, and I wasn't cold, so I saw no reason to end it sooner. 46 feet, 87 minutes, 49 degrees

Rob said this dive has to have convinced me of the benefits of Argon (I am a skeptic... I always tell people that I think the benefit is at least 50% psychological). Well, I can't deny that it's hard to understand how I could be so comfortable on a dive that long at that temperature. On the other hand, I was freezing on the first dive which was basically the same length and temperature, so it's pretty hard to reason about it, and compare one dive to another. Oh, but I was on the surface for probably 45 minutes before the first dive, so maybe that explains it. My Otter Bay hood, on the other hand, I am convinced is pretty toasty. The only problem with it is that it irritates the skin right next to my mouth. After I take it off, it always feels like there's a rash there or something, but Rob claims it isn't at all red.

The walk up/across the beach was pretty painful. And to add insult to injury, there was some trashy family sitting on the rocks behind my table, with some of their stuff sitting on my table! When Rob walked up and started setting his stuff down on his table, they moved their things. But they were still hovering like 6 inches from my table. I decided I didn't care, they were the ones being rude and if I splashed icky diver water on them, too bad. So I walked up and plopped down on the table, and one of them said "are those tanks heavy?"

After the dives, we broke down our gear and headed over to the Breakwater deli for some snacks and a place to review the pictures. We were greeted with the usual rudeness from the Deli Nazi. We got a muffin and some Snapple (and a stern warning that we couldn't eat any outside food in there), and transferred the pictures to my laptop. The lighting was terrible in there, plus my laptop does this annoying thing where it dims the screen when it isn't plugged in (and we didn't bring the plug). We couldn't figure out how to change that setting, so we just lived with it. We very hurriedly made a first pass through the pictures, coming up with a first cut. Then we went through those more carefully and picked Rob's submissions. It was very nerve wracking, and hard to decide on some of them. We headed over to Backscatter and Rob turned in his choices.

Here are the uneditted pictures that we ended up choosing:

Wide Angle:
1. Swimming Dendronotus and me (left)
2. Metridiums and me (right)

3. Phidiana hiltoni (left)
4. Hermissenda crassicornis (right)

5. Free-Swimming Dendronotus iris (left)

Above Water:
6. Canis familiaris with stage bottle (right)

Saturday night we attended the dinner associated with the competition. There was food from Buzzard's BBQ (mmm mmm) and a presentation by Jason Bradley, who had some awesome pictures (both above and underwater). His pictures of baby leatherbacks in Costa Rica were super cute, as were his manatee shots.

The awards presentation was on Sunday afternoon. Rob kept saying maybe we just shouldn't go, since he probably wouldn't win anything good anyway. But I told him that would be stupid. So we went, and endured the painful holiday traffic on the way to Carmel. It turned out to definitely be worth the car ride :) Drum roll please ... 5 of Rob's pictures were winners! Here's what won:

Metridiums and me (1) won 3rd place in Novice Wide-Angle.
Dendronotus and me (2) won 1st place in Novice Wide-Angle!
Hermissenda (4) won 2nd place in Novice Macro.
Free swimming Dendronotus (5) won an honorable mention in Novice Portait.
Molly, Maggie and stage bottle (6) won 3rd place in Above Water. Woohoo!

The full winner lists can be viewed here.

The person with the most points gets to pick their price first, etc. Rob got to pick 5th. There were a bunch of sweet trips on the list. But many were to places that are uber-expensive to get to (Indonesia, Micronesia). Rob picked a one week stay for 2 (wink wink) in Belize. We will go there sometime this fall. I can't believe I managed to trick Rob into taking me on another vacation this year. Sweet!

All of the (editted) pictures from the day can be found here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Counting Nudis

On Tuesday, we went to Point Lobos to do some nudibranch counting with Alicia Hermasillo and other BAUE members. I guess a lot of people had had enough by Monday, so on Tuesday, it was just Clinton, Ryan, Rob and me (and Alicia and Roberto). The topside weather was great -- sunnier than Saturday, and less windy than Sunday. For dive 1, we did some nudibranch counting at two of the proposed sites for the BAUE nudibranch study. Rob and I counted site 1, while Clinton and Ryan counted site 2, and Alicia and Roberto bounced between the two to see how we were doing. Actually Rob was counting, and I was in charge of keeping the team alive, as either Clinton or Rob put it. But I was looking for nudibranchs too (though not as hard as Rob was), and pointed anything out to Rob that he missed. We saw some cool stuff. I found a Limacia cockarelli, which we've never seen before! We had just been discussing them before the dive, I think because of the recent traffic on ba_diving about them. It was so tiny -- I don't understand how anyone confuses it with a clown nudibranch. The one I found was at most an inch in diameter. It almost looked like a closed up anemone -- like strawberry anemone in reverse, white on the inside with orange tips. I was totally excited to find that. Alicia also pointed out some Rostanga pulchras. The one she showed me was unbelievably tiny. But it was good to see the kind of sponge that they live on, for future reference. I told Rob after the dive, that based on its size and how well it blends with the sponge, I could imagine never seeing another Rostanga again :) Other than that, we counted a bunch of San Diego dorids, a Doriopsilla, and two Hermissendas. Rob and I split off and headed in by ourselves. Apparently on the way in, Clinton found an Ancula gibbosa. We missed it though, boohoo. I was freezing on this dive. We were barely moving at all for almost all of the dive (the survey site was at most 20' x 20', and we spent like 35 minutes just on that!). 60 feet, 70 minutes, 46 degress

After some lunch and warming up, we went back out for a second dive. Ryan took off since he had a long trip home. We decided to do middle reef again, but just do a fun dive and see what Alicia could find. Clinton was going to try to take us back to the Ancula. Unfortunately, we must have swam out too far before dropping, because he couldn't find it. Alicia found two Aegires albopunctatus which were teeny tiny. If I had seen it, I would have thought it was just a piece of sea junk. Rob found a Rostanga back in a crack! I couldn't believe he found it. It was a bit bigger than the one on the first dive, but it was way back in a crack! Rob said he was purposefully looking for the sponge that they live on. There was also an egg case for some kind of nudibranch nearby. I also noticed some cool looking chitons all over the rocks, which reminded me of Easter eggs. They were purple ovals with some other colored design on them. I think they were Tonicella lineata. 50 feet, 64 minutes, 47 degrees.

Rob didn't bring his camera on either dive, so no pictures for this one :( The picture in this post is from another dive, I just couldn't stand to leave out a picture in a post about nudibranchs!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Nudi Diving

On Sunday, we went on the Escapade with BAUE, and nudibranch expert Alicia Hermisillo (author of Eastern Pacific Nudibranchs). I was mildly terrified about diving off of a boat in doubles... first, there is the giant stride which I loathe to begin with, and seems somehow much worse the more weight you have on. Then there is the question of whether I would actually be able to climb a boat ladder with doubles on. And the idea of bobbing around on a pitching boat in doubles also seemed not too pleasant. So I just tried not to think about it all week... which is the opposite of my usual, extreme visualization technique (which I figured would be hopeless, since I've never even been on the Escapade before, etc.). Well, it was fine. The "giant stride" off of the Escapade is actually a baby stride, and I had no problems climbing the ladder at all. Except for the extreme temptation to collapse on the swim step on my knees, which I managed to not do. And the boat is setup extremely well for doubles. And the crew are all very adept at handling doubles, stages, etc.

Which reminds me, Rob has been pestering me to start carrying a stage bottle. He recently got his hands on two cheap Al80's, which he stage bottle-ized, and he even went so far as to put MY initials on one of them. How sweet. Now the pressure begins. He is obsessed with the "need" for me to use a stage bottle when we go on three-dive Big Sur trips this summer. He thinks we should do dive 1 on stage, and dives 2 and 3 on backgas. This is all because of his disdain for having tanks filled on a boat, with a potentially moist compressor. I think he is crazy, and the Cypress Sea wouldn't give me a bad fill :) Anyhoo, I told him, he could carry a stage if he wants, but I don't know if I will, and if I don't, I will just get a fill on the boat. But he told me that what I really need to do is practice handing stage bottles up from the water to the boat... that's a great way to encourage me to start diving a stage, tell me there is more heavy lifting involved. But now that I have actually seen diving with stages off of a boat in real life (many of the people on this BAUE charter were diving stages), it doesn't look so bad. At least on the Escapade, you barely have to lift the tank valve out of the water and they do the rest for you.

Anyway, I digress. I should really be giving the dive report instead of talking about my neurotic thoughts about doubles and stage bottles. Dive 1 was at Aumentos (which I've never been too before). We dove with Ryan Press, who we just met on the boat that day. He led the dive, since he has been there before. There really wasn't that much leading to be done, however, because we did not cover a lot of ground. I was perfectly happy with that, I'd rather stay close to the anchor line my first time at a site. The viz was not so hot, maybe 15 to 20 feet... there was a lot of particulate in the water (the top 20 to 30 feet were like pea soup). And there was quite a lot of surge, up to 5 feet. But the surge was alright, it was one of those sites where going "whoosh whoosh" over the top of the reef was pretty neat. The rocks were carpeted in strawberry anemones, with lots of acorn barnacles amongst them. Rob found a pretty big octopus in a crack, and I found a Spanish shawl. 57 feet, 60 minutes, 50 degrees (balmy!)

Dive 2 was at Shale Island, which I've been to once before and really liked. When we were there the first time, we didn't know how big the "island" was around, and if we could swim around the whole thing, so we did an out and back. This time, we talked to John and Clinton, who said it could be circumnavigated in about an hour. So we decided to do that. I must admit, I was nervous the whole time about whether we'd actually make it back to the beginning in under an hour, but it turned out to only take 45 minutes. We were moving pretty slowly, too, except for the last 5 or so minutes when I was cold. Ryan found a really nice octopus sitting out on the reef (see picture). During the surface interval, when we were talking about the octopus on the first dive, Susan joked to Rob "thanks for showing it to us!". So then as we were playing with this octopus, Susan and Beto swam up behind us. We showed it to them, and apparently after we left, the octopus crawled onto Beto's hand. Pretty cool. I also found a Festive Triton (see above), which are so pretty. Other than that, we only saw pretty uninteresting (to me) nudibranchs, yellow dorids, San Diego dorids, etc. I think the last time we were at Shale Island we saw much more exciting nudibranchs. That's too bad. There was basically no surge and the viz was a bit better than dive 1. 55 ft, 55 minutes, 50 degrees.

My canister light magically recovered from whatever was wrong with it on Saturday. It worked fine on both dives. I also used my new Otter Bay Hood, which was toasty warm. Well, I can't really tell how much difference it makes, but it is definitely snugger on my head, so less water swishes through. But since it is so thick, it is really hard to hear in it on the surface! I think I need to trim the chin too, it comes up annoyingly high.

Alicia was giving a presentation on nudibranchs in the afternoon, so we hung around for that. We went to Vivolo's Chowder House with Ryan to kill some time. Rob and I have never been here before. They had good chowder and good seafood bisque (which we shared), but no hot chocolate (score 1 for Bullwhackers). They also have paper over the table cloths, and crayons on the tables, so we could draw what we'd seen on the dive while waiting for our food :) After that, we headed over to Buzzard's BBQ for the presentation. It was quite interesting, and there were lots of pretty pictures of nudibranchs.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Second Sister

Rob, Ted and I dove Point Lobos on Saturday. We've been meaning to get out to the Three Sisters again for a while, so we headed out there. We swam out with Suzanne and Ian, and descended in about 50 feet not far from Hole in the Wall. From the surface, we could see the sand. So we knew people weren't lying about how great the viz has been lately. My light crapped out immediately at the beginning of the dive. It worked on the surface, and by the time that we had descended and sorted things out, I noticed it was dead. So I had to use on of my backups, it was sad. Everyone else's light was bigger than mine :P Anibal and Jonathan were doing a deco dive out to the Sisters too, and they gave us some navigation advice before heading out there. We basically swam out to the end of the Hole in the Wall reef, and then headed NW, passing several of the parallel ledges (including the Lone Metridium, who was very much closed for business... he was looking like a sad little stump). We ended up running right into the second sister (I've only been to the first one before, but Rob has been to all three, and Suzanne and Ian confirmed this was the second one). Suzanne and Ian were a lot faster than the three of us, because by the time we got there, they were already heading back. I like having Ted around to help keep the pace... Rob is a speed demon, but with both Ted and I swimming slowly, we kept him in line.

Anyhoo, on the way out there, we were swimming in mid-water (around 70 feet), and there were tons of juvenile blue rockfish out in mid-water with us. Rob noticed a jellyfish in the water, and then we realized the same type of jellyfish was all over the place. I think it was Solmissu sp. Pretty neat. Then I noticed some other kind of jellyfish, which we only saw one of. It had a yellow center, so it may have been a small egg yolk jelly, but I'm really not sure. Unfortunately we don't have the jellyfish identification book, so I will have to look the next time I'm at Any Water :) We finally hit the second sister (all that swimming towards nothing was quite a leap of faith). By that far out, the horizontal viz was at least 50 feet (and vertical was probably even better). But oh man was it cold... my computer said 46 degrees for basically the whole dive. The second sister was nice, it had a nice carpet of strawberry anemones, a bunch of elephant ear sponges (more than the first sister), and a lot of small purple hydrocoral. On the way back in, we spent some time around the ledges parallel to Hole in the Wall. We also swam through a little section of dark kelp forest. The kelp is really coming in! I was unbelievably cold on the swim in. I was actually thinking at one point... why in the heck would anyone dive in water this cold!?! I can't imagine living somewhere where the water is always in the mid-40s, seems a lot colder than 50 :) I was trying to decide when I could reasonably insist on surfacing, since I didn't want too long of a surface swim. Then around 20 feet, Rob or Ted signalled us to ascend. I told Ted (who was running "deco") afterwards that the 10 foot stop was the coldest 3 minutes of my life :) When we got back to the ramp, I was having trouble getting my fins off because both my hands and feet were so cold, it was hard to move them. 89 feet, 83 minutes, 46 degrees (brrr!)

We were all too cold for a second dive. So instead, we headed over to Otter Bay and all got new hoods (Ted lost his at Lobos a week or so ago, Rob and I have been living with sub-par hoods all along), and played with the kitties. I found a stock size to fit me, but since Rob and Ted have irregular sized heads, they both have to wait a week for Cricket to make theirs.

Pictures from the dive are here!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Southern Bahamas, 2007

We spent a week on the Caribbean Explorer 1 in the Southern Bahamas. It was a lot of fun. It was our first dive liveaboard, and we really enjoyed how easy and plentiful the diving was. It was also nice to be constantly fed between dives, without having to find a place to eat. This is an executive summary of the trip. I've also posted day-by-day dive reports (see the next 6 posts).

Pictures are here.

Getting There

We flew on American Airlines using frequent flyer miles, through Miami. Of course since we were using miles, American had to punish us in some way, and they chose to punish us with an 8 hour layover in Miami. It wasn't actually that bad, except that I saw the biggest roach (by far) that I've ever seen in the Miami airport. I've heard people talk about how big the roaches are in Florida, and wow, they aren't kidding. The last time we flew through Miami (on the way to Bonaire), we saw a mouse scurrying around in the terminal. I would vastly prefer a mouse. On the way back, the only wildlife we encountered at MIA was a bird flying around the terminal -- that was a relief.


We flew in on Friday, so that any delays would still get us and our luggage to George Town in time to not miss the boat. Friday night we stayed at Club Peace and Plenty, which was pretty much the only hotel in downtown George Town. George Town is a really boring place. We walked all around (it's just one road that runs around a lake), and there were basically two places to eat dinner, one of which was our hotel. The hotel was adequate, but for the price and being in a podunk town, you could do a lot better on other islands. There is a bar at the hotel that was hopping on Friday night. Well, hopping in the sense that they were blaring music late into the night, but there really weren't that many people there. I tried to get a pina colada at the bar, but they didn't have them, nor did they have strawberry daiquiris. What kind of self respecting bar in the Bahamas doesn't have pina coladas!?! Strike 1. Saturday morning, we went downstairs for breakfast at 10:10. According to the flyer in our room, breakfast is served until 10:30. No, it's not. Breakfast is over, the hostess rudely tells us. Strike 2. She doesn't even offer any advice as to where else we might be able to get breakfast. Of course, with only 2 restaurants in town, there probably isn't any place :)

On the other side of the trip, we stayed for two nights (Saturday and Sunday nights) at Palm Bay Beach Club, which is WAY nicer than the Peace and Plenty, and only marginally more expensive. It isn't downtown, which is slightly less convenient (there is very little to do downtown, but at least there is a grocery store). Plus there is a beach. We spent most of those two days laying on the hammocks by the beach and reading. And I went for a swim on the beach one day.

The Boat

Enough about the boring time spent on land. The boat is the oldest in the Explorer Ventures fleet, but it is in good shape. The only place where you can really tell the age is the bathrooms (which were clean, just had an aged look to them). The boat was full (18 people), but there was always plenty of space on the dive deck, in the salon, and on the sundeck. The dive deck in particular was very spacious, which was nice. The crew were all very helpful and nice. The food was good (and plentiful). They served standard American fare. The schedule was breakfast at 8, dive 1 at 9, sweet snack after the dive, dive 2 at 11 to 11:30, lunch, dive 3 at 1:45, savory snack, dive 4 at 5, dinner (and dessert, yum), night dive at 8. And hot chocolate after the night dive. And usually popcorn in the evening too.

The Diving

The sites at Long Island were flat, coral garden-type sites (40 to 50 feet), and the sites at San Salvador and Conception Island were all walls (starting anywhere from 50 to 80 feet). They pump 32% nitrox, which was consistently between 31 and 32%, and they consistently gave good fills. There was a detailed briefing, with a little map drawn on the whiteboard, before each dive (even if the boat had not moved, they'd give an update like which way the current was moving on the first dive, what sort of stuff had been spotted on the first dive, etc.). There was always a DM in the water, although there was frequently no one following him.

The water temps were between 76 and 78 degrees. I wore a full 3mm with a 3/5 hooded vest. By the end of the week (or even the middle of the week), I was pretty chilly by the end of the day. I don't think anyone other than Rob and I wore hoods (except maybe on night dives), and several people were wearing shorties -- I don't know how they did it! I can definitely see the logic behind a tropical drysuit. Getting into a wet wetsuit over and over again was not fun!

The Critters

I was really impressed by the number and variety of fish. I'm usually not that into fish, but all the pretty fish were impressive. Especially all of the schools of fish. I did not know what most of the fish were, but afterwards, I went through the Humann and DeLoach book to try to identify what I could remember. Here's some of what I saw (and could identify, there were lots I didn't get a close enough look at to identify): fairy basslet, blackcap basslet, queen angelfish, french angelfish, bank and longsnout butterfly fish, blue tangs, foureye butterflyfish, French grunts, white margates, gray angelfish, bicolor damselfish, yellowtail damselfish (adult and juvenile), Nassau grouper, many other groupers, harlequin bass, peppermint basslet, blue parrotfish, midnight parrotfish, stoplight parrotfish (initial and terminal phase), bluehead, various squirrelfish, yellowhead jawfish, peacock flounder, coney (brown and bicolor), spotted scorpionfish, balloonfish, pocupinefish, scrawled cowfish, honeycomb cowfish, smooth trunkfish, queen triggerfish, ocean triggerfish, black durgon, scrawled filefish, slender filefish, yellow goatfish, spotted moray, goldentail moray, brown garden eel, gray reef sharks, nurse sharks. And those are just the fish :) There were lots of different types of coral (which I'm just not that into, so I didn't bother to identify the various types of corals), and lots of sponges (stovepipe, barrel, vase, etc.). Some other cool critters that we saw: A cymothoid isopod on the side of a bicolor coney -- this is a critter that lives on the side of the fish's face, and just eats stuff that floats by (so it isn't a true parasite, since it isn't actually feeding on the fish). There were golden crinoids everywhere. They really added to the garden look of the coral gardens because of their color and because they sway in the "breeze". Same goes for all the purple gorgonians and sea fans, they made the coral gardens look so colorful. I also saw some cool tunicates that reminded me of the light bulb tunicates we have here -- they were painted tunicates (in red and purple), and bulb tunicates (in yellow/black). I'm sure I would not have even noticed these except that they looked like something I am familiar with. This made me wonder how many other critters I didn't even notice!

Here are the daily dive reports:

Day 1   Day 2   Day 3   Day 4   Day 5   Day 6

Friday, May 11, 2007

Day 6: Long Island

We did two early dives at Shark Reef. A dive operation on Long Island does shark feeds at this site, which is why the sharks hang out there. We weren't feeding them, however, since that is totally dumb. On the first dive, there were about 4 or 5 grey reef sharks with us at a time. A lot of them had little cleaner fish entourages, which was pretty cute. On the second dive, there were even more sharks, probably up to 8 at one point. Viz was not so hot, and got worse as divers hung out and flailed around there. We checked out the reef a little too. Rob the DM pointed out a nice scorpion fish. We also saw a cute porkypine fish. After that, we headed back to George Town, boohoo.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Day 5: Conception Island

We moved to a site called Chutes and Ladders this morning. Rob didn't even know that that is the name of a kids board game! How uncultured can you get? Well, maybe it is a girly game, I only ever remember playing it with Adrienne. Anyhoo, on the first dive, we saw a turtle (he was sporting tags), and a couple of blue and midnight parrotfish (never seen midnights before). On the second dive, we saw 3 turtles (none with tags, so different from the first guy). The first one was swimming up to the surface and we saw his silhouette. The second two hung out with us for a while, and one even posed for pictures (he was totally like... "make sure you get my good side, Bob"). We also saw a school of midnight parrotfish, at least 3 flamingo tongues, and some huge beautiful black sea fans on the wall. And a pair of groupers that were maybe mating. They were definitely pretty cozy together.

After lunch, we moved to Wedge Point, where we saw a queen triggerfish, a diamond blenny (the fish of the day), and some peppermint basslets. The plan was to sit out dive 4 so I could do the night dive. Rob went on dive 4 with Rob the DM. They saw 3 lionfish(!) and a lettuce sea slug. I was a little sad I missed the lettuce sea slug... we saw them in Bonaire and I was expecting to see them in the Bahamas, but I didn't. But Rob got a nice picture. My ears were bothering me a lot, so we ended up skipping the night dive anyway. Because I didn't want to miss tomorrow's dives!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Day 4: Conception Island

We moved to Conception Island overnight. The first dive was at Hocus Pocus, a wall with some swimthroughs. We saw a yellow-headed jawfish (the fish of the day), and some blue parrotfish (I'd never seen them before, they are BIG, and really cool, so graceful looking). The vis was "bad" (we thought it was fine, just milky near the surface), so we moved to a different site for the second dive. We moved to Grouper Ledge. We saw a bunch of grouper (surprise surprise!), a queen triggerfish (so pretty), flamingo tongues, an eel, and more blue parrotfish. In Bonaire, we only saw one flamingo tongue the whole trip. We saw tons on this trip. I was getting really good at finding them for Rob to photograph. He ended up with tons of pictures of them! We went through a really cool swimthrough up the wall... the water looked so blue on the other side.

In the afternoon, we were at Missing Link, a site with a big old encrusted chain running down the wall into the abyss. Rob the DM told us about a big anchor along the wall in the opposite direction from the chain, so we decided to check that out first. It was probably about 8 feet long. Must be pretty new though, because there wasn't much on it. We headed back toward the chain but didn't make it to it when we had to turn. We saw a small ray at the edge of the wall, in the sand. The boat was moored to a coral head that was pretty far from the wall (beyond visibility, with featureless sand between the two). We couldn't find the coral head, so we did a free ascent (Rob shot a bag, his favorite). The boat had swung in the other direction, so we had a bit of a swim back. But the weather was perfect for a swim :) For once, I was warm when I got out of the water. On the next dive, we made it to the chain (of course it turns out we turned right before it on the first dive). The chain was very encrusted, with lots of stovepipe sponges growing on it. I found a slender filefish on a gorgonian (which is a teeny little guy that I'd never seen before), which Rob got some nice pictures of. There were a lot of ocean triggerfish at this site. I was leading on the second dive (Rob led the first), and I was super attentive to the heading we took from the coral head to the edge of the wall, because I did not want to get lost again! Of course the boat ended up swinging so that it was perched over the edge of the wall, and we could see it above us. So I didn't even end up having to navigate back to the line. We sat out the night dive again because I was cold and tired. I read a little and went to bed early instead.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Day 3: San Salvador

We started out at an unnamed site along French Bay. It was described as a wall, but I would describe it more as coral pinnacles (on top of a wall, but the wall started so deep that our dives were on the sides of the pinnacles). There were a lot of really big magenta barrel sponges. And a lot of nice nooks to swim through between the pinnacles. The vis wasn't that great here, there was a lot of particulate in the water. But using my 40' == infinity philosophy on visibility, it was plenty of vis for me. :)

In the afternoon, we moved to Blowhole. The site has a cool drop-off into the abyss, with some nice swimthroughs and gulleys along the wall. We saw a lionfish, a huge crab that was perched on the side/edge of the wall in a position that seemed to defy the laws of physics, a porcupine fish, and some cute tiny fish that I haven't quite identified. They kind of looked like tiny scorpion fish (but not the right aspect ratio... longer and not as fat). When I looked in the Humann and DeLoach book, the only thing that looked similar was the red lizardfish, but I'm not sure. I saw at least one of these fish at another site later in the week as well. We saw some more scrawled filefish (which I think are cool), and I saw the fish of the day, the peppermint basslet. Everyday on the dive board, there was a fish of the day listed. It was a good excuse to look something up in the Humann and DeLoach book, and I managed to identify a bunch of fish I might not have otherwise noticed or recognized. No one else seemed to take any interest in the fish of the day, I guess because they are no fun.

I sat out the night dive because I was tired and cold. I wasn't that excited by the night dives on the first two days. When I dive at night in Monterey, I see tons of stuff that we just don't usually see during the day. But on the night dives on this trip, it seemed like it was mostly the same stuff as the day, except the fish were sleeping. I guess the basket star was a cool night dive critter. And a lot of the dive sites were cooler from the wide-angle perspective than the macro stuff, and you just can't appreciate that at night. So I decided that if I was going to sit out one dive of the day, it would be the night dive.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Day 2: San Salvador

We moved to San Salvador overnight. The morning dives were at North Pole Cave, so named because there is a "chimney" from about 60 feet (the top of the wall) down to 110 feet. Actually the chimney goes all the way down to 140 feet, but there is an exit at 110. The chute was fun, especially watching people descend into it ahead of me. Well, I watched Rob (the DM) and Rob descend into it, and since they both had excellent trim/buoyancy, they looked very graceful like they were free falling into it. On the second dive, I went first, and I was having some serious ear problems on the descent, which was accompanied by some flailing. So I probably didn't look nearly as cool as them :) We saw an eel hanging his head out of a hole in the wall, and I found a scorpion fish. And a huge barracuda. I always thought of barracuda as being scary big, with scary big teeth, but when I saw them in Bonaire I was pretty unimpressed. The barracudas in the Bahamas are much more impressive.

After lunch, we went to Shades of Blue, which was one of my favorite sites. The boat was moored at the edge of the wall, but the boat itself was hanging over the abyss (it was 250' under the boat). So we had to swim over the abyss to get to the site. When Rob clipped off his camera and let it hang, I could see the fear in his eyes -- maybe he hadn't clipped it off properly and it was going to drop in 250' of water. The visibility was excellent here -- you could see so far down the wall and off of the wall. And it was a very deep shade of blue. We saw a turtle who was pretty cooperative for the camera, a shy nurse shark (my first!), 2 lionfish hanging out together (also my first), some flamingo tongues, an ocean triggerfish (which I liked a lot, since they remind me of mola molas). And of course tons of fish in the shallows and at the edge of the wall. When we got back near the boat, there was a grey reef shark hanging out near the boat, which we were checking out during our 10 and 20 foot stops.

On the night dive, we saw a tiny squid in midwater on the way to the wall. We also saw several small jellyfish that looked like red spot comb jellies, they looked like they had a row of flashing red lights on their sides. Bob claims he got attacked (well, nipped) by a flying fish on the way up around 10 feet. I didn't see the fish, because Rob's reaction to it was to flail around and blind me with his light :) Rob the DM kept seeing flying fish on the surface but everytime he tried to show me, they would disappear. So he finally found one for me, which had beached itself in the chase boat. Those things are pretty neat.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Day 1: Long Island

The boat moved in the early morning, and we were still moving when we woke up. We ended up at Long Island, at a site called Barracuda Heads, which had a bunch of scattered coral heads, of varying sizes. This site was alright, but not spectacular. On the first dive, we visited several small islands of coral. We saw a leopard flatworm (which I think was my coolest find of the whole trip, I was very excited when I saw it!), and lots of pretty purple gorgonians and sea fans. Rob found a tiny flamingo tongue that was practically stitched into a sea fan. On the second dive, we spent most of the time at one big coral head. We saw some barracuda, a giant crab (like sci-fi movie giant, he was living in this cave, perched on top of a pile of rubble like he was the king of the crab underworld), some tiny blue shrimp living in a corkscrew anemone, and several white margate (big shy gray fish).

During lunch we moved to a site called Joe's Reef. It was spectacular, with tons of fish, small and big, and tons of schools of fish, plus some eels. It was the middle of the day, so it was very bright, and it really looked like a garden, with sea fans and gorgonians moving in the breeze.

We also did a night dive there. We saw two basket stars, one of which was really big. I've never seen basket stars before, I would have completely missed them, but Bob found them. It took me a moment to realize what the first one was. They are so cool! It's really neat to watch them curling and uncurling. Lots of huge crabs (one frighteningly large), some eels, some huge lobster. Also saw some arrow crabs and little orange teardrop crabs. And an orange ball corallimorph, which was probably my second coolest find of the trip. After 5 dives in one day, I was really cold!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Felix the Cat

Oreo and Pepper have a new cousin! Felix, aka the Hairless Wonder, is Andrea and Jose's new 10 week old sphinx. Isn't he a cute little devil? I think he looks like a cross between an albino bat and a baby alien. There's also a striking family resemblance to Tiki (at left), don't you think?

What do Oreo and Pepper have to say about him? They haven't met him yet, but here's what they said after seeing his picture:

Oreo: Looks like a tasty morsel.
Pepper: Ahhh, all his hair fell out! Is that contagious?

I have assured Pepper that his hairlessness is not contagious, and now she can't wait to meet him.

By the way, the sweater he's wearing is actually a sock with holes cut in it. That gives you an idea of how teeny tiny he is!