Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Dolphin, Two Dives, and Kennedy Island

7 November 2013

We headed down to Dive Gizo, ready for an exciting day.  We talked with the two dive master students, their instructor, and the business owner – and while we were all excited about diving a wreck, and then an area called Grand Central Station (because you can see something like 279 different species of fish in one single dive, the spot is so busy) – well, given that it has been over a year since the two of us dove, and all that, we agreed that it made sense to begin with an easy dive or two so that we could get used to being underwater again, using all the gear, etc.  And probably so that the dive leaders (all three) could evaluate our skills and competency.  Because even though we have certification cards, and over 150-200 dives for each of us, this dive operation doesn’t really know us.  So it all made sense.

We settled on heading back to Naru, the island we were at yesterday when we snorkeled – but today, we’d dive in the open area in front.  This island is pretty much across the water from Kennedy Island.  Geared up, guessed at the weight for a weight belt, and headed to the boat, and we were off.

I have no idea how far we had to go, just a few islands over, maybe a 15-20 minute ride.  I saw what looked like maybe a fin, maybe a buoy, and kept watching that area – suddenly a dolphin leapt out of the water!  A dolphin, doing a big leap with a twist in the middle, sort of a single axel in water instead of skating!  How exciting!  Of course, I immediately pointed, “Dolphin, dolphin!”  But no matter how much we watched, it never appeared again.  We agreed it was a good sign for great diving.

Our two dive master students were put in charge, with their instructor observing.  This is part of the training process, since with dive master qualification they’ll be able to lead dives, although not teach.  So Jules was our dive leader for the first dive, and gave us a quick briefing.  (And of course Richard and I were model students, and listened to everything our leaders said.)

We anchored a bit away from the island, put on the gear (no wet suit, this water is about 30 C (90 F) at depth, so a wet suit or skins can add protection but there’s no need for warmth.  We got in the water (I put on the BCD and tank in the water, then weight belt – good thing there were so many instructor types, this isn’t the easiest way to go but it’s better for those of us with back issues) – and we did a buoyancy check.  I had a bit too much weight, and when it came time to drop down I really plummeted – and of course, that makes clearing the ears an iffier proposition than usual.  But I managed, and Richard did fine, and at the bottom the instructor had us show him that we could take a breath, remove the regulator, blow bubbles, put the reg back in our mouth, and clear out the water with a big breath out.  Other task he checked was deliberately flooding and clearing our masks – we did fine.  Remember, we’re doing this while kneeling in the sand underwater.  I have no idea how deep it was here; this was our first dive of the day, so it was the deeper of our two dives.  I know the deepest we hit was maybe 25 meters (75 feet), but we didn’t stay there long.
Anyway, the dive – beautiful corals, although the colours aren’t as bright at that depth.  A nudibranch, which is a very pretty relative of a sea slug, often in interesting colours and patterns – this one was sort of beige with some fawn coloured spots on his back, and sort of feathery antennae.  Several kinds of clown fish families playing in their anemones.  A pygmy manta ray (it has a name, a mobilee or something, I don’t quite remember exactly – but the ray acted as the dive leader for the first part, and either another ray came by or the same ray stayed with us for quite a while.  I’m not sure, I was distracted by another family of clown fish.  A few people saw some sharks, but somehow I managed to miss them.  

And of course the bright yellow butterfly fish, angel fish with long trailing fins, bright neon blue or electric turquoise or brilliant yellow little fish, and tons of other things that I don’t know the names.  It really is like being a mermaid, when we dive – even though the equipment we need to breathe underwater is a bit cumbersome, to me it just feels to natural to be buoyant and weightless, to swim sideways so I can look at a wall, to dolphin-kick my way and feel the water rushing over me.  So just being underwater was wonderful, and I loved the dive.

We spent about 40 minutes underwater, including our three minute safety stop, and the boat came over to our location.  (So this was a drift dive.)  The dive instructor carried an inflatable dive flag, which is a brilliant invention – instead of towing a buoy with a dive flag, as we’re used to in the VI, we don’t have anything on the surface until we’re at the safety stop (which is at 15 feet, or 5 meters) – I’m not sure if it inflates from his tank or if he blows it up, but it pops to the surface and indicates to the captain “Here we are, come get us.”

Gear handed up to the boat, climb aboard – I hate that first hit of gravity, when the weightlessness is gone and I feel like I weigh about 900 lbs.  And climbing that ladder is equal to climbing Everest.  Wearing lead boots.  Anyway, we got back in the boat, all exclaimed about how great it was, and eventually headed back to the island of Naru for lunch.

For the non-diver readers – between dives, we have to do surface intervals.  Breathing normal compressed air underwater, at a different pressure, makes our bodies absorb more nitrogen than when we just breath normally on land.  So there are all kinds of tables and calculations to figure out how much time to spend on the surface between dives, based on the depth and time of the dive, to allow some of that built-up nitrogen to come out of the body.  (Too much nitrogen in the blood is what causes the bends.  Been there, done that, don’t wanna do it again.)  To become certified, we needed to learn how to use the tables, but these days this is all computerized.

So we had a two hour surface interval.  Our wonderful boat crew, Derrick the captain and Craig the diver, barbequed a wonderful lunch for us.  Seriously wonderful!  First, of course, they unloaded everything, and gave us a snack of cookies and bananas, just to get that saltwater taste out of our mouths.  They built a fire, cleaned off the griddle using water and leaves, and proceeded to grill up sliced pumpkin, quartered eggplant, sliced sweet potatoes, some onions, and finally the fish, mahi mahi cut into pieces.  With a goat fish or two.  There was also bread, but that didn’t need to be cooked, obviously.   

Branches of leaves made the tablecloth, so that the food wasn’t sitting on the sand.  Same leaves covered the tray on which the cooked food was places.  Same leaves were used as plates.  Easy, quick, efficient, and everything would decompose easily.

We stuffed ourselves with this wonderful lunch, with a bit of sliced pineapple for dessert.  And lots of water, because it really was a hot sunny day.  We sat on logs or trees (although the tree made me itchy when I sat on it, so I just stood), and talked, enjoyed the break, enjoyed the food, and relaxed.  It was absolutely delightful!

Oh, this island, Naru (if I have the name right), is opposite the island of Kolombangara – pronounced coe-lom-bang-GAH-ra – which has a big volcano in the center.  The volcano isn’t currently active, but there’s a big caldera in the center from the last eruption.  We were told it’s a two-day hike up to the caldera – so I think we’ll skip that activity and stick with the ocean.

Then it was time for the second dive.  Richard was feeling tired and his ears were bothering him (some days it’s hard to clear your ears in the water), so we decided to dive Kennedy Wall, the reef and drop off right by Kennedy Island, and Richard got to go hang out right on Kennedy Island.  This time Jendrik (pronounced YEND-rick) was dive leader, and I was his only diver, though of course Jules and Fabian and Craig were diving too.  So, a briefing, a quick review of dive sign language, and we jumped in.  Dropped down to maybe 60 feet (20 meters), and headed off along the wall. 

Wow, this was impressive – it truly was a wall of rock, going way down into the blue, and I couldn’t see the bottom!  I tried to stay at about the same level, but it isn’t easy – between clearing my ears, trying to see everything, keeping up with Jendrik who is young and speedier than me, well, I wasn’t very level.  I’d drift up, then drift down, clear my ears, drift up again.  But there was interesting stuff – a couple of grayish-greenish puffer fish with giant eyes, a few more families of clown fish (Fabian said one group was Clark clownfish), a tiny baby nudibranch.  This area had visible damage from the tsunami, with a lot of dead hard coral and even an underwater landslide!  But the soft coral was coming back, so there was plenty to see.   (And one of these years I may get a decent underwater camera, although then I'd have to carry around more stuff.)

There were some very strange starfish – almost puffy!  Imagine the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man as a starfish or sea star, that’s how puffy this kind of starfish was!  Almost like a cartoon starfish!

Anyway, to me it felt like we started out going with the current, and then when we turned around we seemed to be going against the current – but Jendrik said no, we returned with the current.  I guess I was just more tired at that point, and had a bit of trouble keeping up with him.  Plus my tank was getting about 2/3 empty (we have gauges attached so you know how much air you have, this is essential!) – and an empty tank is more buoyant, so I was really drifting up – Fabian had to add more weight in my pocket. 

So we had our safety stop, headed to the surface, and did the ritual of handing up gear and clambering in.  I was so tired I could barely get my fins off, so ended up with two people removing my fins – pretty funny, but, well, one’s second dive in over a year, at age 59, one is entitled to be pampered and treated like Cinderella, right?

Back to Gizo, a shower and a snack later, and we’re resting up.  Diving really is hard work, despite how relaxing it is.  I always come out of the water hungry.  I’m thankful for weird cookies (mochaccino cookies from Indonesia) and some tea – and I feel rehydrated and replenished.

We hope to do the wreck and Grand Central tomorrow, or if not then, on Saturday.  We fly on Tuesday, so Saturday is my last day to dive.  Having had the bends, I know that I personally need a bit more time to rid my body of nitrogen, so I’ll have 48 hours between my last dive and flying.  (The dive organizations recommend a minimum of 24 hours, but that’s how I got in trouble last time, that and living 1,000 feet above sea level.  Plus the tables are based on Navy Seals, and curvy women probably don’t off-gas – lose nitrogen – at the same rate as young and super-fit men.) 

So that’s the plan – some more diving over the next day or two, then two days to either be lazy or explore Gizo on land.

We’re loving it!!!

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