Saturday, March 10, 2007

How Not to Dive

David S. started a new discussion on the Oceanblue Divers message board this week, inviting us to post the "close calls" we've experienced while diving as examples of what not to do. So far, it's proving to be an entertaining and informative thread, so I wanted to share my own experience here as a means of directing Dive Evangelist readers to this valuable discussion.

My most boneheaded example of "how not to dive" happened two years ago. As embarrassing a story it is, I wish I could say I was a new diver at the time, and thereby blame it on lack of experience. But I'd been certified for more than 20 years at the time, so what I'm about to recount serves instead as a shining example of the effects of complacency.

I joined the Dive Animals, a local dive club, on a weekend trip to La Bufadora ("The Blowhole"), a small bluffside village outside of Ensenada, Mexico. The crew makes this trip four times a year, and I'd wanted to join them for awhile, hearing stories of how healthy the marine life is there (anemones the size of dinner plates, kelp forests more appropriately called kelp jungles, starfish as big as manhole covers, and so on).

Upon arrival, we noted the seas were much rougher than normal, which would make launching the panga boats through the surf a bit challenging. The conditions were otherwise excellent, however, so we loaded up the boats and endured the bumpy ride under sunny skies.

We made our first dive in a narrow bay, seeking shelter from the surge in one of those "kelp jungles." It was an enjoyable and uneventful dive, and I did indeed see some of those gargantuan anemones and starfish. Our next stop was at a pinnacle called Piedra Ahogada ("Drowned Rock"). Imagine a finger jutting up from the sea floor at a depth of about 120 feet, rising to just below the surface. The only sign of its presence from topside was a swirling froth in the troughs of the swells as they passed over the pinnacle. It deserved its name.

The little panga boat pitched and rolled in the swells, but I knew things would be a lot smoother underwater, so I hurriedly donned my gear and got ready to do a backroll off the boat. I sat on the edge of the boat in the stern, and exchanged OK signs with my buddy, who sat on the edge in the bow. He rolled overboard first, and I got ready to do the same. Looking over my shoulder first, I leaned back and let gravity pull me overboard.

I knew something was not right the instant I hit the water. Rather than sinking smoothly into the water, I felt a soft resistance when I hit the surface. When I popped back up, I found my buddy floating alongside the boat, dazed and spluttering. I had rolled off the boat right on top of him, my tank hitting him in the head! When he rolled off into the water, the current carried him quickly back from the bow to the stern. In my complacent and hurried attitude, I only looked over ONE shoulder to make sure the way was clear. Had I looked over both shoulders, I would have seen him floating into my entry point.

Unfortunately, my embarrassing story doesn't end there. Any responsible, sensible diver would have aborted the dive after such an occurrence. Instead, we floated alongside the boat, evaluating his condition. He pulled off his hood, and I looked at his head. There was a small amount of blood, but as far as I could tell bobbing in the bumpy seas, it looked more like a bruise than a cut. He said he felt okay to continue the dive, so we did just that.

Because the boat couldn't approach too closely to the pinnacle, we swam as close to it on the surface as we could safely do in the rough swells, and planned to close the distance underwater. As we descended, we paddled through the murky green water in what we thought was the right direction to encounter the pinnacle, passing 60, 70, 80 feet. We hit 100 feet, and I could see the sea floor about 20 feet below us – but no sign of the pinnacle.

We kept swimming for a minute or two, until a belated "What the hell am I doing?" flashed across my brain pan. I was at a depth of 100 feet, searching for a pinnacle in low vis, with a buddy with an unevaluated head injury. A recipe for disaster. I turned around, gave him the thumbs-up, and got us the hell out of there.

After we got back to shore, my buddy packed up his things and went back home to Tijuana. The next day, I learned that he had a fairly large head cut that required stitches. He had a good sense of humor about it, and still speaks to me (and even treated me and my family to dinner at his restaurant for my birthday last year), but I feel bad about it to this day.

It doesn't require much imagination to think of what might have happened down there at 100 feet. Close call, indeed. Rolling off the boat and onto his head was a stupid accident; continuing the dive was just stupid. But if I can sacrifice a little pride by sharing this story and warn about the dangers of complacency, then that's okay by me.

I grew up at the beach, and over the years became very comfortable in rough waters as a sailor, swimmer, snorkeler and scuba diver. So in that little panga boat in rough seas, I wasn't too concerned, and didn’t pay enough attention as a result. The more at ease we become with diving, the better we are able to handle unforeseen events – but also the more prone to complacency we may become. It's easy to forego those buddy checks when we feel like we’ve done them a hundred times. Sometimes you might just jump in the water without your fins; or you might jump in and descend with your air turned off.

So learn from my stupidity: Enjoy your diving, have lots of fun, but follow all the little procedures you learned. Do your buddy checks, make your safety stops – and by all means look BOTH ways before rolling off a boat!

Read about other close calls and post your own story on the Oceanblue Divers message board.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

OBDinCOZ: Dive days 3 and 4

Day 3: Palancar Bricks and Los Tormentos

Friday, March 2, 8:00AM: Morning never seems to come too early when you're going diving, at least to me. We gathered at the dock to wait for the Aqua Safari boat; when they arrived, we loaded up and headed south. Our destination this time was "Palancar Bricks", a dive site known for having bricks in the sand left over from a wooden shipwreck some 200 or so years ago. The dive site was fairly far south, almost to the tip of the island, and took more than hour boat ride. Seas were starting to get somewhat choppy the further south we headed, so it was good to arrive and get in the water before things got any rougher. We made our way down a runway to the wall, swam along the wall and entered a swim-through that ended up at a wide sand bed full of white sand that reflected the sunlight on this bright and sunny day. Around a corner and under a ledge, Orlando pointed out an arc-shaped piece of what appeared to be metal sticking out of the white sand. We later learned that it was indeed metal, and part of one of the two anchors left over from the wreck that was mostly buried.

palancar bricks dive site scuba diving cozumel blogFurther up the sand bed, there they were: some of the famed bricks that someone had arranged in a circle on one side of a wide coral ledge. Orlando later told us that often they find the bricks spelling out someone’s name, rearranged by whatever group of divers was there last. Depending on the currents, fewer or more bricks are exposed; we could see maybe 15 to 20 of them. He also told us that the bricks used to have some sort of stamps embossed on them, but they were mostly no longer visible, having been worn away by the water and sand.

Around the other side of that coral ledge, propped up against some coral and rock, was the second anchor, standing straight up as if someone had arranged it for show. The anchor was at least 5 feet tall and made of heavy iron.

Toward the end of the dive, the group split into two, and the group I was not part of had an encounter with a Barracuda that looked to be more than 6 feet long. Although I was floating along with the other group, I could easily see it from above. Apparently, Jose the divemaster, who was leading the other group, had noticed the Barracuda in the middle of a school of Jacks and waved them off so everyone could get a gander at the massive fish in the middle. It was one of the largest ones I’ve ever seen, and it was clearly well fed. Despite being at least 40 feet above and across from it, I could see it was clearly huge, even from there. “Bricks” is a very cool and highly recommended dive site.

“Los Tormentos” was our second dive of the day. These shallower dives always have a lot more fish than the deeper wall dives with swim-throughs. Lots of Tangs, Triggerfish, Grunts, Angelfish, a large Moray eel and lobsters hanging out in holes in the coral were some of what we observed. Orlando and Jose were always pointing things out to us, so there was always plenty to see.

That afternoon we took our rented vans, gathered up some tanks and headed south down the west side of the island, and found a piece of beach with easy entry points, where several of our crew took a shore dive. For a site chosen almost at random, those that dove said they saw a lot of life within 40 or 50 meters of shore. There are several spots on the west side of the island near Chankanaab Reef that are good for beach dives that are easily accessible. Next time we’ll plan those out a little better, but we did pretty well, all things considered.

Day 4: Palancar Caves and Paseo de Cedral

Saturday, March 3: Our third and final day of boat diving started out at 8:00AM with not a cloud in the sky and almost flat seas. This boded well for us, and the entire gang was reveling in the near perfect weather. It was 87 degrees and dry on the surface with a soft breeze blowing as we cut the water down to our dive site, which was to be Palancar Caves. We were told that several Black Tip sharks had taken up residence in the waters off the wall in recent days. Cynthia, a videographer from the dive shop, joined us on the boat that day to record our dives on video.

We were not disappointed in our search for the Black Tips. As we headed across the wall, divemaster Jose banged his tank to signal us to look down for the sharks. I have to admit I didn’t see that much of them because I was higher up in the water column than the rest of the gang, but most of us saw them 60 or so feet below. Cynthia caught it all on video, and I was surprised to see her way down below me, at what must have been 130 feet or more getting them on tape.

My maximum depth on that dive was 91 feet, more than I’d anticipated and more than I’d intended. Those walls can be quite deceptive. They’re so massive you don’t notice that you’re floating down 10 feet here or there, which makes that sort of thing especially dangerous when you’re diving Nitrox, as I was. As we cut around the corner to make our way up to shallower depths, we encountered a small turtle (a Hawksbill, I believe) flapping its way into the blue water, also caught on video. We made our way up a sand bed from the wall and drifted along with the current, observing the usual reef suspects on the coral ridges that lined our path. A small swim-through under a coral ledge added some fun to the topography. As I made my way across a large bed of sand just before my safety stop, I observed a stingray about a foot and a half across headed in my direction. It was weaving up and down, into the sun and back down into the sand and flapping wildly, kicking up clouds of sand as it did. I started to follow it, but thought better of that idea once I thought about how much gas it was going to cost going against the current. As I turned to watch the ray head away from me over the white sand in bright sun, I saw our videographer, Cynthia, blow past me in chase. She told me later she never quite caught up with it, but as it turns out she did get a bunch of good footage of it in the process.

Our last boat dive was at a site called “Paseo de Cedral”, a true drift dive, with current of 3-4 knots (at best guess). We descended to about 40 feet or so and took off in the current. We drifted across fields of sand dotted with coral-heads, isolated coral formations and lots of sea life. At one point, Jose the divemaster banged his tank, pointed to and disappeared into a swim-through under a coral ledge. I was in a perfect position to take advantage of it, despite the current. It turned out to be this really wild, labyrinthine set of tunnels that had any number of exits and entrances. I followed Jose all the way through and popped out the other side in time to get right back in the swing of the current with everyone else. One of the divemasters (Jose also, I believe) found and puffed up a little Puffer Fish. Stressing puffers by puffing them up was the subject of debate on the OBD message boards, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d shortened the life of that fish. One of them also awakened a turtle hiding under a ledge who took off, no doubt to find another spot to hide in out of the path of us pesky humans. At dive’s end, we floated up to our safety stop by a ledge where a huge nurse shark appeared from underneath and swam off, as if only to tease us about what we’ll be missing when we’re gone. We’ll all be looking forward to our next trip to Cozumel!

Monday, March 5, 2007

OBDinCOZ: More Video Clips

In the post-travel, back-to-reality blur that follows any trip, I haven't had much time to think about "evangelizing" in this blog. But I did find some time to upload more video clips from our Cozumel adventure, so while you're waiting for more stories, check out more videos from the depths of Cozumel.

And watch the Oceanblue Divers Meetup site, as I'm sure some of my fellow divers will be posting their favorite pictures to the Photos section soon.

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