Published October 2016
For Cayman Airways magazine – Skies www.caymanairwaysmagazine.com
Thanks to www.thefreerlancer.com for copyediting
Images by Jim Catlin http://www.jimcatlinphotography.com/
Diver Magazine (UK) Feb ’15
Photos by Jim Catlin http://www.jimcatlinphotography.com
Published in Diver Magazine (North America) September 2015
Photos by Jim Catlin
What is wrong with people today? It might just be me, but as the human race charges deeper into the digital age, it seems that common sense and good social skills are plummeting in to extinction. With the earth’s population hurtling towards critical mass, we should be more concerned about those that share the ever decreasing space around us. But as we communicate more and more virtually through digital channels, so we seem to lose the ability to maintain harmony with those in our close proximity. The problem with common sense, like good social skills, is that they are becoming less and less common.
Being on a dive boat can put this idea under a magnifying glass. As a general statement, divers are a pretty good bunch, normally friendly, welcoming and up for a laugh. But from time to time they fall out and when that happens, the first thing I notice is that the dive boat suddenly becomes a really small and uncomfortable place to be.
Getting along shouldn’t be difficult, but having seen dive trips go sour in the past, I feel the need to spell a few things out.
An Example of Bad Behavior – Decorum
I was once doing a two tank trip on a 26’ RIB, space was a premium. At any point during the time spent topside, I could have reached out and touched five different people. After the last dive a guy stood up, took his wet suit off leaving him totally naked and stood very precariously on the rocking boat. As he bent over and rummaged through his bag looking for his underwear there was a stunned silence throughout the boat, the diver that was sitting behind him almost lost his breakfast over the side. No one, captain included, could believe what was happening.
Some Tips to Avoid Bad Decorum:
Another Example of Bad Behavior – Time Management
I used to dive with a couple that had an incredible ability to annoy everyone else around them. That included the captain, crew, fellow passengers and even me. The main issue was that they were always the last people to do anything. They would wait until the rest of the group had finished an activity before starting it themselves. When everyone else was on the boat waiting to take off, they were on the dock rummaging through bags. When everyone had their kit on sweating in their heavy wetsuits, they were assembling their gear and fiddling with lanyards. When everyone else was bobbing around on the surface in the swells wrestling with nausea, they were putting their gear on, laughing and joking without a care in the world. The only time they managed to demonstrate good time management it seemed, was either when hitting the showers (there was only a finite amount of hot water) and hitting the bar!
Some Tips to Avoid Causing Delays
A Further Example of Bad Behavior – Underwater Conduct
There have been times watching scenes unfold underwater when I have been left truly astonished, it amazes me how some people can be so stupid with only one head. Once, I had the…… ahem…. pleasure of diving with a group of ten who would come to be known as “the underwater rugby team”. If you have not watched a game of rugby, imagine American Football but without the padding and helmets. Now picture this underwater but with scuba gear on. I am not exaggerating, the only thing missing were the cheerleaders! Descents were carried out bottom first, coming to a stop as they crash landed on the coral or in the sand nearby. As soon as the divers had managed to wrestle themselves right side up, they scattered in every direction ricocheting off each other like sub aquatic fireworks. As soon as someone found something of interest he banged his tank like crazy until the rest of the pack all charged at him descending on him and ending up in a big mess of sand, fins, coral and bubbles. I never did find out what he had seen. The dive lasted around 25 minutes, miraculously everyone made it back on board.
Some Tips to Avoid Bad Underwater Conduct
Final example of Bad Behavior – Cameras
Recently I watched a young healthy guy using a 100cf tank in tropical water burn through his air in 26 minutes. He spent the dive with his eyes glued to the screen of his camera which I estimate would be valued at around $5,000. This guy’s buoyancy was so out of control that at 80 feet he was pretty much upright having to fin like crazy in order to maintain his depth. Upon finding something to take a picture of he would stop kicking which gave him enough time to get one shot at the subject before he dive bombed in to it. Following a brief period rolling around in the fire coral he’d pick himself up and do the exact same thing again and again not touching his LPI once.
Some Tips to Avoid Being a Nuisance Photographer
Maybe the problem is that I am too set in my ways. Am I missing out on a world of fun that is detached from boring rules and etiquette? Perhaps next time I go for a dive I should pack lots of useless stuff to take to the boat and get in everyones way. I could heckle the guide during the brief and when other divers start to frown at me I could just take my clothes off and light up a cigarette. If the mood took me, I might try spending the dive decorating myself with coral. I could play hilarious games like swimming over to other divers, attach myself to them and see how long I can hold on for as they flail manically trying to shake me off. As I write this, of course jokingly, I do start to see a certain attraction. I might just give it a go, afterall, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em!
Published in UK Diver Magazine July 2015
A few minutes was all it took for a cruise ship anchor to destroy thousands of meters of protected coral reef in Grand Cayman last August. In response to this ecological disaster, a team of volunteer divers formed, intent on saving as much of the damaged habitat as possible. In just under a year, the recovery operation has become so successful that it now owns its own boat which is used to send out teams of volunteer divers to work on the reef on an almost daily basis. When all this began, it was almost impossible to imagine how this piece of world famous reef could ever recover. Following a years’ worth of sheer determination, hard work and the generosity of concerned businesses and community members, the reef recovery team has managed to create hope for this tragic situation.
The disaster happened at the end of August last year when the 300M Carnival Magic dropped anchor in the protected Marine Park on a sizeable patch of healthy coral reef. While the anchor lay in a bed of shattered marine life, the immense chain was pulled through the reef damaging an estimated 4,000 square meters Coral. The chain made its mark on top of the wall which starts at a depth of approximately 16 meters and drops down a mile to the ocean floor.
Following the incident, Grand Cayman’s Department of Environment (DOE) launched an investigation. It was understood that when cruise ships arrive at the island, the Port Authority assigns them a location where they are allowed to drop anchor. Local company Bodden Shipping then direct the ship to the correct spot and signals when to drop the anchor. Establishing whether Carnival, Bodden or the Port Authority were ultimately responsible would involve a lengthy and costly court case, and as such the DOE advised against legal action being taken.
In the wake of this ecological tragedy, a desperate attempt to reduce the destruction is underway. Working under the DOE is a team of dedicated volunteers, mostly from the local dive community, headed by Lois Hatcher from Ocean Frontiers and Keith Sahm from Sunset House. Hatcher describes the damage as catastrophic. “With the condition of worldwide coral reefs in steady decline, even up to 80% in some areas, every little piece of coral is important. Not only for habitat but for what is left of the fish and marine life”
Efforts are being assisted by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), a group of scientists who focus on reef recovery. CCMI Conservation Scientist Katie Lohr talks of her organisations involvement: “Conserving coral reefs is at the core of CCMI’s mission, and we are thus committed to helping to restore the site as much as possible. We are helping in whatever way we can, especially by providing supplies, use of our boat, and our scientific expertise in the field of coral reef ecology and restoration.” Lohr explains what is currently being done in the project: “Volunteers have been working since the incident occurred to remove rubble and secure dislodged pieces of live coral. They have helped to mitigate coral mortality by securing dislodged corals in milk crates on the seafloor, improving their chance of survival. However, it is imperative that corals are reattached to the reef as soon as possible to encourage long-term survival.”
It’s not only divers donating their time, several local businesses are also contributing towards the effort. Water sports operator Red Sail have been providing boats for the volunteers to dive from almost every week since the recovery attempts began. In addition, Divetech, Don Fosters and Off the Wall are amongst other Cayman firms who have stepped up and donated resources. Businesses outside of the dive industry have also generously offered what they can with places like Subway and Breezes By The Sea providing meals for the volunteer divers, Flowers Water providing bags for lifting work and Fosters Food Fair who provided the milk crates that the surviving corals now temporarily live in.
As the reef restoration project started to take shape, it became apparent that funds would be needed. Requirements like lift bags, epoxy, tools and cement all have costs attached to them. Group leaders also agreed that purchasing a boat would greatly assist logistics, enabling the volunteers much more opportunity and flexibility to work on the site.
A fundraising event was arranged in February and proved to be a huge success. Money was raised through auctions, raffles and donations from people at the event as well as people keen to offer their support through the internet. Awareness of the incident had managed to spread through social media to the point where people were actually travelling to Grand Cayman in order to offer their vacation time as restoration divers.
As well as raising awareness of the project, the fundraising event generated over 30,000 USD. In addition to this, just a week later Carnival broke their silence and pledged a further 100,000 USD to the fund as a gesture of good will while making it clear that they still accepted no responsibility for the accident themselves. This pot of money has enabled the project to really get traction. With the team ready to start pouring concrete on the dead areas to create a solid base for new life, it came in at just the right time.
As divers, we are fortunate enough to see parts of the planet that others can only dream of. This prime position however, also gives us front row tickets to see the destructive effect that humans have on the ocean. As sad as it is to see yet another blow to Mother Nature, witnessing the efforts that some people will make to help the environment can be truly inspirational. The reef restoration project in Grand Cayman is a perfect example that if we work together we can help to make positive change, no matter how hopeless it may seem.
Published in Tech Diver Mag, Issue 19, June 2015
I like sitting at the bar talking nonsense, I’m good at it and it’s where I feel comfortable, once there, the idea of leaving becomes preposterous. Metaphorically, my comfort zone is the same, offering protection and sanctuary from what lurks outside. As nice as it sounds, I know I can’t stay in the bar forever, there is a whole world outside that should be explored. With this in mind, I recently leapt out of my comfort zone and changed everything I knew about diving. I finally made the step in to the silent world by getting certified as a rebreather diver.
For years I have given lots of thought to rebreathers, I have read articles and probably like many others, have heard mixed opinions about their safety. “Rebreathers are just death boxes and their users deserve to die!” That was a quote from a customer I heard recently. OK, agreed it is a little blunt, but it does kind of highlight one school of thinking on rebreathers. I find it interesting to hear the difference in opinions within the dive community on the subject. Some love them, some hate them, and many do not know enough about them to comfortably form an opinion.
What is a rebreather? Well, apart from a very big strain on your bank balance, a rebreather is a unit that recycles exhaled gas by filtering out carbon dioxide and giving the user good gas to breath. The APD Evolution (Evo) which I am now certified to use monitors the gas in “the loop” and will give me the best mix possible based on the depth I am at, within the parameters that I have set it. The Evo is a Closed Circuit Rebreather which means that the gas constantly travels through a circuit without being expelled apart from during ascents.
I remember the first time I saw a rebreather, it was on a dive boat somewhere off the south coast of England. As the divers loaded their gear on to the boat, I noticed the conspicuous yellow boxes and recall having no idea what they were or what they did. Being relatively new to the sport, I did not want to expose my ignorance by asking silly questions. Throughout the trip, I kept a suspicious eye on the strange looking devices and their owners hoping to get some clues. When the rebreather divers were getting out of the water and help was required to stow their units on the boat, I was reluctant to get involved thinking that if I grabbed one in the wrong place it may explode. Back on dry land, I went home and started to research these mystical devices, later feeling something of an authority on the subject as I had been near one once.
The main reasons why I had not tried rebreather diving earlier in my career were cost and availability, I expect these are the biggest constraints for most people. I was initially concerned about the safety aspect so spent quite a bit of time researching rebreather accidents and incidents. Time and time again, I came back to the same theme – user error. Like in open circuit, complacency kills. Writing this, I am reminded of a Mark Powel quote “diving is safe as long as you remember it is dangerous” – very true whether you are talking open or closed circuit.
On the subject of safety, I came to learn that modern units themselves are reliable and most often will do what they are built to do. When divers cut corners due to cost, time, laziness or just plain stupidity then accidents happen. My conclusion was to study the hell out of the subject to become as knowledgeable as I could, get good training, stay focused and tread carefully.
As an avid open circuit tech diver, my interest in rebreather diving is depth. The cost of helium is limiting and aside the startup cost, rebreathers are far more economical when using trimix due to their lack of wasted gas. My initial turn offs were their complexity, required time and effort to get ready for the dive and reliability (I have seen many a frustrated rebreather diver have to remain topside due to some fault or another).
My instructor was a bastard named Steve Tippetts. I don’t think he’ll mind me (affectionately) referring to him as such because I firmly believe that he prides himself on being a hard ass instructor. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted good training and Steves tough regimented way fit the bill perfectly. I had worked with Steve for over a year in Divetech and in that time we became friends. Steve took this as fair game to try his hardest to make me cry during the course and I expected nothing less. An IANTD IT, he has had years of honing his skills and developing a whole host of nasty little tricks which he has a habit of pulling out of the bag at the worst times possible. Of course I am dramatizing, by “tricks” I mean carefully placed training scenarios that made me think about what was going on and how to use what I had available to solve the problem. IANTD say that training is paid for but certification is earned, in my experience I fully concur, there was no plain sailing in this course.
During the training, the hardest thing to come to terms with was buoyancy. Losing the ability to control position in the water with my lungs was a challenge. On open circuit I can hang in the water perfectly with next to no movement from my body whatsoever. My first foray in to closed circuit must have looked like one of those air puppet things that you get outside car dealers. It seemed as though my dive skills that took over a decade to acquire had evaporated in to think air. Time to park the ego and get back to learning some basics.
Having the luxury of being surrounded by some very accomplished rebreather divers, I notice that the style looks different to open circuit. The perfect trim and motionlessness that I had spent years striving to develop is not how it works on a rebreather. Even very skilled closed circuit divers often have to fin gently in a slightly diagonal position in order to maintain their depth.
But that’s the whole thing about new experiences, of course there will be differences. As humbling as it was to go right back to square one, the excitement of learning something new and completely different was more than worth it.
So having completed my basic training and done 30 or so dives, what’s the verdict? I like rebreather diving very much, against closed circuit there are advantages and disadvantages. Trimix is a way off yet but drops to 130 feet or so are comfortable. My current opinion is that a rebreather is a tool and is the best tool for some jobs. For example, the stretch of coastline between our two dive centres is 3 km long, I have now dived it both open and closed circuit. On open circuit I carried five 80cf tanks (twins and three staged) and enough weight to sink them all when empty. On closed circuit, I had my neat little rebreather unit and a 40cf bailout. If nothing else I had a very good nights sleep after the open circuit dive which took an hour longer due to the considerable increase in drag and weight. I’m able to shoot far more lionfish without bubbles to scare them away and I imagine that photographers will note similar benefits. However, I do love the simplicity of open circuit and having a full understanding of how each component of the inside of a regulator works is reassuring.
And now my comfort zone has expanded. To carry on the metaphor, the bar just got a lot bigger, has more people in it but the cost of the drinks has risen somewhat. For me, rebreather diving will not fully replace open circuit. I love the capabilities a rebreather provides and it is a perfect vehicle to take me to the depths I want to go to. However, for light recreational diving, I prefer the simplicity of open circuit. Maybe in the long term, my opinion will change, but for now, my perfect world is big enough for both technologies. As far as plans for the immediate future go, all this talk about bars has got me thirsty, time to have a little toast to the new adventure.
Published in UK Diver magazine May 2015
“You can dive in Korea…?” This is the response I usually get from people when I tell them about my three and a half years spent instructing scuba there. Often this will be accompanied by a puzzled expression as they dig deep in to their memory for anything they may have heard in the past about diving in that part of Asia.
To start with, yes, you can dive in Korea. The country is surrounded by water, with the exception of the heavily armed border that divides the north and south. Due to North Korea being totally off limits to the south, it is much like being on an island. Referred to as “the hermit nation”, their dive scene, like many aspects of their culture, is little known about outside of the country.
Historically, South Korea has maintained a strong relationship with the ocean, however this bond is based largely on (ab)using the sea as a food source. As well as the extensive industrial fishing that takes place, Koreans also have a traditional technique for harvesting their seas. For centuries “Haenyeo,” who are essentially free divers, have braved the frigid temperatures of their surrounding waters. Equipped with a mask, fins, a basic spear or knife, a net bag attached to a float and a rope to assist descents and ascents, these sturdy individuals spend the day duck-diving for anything from clams to octopus. Their catch is then sold to the scores of seafood restaurants or fish markets that are found in abundance up and down the country.
So there is water and you can dive there, but what is it like? In truth, even if it were possible, I feel it would be unfair to classify Korean diving as either good or bad. A variety of elements can present challenging conditions for people who are more accustomed to fairer waters. It can be hard work diving in Korea but on a good day, that hard work really pays off.
It transpired that my UK dive training and experience prepared me well for what Korea had to offer. I was based in Busan, a city on the south coast with a population of around 3.5million people. In general, diving for much of the year was not for the faint hearted. Perilously rocky beach entrances lead to dark murky water where much of the year fins are not visible. At best, divers in Taejongdae beach get to enjoy 10 meters of clarity.
Elsewhere, visibility stretches from nonexistent up to 30 meters. Depending on whether you are east, south or west and what time of year you are in the water, temperatures range from 3 degrees up to a high of 25. Bracing thermoclines and ripping currents are common. My years were typically spent trying to dive around typhoons, monsoons, rainy seasons, yellow dust (a visible pollution that drifts over from China) and snowy winters.
I found it interesting to note that in spite of the challenging elements, Korea has a strong dive scene. It is a rapidly growing market for certification agencies, dominated by PADI and SSI, I even encountered a cluster of BSAC clubs. The cultural norm is to do things as a group, for this reason dive clubs and the excursions they offer are very successful. It is in this fashion that divers living in the colossal, built up cities make their trips to lesser populated, rural areas to enjoy far better conditions.
Many Koreans are drawn to the ocean by their love of fresh seafood. Due to excessive overfishing, there is limited opportunity to spear anything sizeable. As such, it is common for divers to take nets and tools for removing anything that still clings to the rocky surface.
Embracing a “Look don’t touch” approach made our international dive club stand out from the others who could not see the point in entering the water if not to hunt. When teaching courses, I would need an interpreter to describe to the boat captain exactly what we needed in terms of depths and other requirements. We would then cram ourselves in to a boat, packed with underwater hunters and start our journey to the site. Along the way, at seemingly random intervals, hunters would roll backwards over the inflatable sides, the outboard motor only slowing down momentarily to lessen the impact. The solo divers would then be picked up an hour later, one by one as the boat made its way back to the harbour having collected us from our predetermined exit point. I will always remember one particularly angry “undersea hunter” who had made such an entrance, unfortunately without his weight belt. The diver’s cries to get the attention of the boat captain went unheard resulting in him floating around on the surface for over an hour in his dry suit before being picked up again.
Unfortunately, the ensuing disharmony between traditional Haenyeo and scuba divers has a tendency to manifest itself, sometimes to the point of physical force. While out on a dive, a buddy of mine had a Haenyeo, angered by the extent at which the ocean is ravaged by scuba divers, sneak up to him and pull his mask off and reg out. I personally am only too aware of how fishermen view scuba divers having had one deliberately drop an anchor on me while I was guiding a dive around a pretty island called Goeje Do. Miraculously, the anchor missed us by a couple of feet.
Divers encounter a variety of attractions in amongst the rocky underwater terrain. Artificial reefs have been created using giant concrete cubes. These underwater climbing frames resemble playgrounds, which are enjoyed by groups of giant octopus. On the south west corner of the coastline, dive clubs frequently visit small fishing villages on the outskirts of Pohang. Here they find underwater statues like a Buddah set in a cave, a Virgin Mary and, oddly enough, a 6 foot tall concrete penis. Upon investigating the latter, I learned that the concrete penis was an offering to the angry spirit of a lady who was swept out to sea on her wedding day. Her screams can apparently be heard in the storms that, as legend has it, she creates in her frustrated state. Such phallic statues can also be found on dry land. Nearby, giant octopus starfish slowly crawl around two nameless wrecked fishing boats. Heading further north to Uljin, divers will be rewarded with a section of coastline littered with wrecks. On the other end of the scale, macro lovers can find an astonishing array of colourful nudibranches.
The national gemstone is Jeju island. Situated approximately 100 miles from the mainland, the journey is just a 45 minute hop away by plane. This honeymoon destination is southerly enough to be home to tropical fish as well as their cold water relatives. Jeju has an abundance of colourful soft coral and kelp gardens. Operations here offer the chance for people without certification to try diving as it is sufficiently distanced from the harsher conditions of the mainland. Beginners are sometimes taken in to the water without fins in order to make them easier for an instructor to tow them around. Just when I thought I could no longer be surprised, while diving around Jeju one day, I encountered a group of four people without fins, tied together being dragged around by a guide.
Scuba enthusiasts in Korea can take advantage of their location in order to explore the surrounding countries. From Seoul it is easy to fly to an abundance of world class dive destinations including Palau, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. As diving increases in popularity, more Korean owned dive centres are opening up in these locations to keep up with the trend.
I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere truly off the beaten path of dive tourism. In South Korea, I experienced a completely different way of living and diving. Some marine life I found to be most fascinating include Nomura’s jellyfish, the world’s largest cnidarian weighing up to 220kgs; the giant octopus; sea hares that follow the cold water; and the flying gurnard that swim/fly/run throughout the sand flats. Korea is unlike anywhere else, however, as the newer generations continue to embrace western culture, their identity will change. A different attitude to the ocean and its inhabitants will undoubtedly be a good thing but having said that I know I am lucky to have seen the country above and below water in its present form. I became a diver and a traveler in response to my passion for adventure. Living and diving in Korea met my needs for fresh excitement. Diving in these unknown waters, in a manner so abstract from anywhere else, reminded me of the thrill I enjoyed on my first ever dives.