Friday, 18 December 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

  • Darwin's Arch, the Galapagos Islands

You may have realised by now that I don’t consider myself particularly attractive. I might rate myself slightly higher than a pair of dog’s bollocks, but not by much. I suspect that I am being a tad harsh on myself, but no one is ever going to mistake me for Claudia Schiffer or Elizabeth Hurley. And that is when I am looking at my best. Just imagine the horror that is me after I have been diving. Now, if you have never been diving, you probably have the completely wrong idea of how it works. You probably imagine some gorgeous girlie in a skin tight wetsuit whose boobies (finally, I am actually referring to those belonging to a lady rather than a bird of the feathered kind) are trying to break free from their neoprene embrace. You are probably imagining sparkling, crystal clear water, teeming with an ever-shifting rainbow of fish, with friendly turtles paddling lazily by and dolphins leaping, swirling and flashing by with the grace of a ballet dancer and the effort of a cat swishing its tail.

This is all very lovely, but it just a fantasy. The reality is oh so different. You would think that the waters surrounding the Galapagos, smack bang on the equator, would be lovely and warm. Well, this is just not the case. Cold water currents stream up from the South, all the way from the Antarctic. This is great news for the life on and around the islands, since it brings with it oodles of nutrients needed to feed the food chains. It is also great news for divers in terms of the animals that they will see when submerged in this watery wonderland, but it is not good news on the looks front. No skimpy wetsuits for this wimpy diver. Instead, I opt for the weezel and the drysuit. For those not in the know, a weezel is essentially a sleeping bag with arms and legs. I personally think that we should all own one – it could go a long way to saving the planet and combating global warming. Who needs to heat a house when one can wear a weezel? The only snag for all us girls is an accessibility issue; let’s just say that we would be trading an inconvenient truth for an inconvenient pee. Since a wet weezel is never a good thing, one then has to don a drysuit. This is essentially a large bag with arms and legs. There are seals (no, not the barking, fishy breath kind) at the wrists to prevent water entering there and another seal around the neck. Getting one’s head through this neck seal is about as much fun as poking needles in your eyes, whilst getting it off again is as much fun as poking needles in your eyes whilst sticking pins under your fingernails. If things are not looking good as one enters the water, they look even worse when one exits it. Your hair will be sticking up in all directions leaving you looking like a crazed hedgehog while the snot that has been building up in your mask now escapes its confines and plasters itself all over your face. It is not easy to discretely wipe away half a pint of snot – trust me, I know.

  • Mr. DBM is OK

Now that I have thoroughly put you off from ever venturing into the wetter two thirds of our planet, I shall try to show you why I would ever put myself through this. So, let’s head on down under into the deep blue depths of the Pacific Ocean. Diving in the Galapagos is all about the big things. There is no pretty reef teeming with a myriad of colourful, sparkly fish darting in and out of waving anemones and spiky corals. Since the currents around these islands can be pretty strong, the first thing you have to do once submerged is find a nice spot to wedge yourself into. There are lots of rocks around, so you would think that this would be pretty easy. But trust me, you might want to check that spot you are about to put your hand down on or that hole you are about to wedge you rear end into. You might end up sitting on one of these:

Or putting your hand on one of these:

I think that it is fairly obvious why you would not want to poke your rear end into an eel’s lair, what with all the sharp pointy teeth, but the fish doesn’t look so bad, does it? Well, to be honest I would go with the eel if I had to make a choice. They tend to be fairly shy and will usually just disappear into a hole when you approach. The fish, on the other hand, is a scorpionfish. It just happens to have a series of sharp spines that run along its back. Not only will these give you a nasty jab, but they are also loaded with venom that make these fish some of the most deadly animals on earth. To make matters worse, they are masters of camouflage and can be very tricky to spot if you are not looking very carefully.

Oh yes, that’s right, I am supposed to be showing you why you might want to go diving, not just giving you more reasons not to go. So, you have found a nice comfy crevice, sans any previous occupant, to wedge yourself into and you are now ready to sit back and enjoy the view. And what a view it is. The front of the reef is a bit like an oceanic freeway and if you perch yourself here, you will see all manner of creatures parading past.

  • There are big schools of fish, such as these yellow snapper
  • and these big-eyed silverfish (no, I have no idea what they are really called, I just made that name up).

  • You can just sit back, relax and watch rush hour on the reef.

If you are lucky, some of the more inquisitive creatures may even come to check you out. This friendly little chap came right on up to me, posed for the camera and then buggered off, only to return a few minutes later with his equally inquisitive mate. I guess they were wondering what the huge, monstrous bubbling bulk could possibly be.

Whilst you are ensconced in your little hidey hole, you can also check out some of your neighbours. This odd couple seemed very happy to hang out together. The long skinny one is a large trumpet fish, he must have been around two feet long, and his sidekick is a yellow finned spotted cod (OK, OK, so I made that name up as well – my fish ID is not so good).

Here is a little school of butterfly fish gilding gracefully by.

Towards the end of the dive, the inevitable signal will be given. It is time to face the current and swim out into The Blue. This is when things start getting a little bit tricky. Not only am I somewhat unfit and lacking in the muscle department, not only do I have the bulk of all my dive gear, but I also have my camera, which is in a huge housing to stop it from getting wet and is attached to a large extension on the end of which is perched a large strobe. This is not helping me maintain a nice streamlined profile and my progress away from the reef is slow. Go back to the dolphins, all grace and no effort. Me, I am the complete opposite of that – a lumbering blob blowing like a steam train, busy going nowhere fast. Still, with much effort and determination, I did make it into The Blue and wow, was it ever worth it.

Out of nowhere a huge wall of fish looms before you and before you know it, you have been enveloped in its swirling, twirling embrace. There are no points of reference out in The Blue and you are free to move in all directions in this three dimensional space. As the vortex of fish spins around you, you lose track of where you are and you get lost in the fish, lost in the blue. Next thing you know, you start sinking. Next thing you know, you are surrounded by these:

Hammerheads. These are what I was here to see. The schooling hammerheads of the Galapagos. Of course, as soon as I mention the word shark, you are all swimming madly for the surface, shouting for the boat, the soundtrack to Jaws thumping through your head, visions of blood billowing through the water. But really, these sharks are probably less dangerous than my cat. Oh, I know that potentially they could bite my head off, which I don’t think my cat can, but I have dived with hundreds of sharks with never a drop of blood being drawn. I cannot say that about either of my cats. Did you know that more people are injured by chairs than by sharks, and yet how many of you run from a room screaming when you see a chair? This hammerhead is a scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) and it spends its day circling close to shore in large schools. It is only at night that it leaves for the open ocean to hunt small fish, squid and octopus. The characteristic shape of its head is not for comic relief, but is an adaptation that enhances the shark’s chances of finding food. By having the eyes so far apart, it has 360 degree vision and by having its nostrils widely spaced enhances its already stupendous sense of smell. They also have sensory pores along the front of the hammer that allows them to detect electrical impulses from their prey. By sweeping their heads back and forth, a hammerhead can detect an electrical signal of less than one billionth of a volt. These creatures are superbly adapted to their environment and I think they should be admired and appreciated for the magnificent creatures that they are. So, for all of you supping on your shark fin soup or popping your shark cartilage pills, please stop. These gorgeous creatures are disappearing from our oceans at an alarming rate and most people just don’t seem to care – well, they aren’t all cute and cuddly like a panda, are they? And I would like to point out to anyone out there who is buying shark cartilage pills that there is absolutely no scientific evidence what-so-ever to back any claims that they have medicinal qualities or any health benefits. I shall step down off of my soapbox now and get back to the Galapagos.

Whilst out in the blue, you may also encounter smaller schools of rays, such as these eagle rays. These creatures are all elegance and grace as they glide through the water with a lazy flap of their “wings”. The contrast between their effortless loveliness and my strenuous grotesqueness is like night a day. It is like comparing an orchid with a potato or a diamond with a lump of coal. Underwater photography is quite a challenge and my photographs cannot do justice to this amazing place (and no, I am not “fishing” for compliments......). Nature leaves me awestruck with its beauty, its simplicity and its perfection. OK, so I have a big brain (let it go......) and opposable thumbs, but when I am their world I am as useless as a chocolate teapot or a screen door on a submarine. All I can do is take a deep breath, relax and immerse myself in this watery wonderland.

So, there you have it. You have seen the ugly side of diving, with all its hassles and headaches, but I hope you have also come to appreciate the beauty of the underwater realm and its serene splendour. The Agony of Diving, the Ecstasy of Nature.

  • A pair of mating trevallies, the dark male behind the lighter female.

I would like to finish by thanking all the crew aboard the MY Sky Dancer and if anyone has any questions please feel free to ask.

But most of all, I would like to thank my husband, Mr. DBM, for none of this would have been possible without him there to hold my hand, hold my camera gear and hold my hair back whilst puking my guts out at nearly all of the high altitude destinations on this trip.

There, I am done. This time last year, I was packing my things and preparing to fly back to Canada, right in the middle of a snow storm. One year later and I have finally finished my blogs from South America. What shall I write about now!?! Perhaps I shall have to head out on another adventure...........


Lola said...

Has it really taken a whole year? It's been wonderful, thank you. Off you go now, we need some more adventures.

Cortes said...

Finally, back from the round trip ferry crossing to Vancouver Island, and now I can respond to the post I have been waiting 12 short months for.

It is all I expected, and more, and well worth the wait. Not so much the pictures (which are up to your usual standard), which I have seen previously, but the prose, which tells the story perfectly and stirs up so many memories for me. Memories of seeing the largest stingray ever in Aruba. Of turtles and spiny crabs in Mexico, and sharks and eels and fish, fish, fish in Palau. And, of course, all of my wreck diving! There is beauty in many forms under the waves.

Your description of the "horrors" of scuba diving made me chuckle. I have often got the neck seal halfway on and thought I was going to fall over and die of asphyxiation before I could pull it all the way over my head. I have seen photos of myself underwater, and they are not pretty, not by any measure. And after a dive, well as you say, there simply are too many fluids coming from too many places for anyone to look halfway decent. Thankfully your camera was never operational on the shore or the boat after a dive!

But, just as you point out, the wonder of being in the underwater world is breathtaking. I loved every minute, and your story has brought back some wonderful memories. Thank you so much.

So worth waiting for. What comes next, I wonder???

Suldog said...

Wow. That is really an amazing bunch of photos. What a magnificent trip you had! You are so blessed!

Moon said...

It's just made me so jealous ... SO jealous.. wonderful stuff, I expect a copy of the 1st edition to be my birthday present please ....

Great photos, and I am sure you are disappointed with them.. but they are so SO good.

Do people still eat Shark Finn soup ??.. shoot them, and feed them to the Sharks ...

Carolina said...

Oh your writing is superb and so are your photographs.

Perhaps if someone made a movie about malicious chairs some day, with a catching theme tune, we'd rather sit on an eel ;-)
Anyhoo, thanks for sharing your wonderful adventures with us - simple human beings with both feet on the ground, sitting on a chair (while we still dare) behind a desk. All very dull and reasonably safe. And although I envy your adventurous life...we have dogs and horses! Lekker puh! (that's Dutch and means something like 'bummer for you')

Have a wonderful Christmas ;-)

Don't Bug Me! said...

Lola: Yep, a whole year - how useless am I?

Cortes: Glad to hear that the wait was worth it and since it has bought back so many memories, fancy going for a dive holiday this summer - I was thinking of the ABCs or Papua? At least there we wouldn't need the drysuit.

Suldog: It was an amazing trip - hopefully not one of a lifetime, since I am hoping for many more!

Moon: We went to a Chinese wedding this year and yes, they still serve shark's fin soup. We refused to eat it, but we could hardly shoot the bride and groom, could we!?! I suppose we could have gone for the parents, since they are the ones who pay for the wedding and it is a Chinese tradition to eat the stuff.....

Carolina: Thank you, but I am not sure that a chair movie will be the next big box office blockbuster. And your life certainly doesn't sound dull with all your wonderful, if sometimes daft, animals. Hope you all have a lovely Christmas.

Cortes said...

The ABC's are close! Could definitely work if Bonaire and Curacao were included. I did not really like Aruba (far too commercialized), but Curacao was really great. Checking flights!

English Mum said...

Ah I loved that post. I still want to dive. And not even the snot bit has put me off.

And isn't that Crush from Finding Nemo? I met him once before at Disneyworld...

Moon said...

I still the best diving in the world is the barrier reef .. wouldn't you agree ????

Also, are you going back to moaning about life.. I quite enjoyed Mrs Meldrew .....

Don't Bug Me! said...

Cortes: Bonaire? Mr. DBM fancies a rebreather course.

EM: It could well of been Crush - he was very friendly.

Moon: Hmmmm, best diving ....... Indonesia perhaps, B.C., cold but excellent, the Red Sea ...... I don't know, there are just too many good places to choose from. Perhaps I haven't even dived the best place yet - Papua New Guinea must rank pretty high.

Moon said...

I was told by an expert .. it's the barrier reef .. after all, they have done many dives there ... what do you know ?

Don't Bug Me! said...

Moon: Well, we will just have to agree with the expert, won't we!?!

Baino said...

Holy moly! You're brave. And I thought spitting into your goggles was nasty. I've never dived but have done my share of snorkelling. I once was even brave enough to swim with Manta Rays in Tahiti but that was a long time ago.

I'm terrified of being stalked by something creeping up behind me! Plus all the people that seem to be attacked by sharks here are either abalone divers, scuba divers or surfers mistaken for seals. No way Jose, you are braver than I.

Seriously, there is a book in here somewhere. The photos are absolutely awesome. And I thought silverfish were what's eating my sweaters during the summer! Silly me!

Kate said...

Sigh. And another happy sigh. You really are the most marvelous story-teller I've read in a long time. Thank you.

Next Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand?

Don't Bug Me! said...

Katherine: Ah yes, indeed, that would be lovely. Mr. DBM tried to get a teacher exchange to that area a few years ago, so we could spend a whole year in New Zealand, but he couldn't get one. So, since I want to visit New Zealand in your summer, we are going to have to wait at least 3 years before we can take more time off. Perhaps I should consider a sabbatical there? Any forensic entomology going on down there?

Kate said...

'Any forensic entomology going on down there?' must be one of the more unusual questions I've ever been asked.
I have investigated.

Last year the International Symposium on the Forensic Sciences in Melbourne (Australia) included a topic presented by Terry Eberhardt and Douglas Elliot, entitled "Addressing a knowledge gap in New Zealand: forensic entomology"
These two guys come from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited (ESR), and ESR and The University of Auckland, Forensic Science Programme, both of New Zealand.

I think that begins to answer your question.

Don't Bug Me! said...

Thanks Katherine! I think that I shall have to look into this a bit more. I quite like the idea of a year in New Zealand.