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Me diving

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mexico 2019: Tortuga

Literally since I've been cave diving in Mexico, Kevin has been talking about a dive site called Tortuga, and lamenting that it's no longer open.  Well, after 10 years or so, it's open to diving again, so we put it on the "definitely will dive" list for this trip.  As it turned out, we decided to go there on our first day of diving (but Kevin, Karl, and Bobby's fourth day of diving, since there trip was offset from ours).  We met up at Zero Gravity (conveniently located just downstairs from where we are staying) at 8, got our stuff, and got going.  Rob and I had setup gear and stage bottles the previous afternoon when we arrived, so we were mostly waiting around and then we all got going.  Kevin knew where we were going, so we followed him.  The site is in Tulum off of the road to Coba.  Basically you go like you are going to Gran Cenote, but go a bit further.

Once you arrive, you pay 250 pesos to a guy standing near the entrance, and he directs you to the cenote.  There are multiple cenotes accessible from the same entrance.  We were driving through the jungle on a pretty bumpy road for a while and eventually came to the cenote.  There are no facilities really, but the entrance is pretty nice.  There's a little stone wall that's maybe 18 inches high around a rocky entrance which has some relatively convenient flattish rocks which slowly slope down into the water.  The basin was filled with pretty brownish green water, not quite Jailhouse bad, but not too nice looking.  After we had staged all of our bottles along the water, while we were getting changed, it started to rain.  This made us much more efficient about getting into our drysuits and was actually pretty refreshing once we were in our drysuits.  I've worn a variety of undergarments in Mexico over the years, ranging from fleece pants/heavy base layer top to my old 250g thinsulate Bare undergarment.  Since it's the dead of summer, I decided to go light with fleece pants and a heavy base layer (plus I brought a fleece vest if I get cold).  Anyhoo, as we were getting dressed, it became apparent that Rob saw my fleece pants in the car and thought they were the bottom to his base layer.  Which he left in our room.  So he wore gym shorts on the bottom for this dive :)

I got into the water by sitting on the little rock wall, putting my fins on, standing up and giant striding into the water (Karl was already in the water and checked that the spot I had in mind was deep enough).  Very civilized.  While we were bobbing around in the basin, the fish in there kept nibbling at our hands.  Like literally biting our hands, ears, whatever skin was exposed in the water.  They were pretty aggressive.  We eventually got going.  We dove in two teams but entered together and planned on diving the same route.  The goal was to get to the fossilized turtle shell.  Kevin had a little diagram and notes on this in his dive notebook.  But the highlights are that you go past two Ts, then do two jumps, and then another T.  The first of the jumps was described as being after you pass a spot where it looks like there are "two eyes" with the line running through the right.  Just after that, you get to a jump and take that jump.  This will be important later.

The entrance to this cave is "fun" especially when you are the fourth person to enter (Rob was the fifth, so I'm sure it was even more fun).  The line starts above the water, where it is tied, as Kevin noted, to some blades of grass.  Okay actually its tied pretty firmly, but it certainly does look like it's tied to blades of grass.  The line starts in open water because the entrance is down a chute whose bottom is spongy brown goodness, that causes the viz to go to zero pretty easily.  I suspect it was already pretty terrible before even the first person went in because we were in the basin stirring it up for a while before we got going.  So I followed the line down and was quickly in zero viz.  By the time I got to the first tie off, it was zero viz.  When I came to the second tie off I had a lot of trouble finding where the line came back out of the tie, but I kept feeling around and finally got going again.  Eventually after the line zigzagged back and forth a couple more times (with ties to negotiate each time), I could see clear water ahead, and I popped out in a pretty big room at about 30 feet.  Kevin, Karl and Bobby had dropped their O2 bottles right next to where the line coming out of the chute was tied off.  I clipped my O2 bottle there too, just between Bobby's bottle and the tie off, and as I was doing this, the tie off just kind of fell off of the rock it was tied to.  And there was a ton of line, because it was actually the end of one line (from the chute) tied to this nub, and then a new line starting from the same nub.  I started trying to tie it back on, and was not having a lot of success.  The tie off reminded me of a rock that we tried to tie to in Jackson Blue during our Cave 2 class, which after the class, David Rhea compared to a part of female anatomy and said it was not a good rock shape to tie to.  I signaled Bobby and Karl to come help, and Karl fixed-ish it.  I say fixed-ish because while it seemed fine at the time, when I was picking my bottle up at the end of the dive, the line all fell off of the nub again.  Grrrr.

So anyway, by this point, Rob appeared out of the chute and we all got going.  I realized after I started to go that the look Rob had been giving me right before I swam off was the "I want to mount this remote strobe on the back of your tanks" look, but I just wanted to get going at this point.  After just a few minutes, we came to the first T, where we were going left.  Right after you go left, you descend through the halocline.  Rob signaled me to stop, so he could mount the strobe.  After a minute or two of monkeying with that, we got going.  At this point, the other team had gotten ahead of us, and we never really caught up to them.  Oh well.  Once below the halocline, the water got very blue and the walls got very white.  The passage was very tunnel-y and at some point I was thinking that it kind of reminded me of Indian (ahhhh).  The cave was not very heavily decorated overall, though there were a few spots that were, and in the freshwater portions, there were soda straws on a lot of the ceilings.  Eventually we came to the second T, and I dropped my first stage there.  I was a total hoover on this dive; I've completely forgotten how to breathe on open circuit, so I just breathe a lot.  Needless to say, this annoyed Rob :)

I was swimming along for a while, and at some point, I realized I was looking at the bottom and not really at the cave in front of me.  So I looked up, and right in front of me, I saw what looked like two eyes.  It actually wasn't at all what I imagined when Kevin described it; it looked more like two hollow eye sockets in a skull.  Or, another way to put it is that the whole passage was oblong shaped and there was a column in the center that looked like the bridge of the nose.  The line ran through the "right eye" just like in Kevin's drawing, and immediately after going through, there was an arrow for a jump to the left.  But the other team hadn't taken the jump.  I was pretty confused.  I signaled to Rob that I thought this was the jump, because I thought I'd seen two eyes, but the other team hadn't taken it.  Rob seemed to have no idea what I was signaling and no opinion about what to do, so I did not take the jump.  The other team's stage drop was just ahead.  We kept swimming and after about 10 minutes, I decided that that must have been the jump, so I stopped and told Rob that and asked if he thought we should keep going or turn around.  He again had no real opinion (doesn't sound like Rob, does it?) so I continued on.  After a few more minutes, we came to an arrow, with a jump to the right.  The other team was coming out of that passage.  But there was no jump line installed.  I was super confused about this, and asked Kevin if we should turn around (if we had in fact missed the correct jump).  I don't think that's what he thought I was signaling, but he gave the "turn around" signal.  So it turns out that if we had continued for another 2 or so minutes, the line would have curved around and come back on itself.  The other team was at the end of the line, looking back on the line just as we happened to swim along.  So they turned around and did not follow us out.  Neither of us quite understand what had happened until after the dive when we discussed it in the parking lot.

At this point we went all the way back to the jump, and I started to drop my bottle.  Rob was annoyed at how slowly I was dropping my bottle (or maybe that I was dropping it, I don't know) and impatiently pulled out a spool to start putting the jump in.  He tied into the line, and I clipped my stage to the line and I went to give it a double wrap, and BOING the line broke.  I was kind of shocked.  Rob was super annoyed.  And then I realized that we would need to fix the line.  This is something they always tells you in cave class you might have to do if the line breaks, and I was kind of excited to fix the line.  Rob started to connect the end by me to his spool and I swam over to the other end and picked it up.  Rob kept signaling me to get out of the way and drop it, but I was not going to let him have all the fun.  While this was all going down, the other team showed up.  They must have been thinking WTF is going on here?  As Rob was finishing up the repair, I pulled out my knife and handed it to him to cut the line on his spool.  This is possibly the first time I've ever needed to use my knife on a cave dive.  Very exciting!

Once that was all sorted out, I clipped my stage bottle to the line, took the spool from Rob (he let me install the spool, despite my line-related transgression!) and we were off up the line we were supposed to jump onto.  After a few minutes, we came to a fairly big tunnel which, for reasons I can't really put my finger on, reminded me of Mainland, the section after the line takes a 90 degree left turn.  Anyhoo, we came upon a couple of arrows on the line, and while it seemed like there *may* be a jump to the right, I wasn't even sure of that.  And there was definitely no obvious line to jump onto.  This was all made more annoying by being right in the halocline, so my eyes kept playing tricks on me; I would see what looked like a line in the distance and then realize it was the halocline.  The other team showed up while we were poking around looking for a line, and Kevin confidently tied into the line and headed in one direction.  We were putting in a second jump spool when they came back out; that was not the right jump.  So we kind of gave up and decided to keep heading up the line we were on.  It eventually ended after another 5 to 10 minutes.  It came back up into the freshwater before ending, and the freshwater back there was kind of tannic.  Just before we came back up through the halocline, there were a bunch of small balls of "biofilm" like in the Insulation Room at Ginnie.  (I learned the term "biofilm" while googling to find out what that stuff in the Insulation Room is -- we thought it was bacteria, but apparently it contains algae, bacteria, and fungi.  Yum!).

On the way back out, we passed a jump spool that the other team had put in -- they had finally found the jump to the right that we'd given up on (a bit further into the cave).  They did not make it to the turtle shell though.  So we passed them and came back out to the main line, picked up my bottle, and continued back through the eyes.  I stopped just after going through them and made Rob turn around and look at them.  Just to show I was not imagining things!  We headed back to the next T, and we explored up the other side of that a bit.  A few minutes in, there was a jump to the left which was a tunnel-y passage that looked kind of decorated.  It was a nice passage but it pretty quickly got small and dusty, so I turned around.  Rob had his camera out, so I figured he might want some pictures on the way out.  I uncovered the sensor and he did take a few pictures as I swam out of the tunnel, back to my jump spool and cleaned that up.

When we got back to that T, the other team's cookies were gone, so we knew that they had passed us.  I picked up the stage that I had dropped and at this point I was getting pretty uncomfortable with one light and one very light stage.  It was a total pain to swim with those.  Rob at some point suggested a jump off to the left, but I said no.  We came back out to the first T, after emerging from the saltwater, and dropped all of our bottles there and went in to look at the other side of the T.  The other team also had a pile of bottles at the T, so they'd had the same idea.  I swam for maybe 2 minutes when it suddenly got dark.  I turned to Rob and saw that his light had died.  He tried toggling the switch a few times and nothing.  He pulled a scout light out and turned it on, and there was this super dim yellow light coming from it.  Apparently he'd accidentally packed one of the old Halogen scout lights.  I was not following him out with that puny light, so before he could even go for his other backup light, I whipped out one of mine, turned it on and forced it on him.  Then we headed out.  When we got back to the pile of bottles, and I picked up my bottles, they were not quite as annoying to swim with.  I think I may have had some gas trapped somewhere in either my wing or suit that made it seem like I was underweighted before.  They were still a pain in the ass to swim with, but just the normal amount of pain.

We got back to our Oxygen bottles and as I tried to take my bottle (which turned out to actually be Bobby's bottle), the pile of line on the nub fell off again.  Rob helped me to "fix" it well enough that the line stayed on when you gave it a tug.  We got onto our O2 and were hanging out in the entrance room.  About 5 minutes later, the other team appeared.  After another 10 minutes, we headed up the chute first.  It was much easier to go up the chute than down, because you could see light to head toward.  Plus the bottom material had totally settled down while we were in the cave, and when we first approached the chute, I could clearly see the line zigzagging up the chute.  I stayed on the line but not actually holding onto it on the way up.  At about 10 feet, we emerged into bathwater-warm water, with a yellow glow.  Yuck.  When we surfaced, I managed to entangle one of my bottles on the line right at the surface, and Rob had to free me.  We piled our bottles up on the ledge and Rob got out and ditched his gear in the car and then came back to give me a hand up.  It was not too bad getting out, as there were some rocks that could be used as steps; there was just one big step up at the beginning.

Not one, but two, gelato places!
We decided to go back to ZG and drop our gear, then head to the beach bar in Akumal for lunch.  Before doing that, Rob and I took a drive through Tulum to see what restaurants that we know are still there.  We had heard that the empanada place and Super Carne were gone 😿, but that La Nave was still around.  We were relieved to find that Don Cafeto's and the gelato place are both still around.  Later in the week we noticed that there are actually two (of the same chain) gelato places in Tulum -- on opposite ends of town and opposite sides of the street.  Very convenient!  Oh and there's a Starbucks in Tulum now (!).

The beach bar in Akumal has not changed a bit.  Apparently before Rob and I arrived, Kevin, Karl, and Bobby went to lunch everyday.  I didn't really remember the food there at all.  I just remembered going there for drinks in the afternoon.  But the food is pretty good, and we ended up visiting several times (for lunch some days and drinks some other days).

Saturday, June 22, 2019

June Diving

Photo by Clinton Bauder
Local diving has been spotty for me for the last few months due to a combination of travel, illness, and the usual winter storms cancelling diving. But June turned out pretty well with 3 weekends of good diving outside of the bay. And there were some interesting sightings and stories along the way, which seemed worthy of a post.

The first weekend of June, we had a tech boat that nearly made it to Yankee Point. The previous weekend (Memorial Day, during which I had a sinus infection and ear infection and thus couldn’t dive) Kevin and Rob went to Mt Chamberlin and reported tons of crinoids (!) around the southwest corner. So I really wanted to get back there before they disappeared. So the plan was to dive there. I was diving with Rob, Kevin, and Bobby. The crew noted a significant amount of current on the ball from the South, but planned to drop is upcurrent. We were the first in the water and in terms of the north-south position the drop was right on, but we were too far to the east. And in the time we tried to scooter to the ball, we drifted north of it, at which point it became pretty hopeless. We were on the trigger for maybe 5 minutes and not getting closer to the ball when I gave up. The boys took another minute or so to give up too. We got back on the boat and I told The crew that I had doubts about getting all three teams onto the site, so we should probably go elsewhere. The last time we dropped in these kind of conditions, we made it down and no other team did. Didn’t want a repeat of that.

So we headed into Lobos and dove E3. We planned to go to deep E3. I’ve done a lot of dives in the E3 area in the last 6 months, and we’ve gone to D3 on many of them, so I wanted to do deep E3 instead. There was no current at all here. We headed down the line (slowly, since my sinuses were still a bit unhappy with me) and then headed over to deep E3. The viz was good and the water was cold!  There was a layer on top, so it was pretty dark. We stopped and said hello to the purple sea fan, and then Rob headed out over the sand. I wasn’t really sure what he was looking for, but we eventually found a little pinnaclet out in the sand, that was covered in crinoids!  There must have been at least 50 crinoids that I could see at one time.  After doodling around there for a while, we headed back to deep E3. I was hanging out near the top because it was time to get shallower, but Rob was still about 20’ below. He signaled me and I looked down and saw him point to something small and white on the wall... I excitedly swam down to check it out and it was an Okenia felis!  I was super excited. We looked around for more but didn’t find any. We headed back to E3 and eventually as it was about time to thumb it, we headed up toward the top. I got to the top and then got an excited light signal from Rob just over the ledge down on the other side. So excited that I thought there’d better be a GPO down there, but the topography didn’t seem right for that. Instead, it was a ratfish!  I haven’t seen a ratfish in ages but with the cold dark water, it makes sense. Rob hadn’t I clipped his camera yet on the dive, but at this point he did, and took a ton of shots -- none of which resulted in a photo that I could post here :(. We ended up extending our bottom time a little as a result, so as soon as he finished, we were out of there!

Photo by Robert Lee
Two weeks later, we mad it back down to Mt Chamberlin and this time there was no wake on the ball :). We were dropping on K2, planning to head over to the west wall from there. I was diving with Rob and Kevin. The water was clear and blue all the way down. And cold. 47 degrees or so. Brrrr.  There was a bit of current right at the bottom of the line (top of K2). We dropped at K2, headed down the east wall of K2, north to the end of K2 reef, and then headed west to the drop off. While we were on the trigger, I saw a basket star. I was kind of surprised to see it since it was so bright, but it wasn’t completely open. I didn’t bother stopping the team for that.  Right as we approached the wall, we passed a structure to our left (south) with an enormous overhang covered in pink corynactis hanging over us. There was a nice slit between that and the rest of the wall which we scooters through and then ended up over the edge of the wall. We headed south as we went down the wall. Kevin eventually found another, more open basket star. There were also a bunch of Dironas on the wall. We continued south for a few minutes. Along the way, we saw a quillback rockfish. Haven’t seen one of those in a while, though we do often see them here. When Rob called turn, I realized I hadn’t quite made it to the bottom of the wall, so I zoomed down to the bottom and then turned around and headed up. Just after we’d turned and were heading up the wall, we found a skate hangin out on the wall!  We had once found a much larger one of these, newly dead, on Mt Chamberlin (which is the only reason I knew it was a skate). Rob took some pictures and while he was shooting, one of his strobes wasn’t firing. Grumble. There was also an enormous school of juvenile rockfish up on the wall.

We headed back over the wall toward K2. Finding K2 from the west wall is always tricky (for me, anyway, Rob seems to have more confidence in finding it). Today we had a little help as we were one pinnacle over and saw some divers on K2 reef.  We hung out there for a bit, and Rob was taking some pictures with both strobes working. Hmmm. When it was time to thumb it, we inexplicably scootered right to K2, against the current, even though it was obvious we would just be blown off as soon as we went off the trigger. And that’s exactly what happened.  The deco was insanely cold (just like the bottom).  I picked a deco schedule that was not too popular with the boys.  They both complained afterward that it was too much deco.  Also on deco, when we went around to report our max depth, I wow'd them with my max depth of 293 feet, which was 10 feet deeper than either of their max depths.  Rob was like "how did that happen?" but of course it was from zooming to the bottom right before heading up the wall :)

Photo by Clinton Bauder
Then the following week we went out in what seemed like conditions that might prevent us from getting out of the bay.  But we managed to make it around to Carmel, but didn't want to press our luck and went someplace close, Lunaticos.  I was diving with Rob and Clinton.  There was nothing really out of the ordinary about this dive, but we had very nice clear blue water.  It was cold on the bottom but much warmer on deco -- a toasty 53 degrees or so.  So that was nice.  We dropped in a spot that I didn't really recognize, which was shallower than expected (90 or 100 feet).  So it took us a while to get our bearings, but we eventually did.  We saw three wolf eels and an enormous school of blue rockfish.  While Rob and Clinton were shooting the rockfish, a sea lion kept dive bombing down to the bottom.  There were also tons of vase sponges (Clinton would correct me and say boot sponges).

Hopefully the clear water and diveable surface conditions will stick around for a while.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

PBS Documentary about Cordell Bank

South Florida PBS's Changing Seas recently aired an episode about Cordell Bank.  There is a short segment at the end of the episode about BAUE's expeditions to Cordell over the last several years, including interviews with Rob, Jim Capwell, and me.  More excitingly, there is a ton of video footage that Kevin and I shot from our trips to Cordell.  There's also some interesting information about the various scientific projects being done at Cordell.

More information about our diving at Cordell:
Cordell Bank 2013
Cordell 2013 Project Video
Cordell Bank 2014
Cordell Bank 2016!
BAUE Cordell Project Page