Nightmare Nr. 16376247

First recollection is stepping off the back of the dive boat, on the outer parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Hit the water and go to take the first breath, but the valve isn’t open. With no air in my vest, start to sink. Quickly. The water is crushing me. The boat is moored at the edge of the reef. The drop away is probably a 1000m. Start trying to get out of my vest, while kicking upwards, still falling…

and wake up struggling.

Oddly, i take this as a sign that the oceans are calling me, and it’s time to go diving… just don’t forget those safety checks!

The Hunt for the Yellow Goosefish

Let’s get this out of the way first. This is a yellow goosefish, and i’ve never seen one. It’d be great to tell you that i had, but i shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

Went diving on short-notice. Just me an the guide, who turned up with a hangover and looking a little worse for wear. He did however have a glint in his eye – something was afoot!

When it’s just the two of us we usually head off for a nice long surface swim, and then down to the second point (二の根) to check out the nudibranchs. Today we were going a little further out towards the fifth point, looking for a reportedly meter long キアンコウ (anglerfish, yellow goosefish), that had been spotted over the weekend, in about 40m of water.

Seeing as it was now tuesday, and said beastie was last seen moving, i didn’t really fancy our chances. Even thought the visibility was good (20 – 30m), trying to find anything that is the same colour as the sand, on a plain that drops off out of sight is never going to be easy.

And, it wasn’t! On the far side of the second point the sands really open up out to the fifth point, and it’s all super deep. My feeling was that even if we did find this thing it was going to be way to far down to get to… in the end it didn’t matter, by the time we’d blown through out bottom time (and had a few false alarms) it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen.

Back at the beach, with several hours to mull over our defeat it became obvious that the only thing to do was go back and try again! Extended silences were punctuated with exclamations of determination to have another crack. It doesn’t help when some of the other regular guides are there with pictures, and encouraging advice about where to look…

Deciding that we’d go back, see some of the other sights, and not stress about finding the anglerfish. That way we reasoned we were bound to get lucky. Needless to say, we didn’t.

Trying to get more time to explore, the second surface swim was longer than the first… which had been plenty long enough. By the time we were practically over the second point a nice long nap seemed like a good idea. Instead down we went, swam right along the top of the point, and down to about 35m where a thorny seahorse (イバラダツ) was hiding… i say hiding, but it was actually in plain site, i just couldn’t find it! Somehow my guide managed to take a picture of it without me noticing. I blame it on the lack of nap. We then swam over the sands towards the fifth point, where another guide pointed out a warty frogfish. Unfortunately this was also down close to 40m, so it was then time to get up a little and head back to the beach.

Two 45 minute dives at some silly depths, hunting for weird and wonderful undersea creatures. Great days diving. I’m really going to miss these monthly dives! Don’t suppose i’ll ever get to see a yellow goosefish, but it was a lot of fun trying.

Oh, and as an aside, i’ve managed to cure my problem with the cold (it was 14 – 15ºC at depth) by buying an undershirt made from merino wool. Quite amazing how much of a difference it makes. They always say that you shouldn’t wear cotton next to your skin if you’re trying to stay warm, and i can really see why.

New Years Eve Diving

Not sure where to start really. The beginning seems like as good a place as any…

For the last couple of years i’ve attempt to make plans to night dive at Izu Ocean Park. It is still, and by far, my favourite local dive site, but i’ve never dived there at night. This is as there is only one night a year that they open for night diving – new years eve. The last couple of years have made it rather tricky to bail on family events and spend the evening underwater in Izu.

This year the planets aligned… almost. Freed from family obligations, and with the blessing of my wife, up at 6am and off on the trains!

The end of summer has consistently bought me a misery of allergies, and rather than take anti-histamines for six months of year, i’ve decided to attempt to tolerate waking up most morning sneezing like a maniac, and drowning in snot. That is, unless i’m going diving, in which case i’ll take medication the night before. This is usually enough to dry out my head to the point that i don’t have problems with equalisation. Except when it isn’t.

On the first dive, out to see the secret (and camera shy…) seahorse, it took me an absolute age to get my left ear to clear. Fortunately my diving doctor (the one who looked at my ear when i perforated it a few years ago) has given me lessons on equalisation in adverse conditions. Admittedly they mostly involved blowing up a small balloon with my nose, and provided more entertainment than anything else, but they do come in handy when you’re stuck at 15m with another 20m to go…

The obstinate beast in question:

[A better shot by 松崎さん.]

My fellow divers were patient with me, hanging around, and giving me the time needed to get things sorted. Having managed to put a hole in that ear before, and being lucky that it healed completely, i’m considerably more cautious than perhaps i might have been a few years ago.

Along with the irritation of the allergies, it seems that i’ve also become a lot less tolerant of the cold. My ‘cheap as chips’ (which cost a small fortune…)  drysuit, which used to keep me plenty warm wearing just a couple of t-shirts and a pair of leggings in 13 degree water, now feels decidedly parky when it’s still 15 – 16 degrees! Some of this must just be because i’m getting older (sob) but i’m also ~10kg lighter than five years ago, and all that ‘blubber’ probably didn’t hurt…

All of which is to say that after nursing my sore ear through a second dive and being colder than i can ever remember being while diving, it was time to call it a day. It took me a good couple of hours to warm up to the point where i could consider taking my coat off – and this includes quite some time on a local japanese train.

No night diving for me. Not good. Defeated. And not much chance of a redo this year.

After a few days nursing my bruised ego, i’ve concluded that it’s obviously time to take anti-histamines for a few days before diving, find myself some decent thermals, and get back in the water!

The End of Summer

Have been trying to get in one last wetsuit dive for the year, and therefore put off facing up to the fact that my regular trips to Izu are coming to an end. Normally by this time of year i’d be back in a drysuit, all closed off from the water and sweating profusely.

However, this year, in mid-November, the water temperature is still above 20ºC. That’s just about my cut-off my point for comfort. While i’m pretty sure things would be survivable down to something like 16ºC, 20ºC is a nice round number. It turns out that the only problem with colder water (in a wetsuit) is the feeling that you’ve been put through a mangle – i’m covered in bruises, but despite a degree of scrabbling around under rocks (for on that in a moment) it wasn’t a particularly rough day. Body temperature wise i’d go as far as to say it is pretty close to the perfect for a 5mm suit.

Two dives, first one in blue, second in orange. Target for the first was an unusual seahorse (オオウミウマ) living on a outcrop of soft-corals in the sands, down at 35m. Not exactly the easiest thing in the world to find in ~5m visibility, and i’m pretty sure we over swam it by quite a way. Anyway, we found it… which is actually fairly unusual in itself! Normally all our adventures to deep places for tiny creatures are more about the journey than the destination – if you see what i mean.

Second dive was backwards route out to ichi-no-ne, on to kue-ana, and round kame-iwa (found Pikachu – first one of the season!). On the way back we swam through the channel on top of ichi-no-ne, which i don’t think i’ve done for years.

IOP is crawling with frogfish at the moment. A count at the end of the day said we’d found eight, three different species (ベニ、イロ、オオモン).  The  missing one (クマドリ) was supposed to be around, but 20 minutes of searching, over two dives, didn’t find it. It was fun – for the first time in ages i’d dragged my light along for the ride, and was in full on search mode.

The little statues at the top of this post have recently turned up in a little cave on ichi-no-ne. Nobody seems to know who put them there… or they’re not saying.

Last night, on the shinkansen home,  i was reflecting that i’m really going to miss my regular opportunities to dive. All of which led to me building lists of things that i will and won’t miss about Tokyo. The lists will make good posts at some point.Did nothing to change my impression that shinkansen are a most melancholic form of transportation.

As Huxley said “Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure”, but the shinkansen robs you of that pleasure by extracting ever ounce of excitement and sensation from the experience!

Funky Diving

After getting myself into a bit of a funk at the end of last week some much needed diving was hastily arranged. As luck would have it, the wind moved round to blow out of the north, the dreaded ‘北風’ and my usual dive site was closed, or about to close, for the day. And, as luck would have it, having just checked the website, it didn’t actually close. Fuck.

Anyway, spent a day splashing around in the muck and grime of Yawatano, one of the few places that reliably stays open in most weather. The downside is that there isn’t much to see… but sometimes you need to get under the water.

In the process of doing these dives i managed to rip the mouth piece off the second stage of my regulator. Oops. Doing (almost) a complete dive on your backup regulator (amusing referred to as an ‘octopus’) isn’t a great deal of fun. The flow of air isn’t particularly gentle, not doubt it’s adjusted to satisfy the lust for air that would likely occur if you have to use it in anger, and is insanely dry. Using it upside down – it’s on the wrong side of your body to make it easier for your buddy to grab – also leaves you open to inhaling all sorts of little bits of crap that might be floating around in the water.

All in all, it shouldn’t have been a great day. Nonetheless i feel much better for having gone. Will try to fit in another dive at IOP before the end of the month (even if it does mean borrowing a regulator – yuck!)

Edit: something odd (great!) is going on with my breathing. Both dives today i came back to shore with half a tank. This was after 45mins, max. depth mid to low 20m. That isn’t itself very unusual. What is strange is that two other people diving the same profile (and a little shallower) came back with a quarter tank (sensible limits). Perhaps i’ve grown gills? This has happened the last couple of times as well… as far as i can tell, i’m no fitter (in fact i’ve hardly had any exercise days in the last month), and doing nothing different. Yes, i’m relaxed in the water, but that seems to have been the case for quite a while. Wasn’t really expecting another big jump…

Underwater Happiness

Never one to dwell on the negative…

My last couple of diving trips have been really sublime. My guide has had an open schedule on Mondays, so we’re diving with just the two of us, or with other guides on their days off. This has meant that we’ve been taking trips down the ‘paths less travelled’, and getting out to see the parts of I.O.P. that are too much effort for most people. Effort is usually defined as anything involving a surface swim, or 10mins ploughing along at 15m… my favourite points require both.

From a dive earlier this month, not exactly the same route as described here, but close enough. First dive in red, second in blue.

Yesterday we were diving with another instructor on his day off. They really should put this in the PADI manuals: when your guide tells you that another instructor is tagging along, and asks if it would be alright to use 14litre tanks (we usually dive with 10litres), you should be afraid, very afraid.

The usual pattern recently has been to dive to the second point, requiring a surface swim to the first point, descent, and then a 5 minute slog to the northern wall of the second point (at about 20m), crossing over to the southern wall, and moving to the eastern tip at about 35m. Then the long swim back to the exit. With a 10litre tank you’ve got about 45mins to do this (if you want to get out with a safe amount of air in your tank), with a 14l tank you can stretch it out to over an hour…

The second dive, after a suitably elongated break, is a longer surface swim, followed by a longer slog at about 15 – 20m over the sand to an outcrop called ‘buri machi’. All the interesting things happen down past 30m, and it’s an ‘all or nothing’ sort of place, sometimes it’s crawling with things, sometimes nothing. Yesterday was a nothing… on the upside, visibility was terrible, the water was cold, the currents were strong, and the soft corals looked like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. So, not all bad! And then the long slog home. Again, with a 10l tank this is a 45min affair, with not much room to spare, with a 14l tank it’s an easy hour. Which is good, because after the first dive your computer is pretty much screaming at you that you’re close to your limits, a sign that you need to take your time coming up to the surface. Dutifully long safety stops were taken.

After two plus hours of that i was ready to call it a day. These instructor types, despite being a few years older than me, were off for another dive. If you dive most days you obviously build up some serious stamina for it. It was interesting that i used quite a lot less air than either of them, but was obviously far more tired.

This recent pattern of challenging dives has been really good for me – my fitness (from swimming) is currently good enough that i can really enjoy pushing myself and not feel like i’m taking stupid risks. For the rest of the warm season i’m going to try to keep up a routine of diving twice a month… maybe even when dry suit time rolls around.

Underwater Frustration

You’d be rather hard pushed to know, but there is a rather pretty anemone shrimp hiding in that picture. It’s taken with a Canon G9, that quite frankly, has become the bane of my underwater photography existence. Mostly due to the housing, it’s actually a step back from the little Ixy 800 IS that i started out with. That thing could at least get the shot

The real answer is obviously to stop messing around with this junk, spend the money, and get a proper step. In my mind this would be defined as a 5D mk II, a decent housing (good down to 60m… just for that little extra insurance), a lens port for the EF100m ƒ2.8 USM Macro, and a pair of Inon strobes. Easy. I even know what to buy! Given a few dives to practice, it’d be possible to get exactly the shots that i’ve always wanted! There are two problems…

First, such a setup is going to set me back something like ~$10k; $2k for the 5D mk II (not so bad, i’d probably buy one eventually), $5 for the housing and port (ouch), $2k for strobes. That’s rather a large investment for something that is only going to get wet a couple of times a month, and given the number of people out there shooting, isn’t very likely to pay for itself through picture sales / licensing.

Second, it’s all very well diving off the back of a boat, being handed your $10k camera setup, and gently descending into crystal clear, blue tropical waters… but the majority of my dives just aren’t like that! For me it’s a beach entry on a rocky shore, usually through surf, and often with enough swell that getting thrown about it a bit by the waves is what you should expect. And, that’s just the entry – an exit can often be like going through the spin cycle of a washing machine!

All of which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma: i’d really like to take better (much better!) underwater photographs, but i can’t justify spending the money, and any insurance company would probably drop me after i’d ruined the first couple of housings in the surf!

Oh, and i’ve looked into housing / strobe rental, but it seems to be mostly limited to a few dive shops and professional stuff (broadcast, etc), and i’m not sure they’d be too keen on the trip to 35m to get my dream shot of some nudibranch that may, or may not, still be there…

The thought of some halfway house, where i buy a housing for the G9 (if they’re still even made…) and a couple of strobes, really doesn’t appeal anymore – i’m so sick of the damn thing, that ‘doing it right’ feels like the only alternative.

All of which leaves me thinking that i’m just going to grin and bear it. But i really do wish i wasn’t coming back from 2hrs of diving with ~5 decent(ish) shots!

Great Barrier Reef Diving

I blame Willard Price.

As a child his adventure books were a form of addiction. The ones that really did it for me were the diving ones, Underwater Adventure, South Sea Adventure, Diving Adventure. I can still recall the scene on the coral atoll with the giant squid caught in the fish trap…

All of which is a round-a-bout way of saying that i’ve always wanted to go dive the Great Barrier Reef. In my imagination it wouldn’t be as a tourist, but as a scientist, or explorer, attempting to unlock some great secret that would help save my watery paradise from the ravages of man…

So much for imagination! It doesn’t look like i’m going to manage to switch careers at this point, and does the world really need any more explorers?

Commercial flight from Tokyo to Cairns. Four day luxury live-aboard. All decisions made based on the fanciness of the websites. Willard would be oh so disappointed.

Fortunately the diving was good… although not as good as i’d managed to hype myself up to imagining it might be. The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive (we were lucky enough to get to a really remote reef that is only dived a couple of times a year) there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but the predominate atmosphere is not one of vibrant health.

Live-aboard life is really quite lulling. If you let them the staff will keeping you in a schedule of well organised eating / diving / sleeping. A typical day starts at 6:30am with breakfast, then diving, then second breakfast, then diving, then lunch, then diving, then dinner, then night diving, then sleep. The last step is not really optional… however much you might imagine that it’d be nice to sit around on deck with a beer, the reality is that having a shower before falling asleep is considered a victory. There were people on board who had kept up this schedule for 7 days, not missing a single dive. After four days i could see myself happily following along for another couple of weeks. It all catches up with afterwards, but at the time, it’s was as close to utopian existence as i’m likely to get!

The tourist aspect of it all only really encroached on one dive (out of the 15…) At North Horn on Osprey Reef the sharks now congregate to be fed by the dive boats. This involves winching a dustbin full of tuna heads on a rope down from the surface, and letting the sharks have at it. Contrived as it is, it’s a spectacular sight. Despite a group of 20 – 30 reef sharks, some as big as 3m, whipping themselves into a frenzy, around 5m in front of you, it’s all extremely peaceful. I took video of it, and was amazed that my breathing is pretty much unchanged. In the audio you can hear the bone sin the tuna heads cracking and snapping, but the lack of noise gives it a feeling serenity, belying the chaotic scene.

Fish feeding has never felt right to me… but i suppose it’s inevitable. If the demands of tourism can protect the shark population from continued decimation, it might be worth it. On the previous trip the staff on the boat had removed several hundred meters of baited hooks from the reef, and very little of the outer reef is officially protected from fishing. There are still big fish out there (giant barracuda, tune, manta rays, bull rays, reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, trevelly, etc) but the abundance you might see on a TV documentary is far from commonplace at this point.

Part of the reason that i broke my ‘no flying’ ban and went on this trip was a feeling that if i didn’t do it soon, it would soon be too late. I’m obviously bittersweet about the whole thing. It was glorious to get to dive there, but knowing that i’m just adding to the pressure on the system really doesn’t feel right.

October Diving

The weather this autumn just hasn’t been diver friendly – my favoured diving spot seems to have been closed far to many days; big storms sitting of the coast; typhoons making landfall in honshu in October… When it wasn’t closed the conditions haven’t been great. What a mess. Last month saw me taking Matt diving on a Saturday, and at Futo Yokobama. For the love of Gub!

This month there were a couple of likely looking windows in the weather, so on short notice we went off to IOP to play in the surf. Was really nice to be back. Futo really doesn’t do it for me  – the whole experience is so different. IOP is relaxed and scenic… and that’s just out of the water. In the water it’s all drama and mystery. I’ve been diving there for years and never get bored with the place. All the variety and complexity in the rocks, the big drop offs, walls… ah, still so in love. But a cruel mistress – there hasn’t really been a proper day of summer diving, with blazing blue skies, clear still water, and  that heat in the shallows where the water has been wallowing, soaking up the sun. Still, there is always next year.

Next month i’m off to Australia to dive on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the time of year when the visibility is supposed to be spectacular. I’m expecting to be blown away… hope it doesn’t disappoint. Don’t think i’ll manage to fit in another dive before that adventure, but if the weather improves… maybe.