10 Awesome Things About Night Diving in Grand Cayman

Guest blog for http://www.idivecayman.com

If I was given a dollar every time a diver asked me the question, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen underwater?” I’d probably still be broke, but I’d have lots more stories to tell!

It’s a fair question though, I’ve done a lot of dives and who knows what I might have seen down there; mermaids, treasure chests, guys dressed up as unicorns…… the possibilities are endless. For me, it’s a tough question to answer because I’ve seen tons of cool stuff underwater, from sunken ships to caves to sharks to trains to, believe it or not, a man dressed up as a unicorn. What was the best? I couldn’t judge, they’re all just different kinds of awesome.

Having said that, if you want to ramp up the chances of seeing something truly mind blowing, you have to try diving at night. The excitement of putting on the gear and getting into a moonlit ocean still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. In addition to the thrill of the activity itself, you never know what you might find, as all kinds of beasties come out to play at night.

Ten things I love about night diving in Grand Cayman are:

1) Bioluminescence

How does being inside a cosmic, underwater snow globe sound? The trick with this stuff is for everybody to turn their lights off (no, I’m not joking) and wave their arms around like crazy. The effect of the electrically-coloured pixie dust that darts around is bioluminescence; a kind of plankton that when disturbed, lights up like a firefly. Try it for a while then turn your light back on, hopefully there are still as many people in the group as when you turned it off!

2) Sleeping Turtles

What’s more cool than finding a turtle? Finding a sleeping turtle! Turtles work on the principle that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. So when it’s time to hit the hay, turtles take a big breath of air before swimming down to a ledge or rock to wedge their head under. Typically when you find one sleeping at night, the first thing you’ll see is their big turtle butt hanging out in the water. In order to make their breath last longer, turtles drop their heart rate down as low as one beat every nine minutes.

3) Basket Stars

By day, these guys wrap themselves up into a tight ball and attach themselves to coral. After sunset, they open up and spread out in the water column to feed. When fully open they can look like the skeleton of a big satellite dish, as their arms reach into the ocean. They eat by catching waterborne food such as algae or plankton then recoil their arms in order to bring the catch to their mouth.

4) Lobsters

I have a vivid imagination, but even so I am sure that spiny lobsters are in some way related to the face huggers from the Aliens movies. At night, it is far more common to see lobsters scampering around looking for food. This means you get to see the whole creature, you’ll be surprised as to how much bigger they look than when hiding under a rock in the day. A real treat which is more likely under the cover of darkness, is to find a slipper lobster. These guys look like they just crawled out of a 50’s B movie and can often be found wandering around in the shallows.

5) Brain coral

Before I started diving, I thought that hard coral was a kind of pretty rock, apparently they are classed as animals, who knew huh? Coral has mobility, but you won’t catch a piece going for a pleasant stroll across the reef. In fact you won’t see much movement out of brain coral at all, until night that is. At night, the coral catches food from the surrounding water by firing their tentacles with surprising speed. When they catch something like a blood worm, they pull the struggling victim in and suck the insides of the worm out leaving just its sizzling empty carcass, it’s an impressive sight indeed!

6) Tarpon

Depending on where you dive, you could find yourself being surrounded by a school of tarpon. Creatures of habit, it only takes a little local knowledge to find a dive site where these night time feeders hang out. Some shore dive sites attract tarpon, as they like to use nearby lights from the land to find their food. And what’s the big attraction? Well, they grow up to lengths of four feet, have a mouth that makes them look impossibly down in the dumps and have silvery, armour like skin that reflects the light. It’s a really cool feeling to be in the water surrounded by 15 or so big, shiny, depressed fish munching on whatever gets caught in the flash-light.

7) Hunting

One of the reasons why things can look so different at night, apart from the lack of light of course, is that the marine life behaves differently. Many species that hide throughout the day, come out at night, often to hunt. Schoolmaster snappers have managed to catch on to the fact that divers at night have lights with them and that if they hang around just behind the diver then they can use the light to their advantage when hunting. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been swimming along and noticed something like an angel fish, before I’d even had a chance to fully focus on it, a snapper has appeared from nowhere and gobbled it up. It always makes me a little paranoid as to what I shine my light on “Wow, cool, it’s a…… oops, oh dear.”

8) Octopus

As far as I’m concerned, the absolute highlight of a night dive is the chance to find an octopus. If you ever needed proof that aliens exist and are living amongst us then come find an octopus at night and you’ll never have a doubt in your mind again. Octopus change colour right in front of your eyes. Often when you first find them, they are a kind of blue/green colour which is good for camouflage against the reef. When they realise they have been spotted they seemingly flick through an entire spectrum of colour in an attempt to communicate. I don’t speak octopus, but I guess they’re saying something along the lines of “get that damn light out of my eyes!” Our 8 legged buddies are curious creatures, so may well hang out for a while or even extend a tentacle in order to investigate a diver. If one does that and you stretch a finger out to have a kind of ET moment then believe me, if it makes contact with you, the feeling will make you jump out of your skin.

9)Critters

I love the little dudes! At night, like many other things, tiny shrimp and crabs venture out to see what they can find, banded coral shrimp are a great example. My little tip for finding these guys is to watch where you shine your light and look for small reflections. Shrimps’ eyes are like the reflectors in the road that help guide cars in the fog. If you see a little dot winking back at you, go check it out, you could be in for a nice surprise.

10) The Kittiwake

Even Caymans wrecks take on a new persona by night. Swimming through the Kittiwake in the dark can give a more eerie feel to it as you move from room to room with no ambient light breaking through. Exploring the corridors of this sunken vessel with just your flash-light to show you the way is one of the most exciting ways to dive this wreck. At night, the floors of this ex USS navy ship become covered in peppermint shrimp. If you have doubts about whether you will be comfortable diving at night then my suggestion is to avoid this dive until you have built a little confidence. It can be pretty spooky, especially when you turn a corner into a room only to come face to face with a huge grouper, they aren’t too pretty at the best of times!

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had has been at night, trust me, the stories are endless! But this is a dive blog, so all that rock n roll stuff is gonna get parked for now, those stories are best told over a beer anyway. If you’re coming to dive in Grand Cayman then you need to check out a night dive. Either talk to your dive operator for a boat dive or take a look on Idive for some options from the shore. You don’t need extra training but if you want to be taught about diving at night, most dive centres will offer a course in it. Any extra equipment that is required (lights) should be provided by the facility you get your tanks from.

Grand Cayman has some of the most convenient diving in the world, heading out at night is no exception. Whether you’re a seasoned night diver or trying it for the first time, you’re gonna love discovering its hidden treasures in the dark.

Dive safe and have fun out there!

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Grand Cayman, From the Bottom to the Top

Guest blog for Idive – www.idivecayman.com

I’ve had a startling revelation that I want to share with the dive community, just promise me one thing in return – remember you heard it here first!

OK, strap yourself in, here goes….. Grand Cayman has some phenomenal diving!

Did that send a shock wave of surprise around the world and blow you off your chair? Well, probably not. It’s no secret that the Cayman Islands have some awesome diving on offer. There have been libraries of words written and a gazillion photos proving this, so creating another account of this underwater paradise seems a tad redundant. Instead, I am going to try to paint a little picture of the island as it looks below sea level, metaphorically of course. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be entertained by watching me fumbling with watercolours and brushes to create a mess that not even my mum would want to put up on the fridge door!

But why would you be interested in such a blog? Well, start by thinking of the dive sites around Grand Cayman as being pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. With a bit of time on the island you can become familiar with the detail on some of the pieces , but the complete image remains a mystery. The more pieces you are able to become familiar with, the greater your vision of the wider picture becomes. Hopefully, this account will help you save some time by filling in the blanks.

So where does the island come from…. Sorry, was that a silly question? Let me explain! Imagine an ocean a mile deep (more or less). Now make a mountain with sharp cliffs that rise straight out of the ocean floor. The mountain climbs all the way up to the surface with just the very tip poking out to make dry land. All around the mountain is the deep blue Caribbean sea.

The tip at its highest point is only 60′ above sea level meaning Grand Cayman has very little altitude. Deep down where the krakens lurk, east of the island, the Cayman Trench cuts into the ocean floor reaching depths of over 25,000 feet (there aren’t any recorded dive sites down there by the way, but if you manage to check the place out please do let me know what it looks like!)

OK, good to know, but what does this mean for us divers? Well, firstly the very low altitude of the island means no rivers and very little run off. This lack of detritus being washed in to the ocean helps the island’s dive sites maintain fantastic visibility all year round. Next up, the plummet to the abyss that is right on our doorstep means that we are close to all kinds of oceanic beasties . Appearances from hammerheads, tuna, marlin and even the odd tiger shark have been made in the short time that I have been here.

Beyond all that, the drop itself is an awesome sight to behold. In some places, diving on the wall around Grand Cayman is like taking a running jump off a cliff so high that it’s impossible to see the floor below. Just as gravity is about to pull you to your demise, time somehow stops leaving you just hanging there to take it all in.

My passion is tech diving so having this drop so close to the shore makes this island about the best kind of playground I can imagine. Fortunately, the conditions are such that the wall and its scenery can be enjoyed by recreational divers just as easily.

Oops, there I go waffling on about how phenomenal it is here again, lets get back on track. So as I mentioned, we have these sharp cliffs that rise from the ocean floor towards the surface, but that’s not how they emerge from the water. The steep mountain walls stop around 40′-80′ short of the surface and upon the top, surrounding the island, sits a crown of coral reef.

Fixed boat moorings have been built into the reef at the top of the main wall, often only tens of feet away from the edge . To give you a point of reference, some of these deep wall dive sites are so close to the shore that a 5 minute surface swim is all it takes to get there. From such sites, divers can find swim-throughs, pinnacles, overhangs, ledges, grottos and all kinds of cool things living in the nooks and crannies.

But we’re still not up to the surface yet…

Swim towards land a little, just a short way from the big drop and you’ll notice that the coral crown nestles into a sandy bottom at around 50′-90′. This sand belt is like a shelf ranging in width from 40′-300′ and also orbits the island, dividing the coral reefs of the main wall from those of the mini wall.

How impressive does a sandy shelf sound? Well, not very I guess but actually there is a ton of cool stuff to find there. The little coral heads that pop up intermittently have marine life just exploding out of them making you feel like you are in an aquarium. Garden eels live in the sand and to me it looks like they are having a big party, all dancing to the same beat. Cool as they are, the garden eels attract spotted eagle rays who come in close enough to suck them right out of the sand. Southern stingrays patrol the flats searching for their next bite and dotted around all over, it’s easy to find conch laboriously dragging themselves through life.

So, we have deep blue, then the wall, then the sand flat and then what?

Another coral belt runs around the island which I briefly mentioned earlier. This stretch however is not as black and white as the other perimeters. The mini wall looks different depending on where you are on the island. In places it can be like a definite, visible step that drops from 35′(ish) down to the sand at around 60′ more or less. It is common to find fingers of coral that jut out of the mini wall clawing their way in to the sand channel, and coral heads that exist in between these fingers make for some really cool routes to swim through. In other parts of the island, the depth range of the mini wall is not anywhere near as noticeable without looking at your gauge. An example of this could be the shallow sites off seven mile beach which are typically more like sprawling fields of coral heads than a neat step.

The top of the mini wall brings us up to 20′-40′ and following this contour is another dot-to-dot outline made up of mooring buoys that mark the islands shallow dive sites. The final stretch between this and the waterline is either sand, hardpan or ironshore depending on where you are. These shallow spots are often dismissed by divers but are in fact goldmines for macro photographers who may find sailfin blennies, fingerprint cythomas, gaudy clown crabs and bristled fireworms to name a few. It’s not all small stuff either, flying gurnard, peacock flounders, tarpon and giant barracuda are amongst the bigger boys that can be found lurking in the shallows.

To get a better visual representation of this, why not check out the “idive maps” tab on the website, zoom in a little you’ll kinda see the 2 surrounding bands of dive sites from shallow to deep. Click on the thumb-tack and you’ll get your own virtual tour of the site, pretty cool huh?

So there you have it – from the ocean floor to the shoreline of Grand Cayman in just a few paragraphs! Of course there is an absolute bucket-load of (not so fine) detail that I have missed out and my crude descriptions far from cover every inch, but you get the idea. The best way to see the underwater world here is to get on a plane and come see for yourself. That said, I like to read up as much on a dive location as I can before I go there in order to get the most out of the experience. If that sounds like something you like to do too then I hope this account has helped a little.

Safe diving!

Being an Instructor – Getting the First Gig

So you passed the exam and got your instructor ticket? Welcome to the party! From here on in life will be all about cocktails on the beach and getting paid to float around in the ocean…. or something like that. So all you need to do now is find somewhere to work and that’s got to be the easy part right? Wrong! Getting your first job as a scuba instructor is hard. As a rookie instructor, it’s going to require more than being in the right place at the right time, with a big smile and a passion for diving. You need to stack the odds in your favour. In order to help you I have put together the following guide.

Are You Experienced?

The age old catch 22, you need experience to get the job but how do you get one without the other? There are attributes that employers will look favourably upon in lieu of teaching experience. For a dive operation to be successful it needs to have dedicated, solid, reliable people working within it, there aren’t many jobs out there for people who just want to hang out and look cool.

When you move from one industry to another, even though the two fields of employment may be completely different, there will be some skills applicable to both. Common transferable skills are:

IT/web skills – It’s the digital age, having a strong online presence is critical for a modern business and dive outfits are no exception. Dive centres always appreciate having staff who, when out of the water, can help improve their online presence. Web design or optimisation skills will definitely boost your chances of getting work

Mechanic – What happens to the dive centre when the compressor breaks or boat engine dies? Calling in technicians to fix broken machinery, even cars, takes time and money, having someone on the team who can help with basic mechanics is a huge asset. Also showing you are mechanically minded will mean that you are more likely to catch on to things like regulator and BCD repairs.

Sales – A dive centre is a business, it needs to make money and it does that by selling its product to its customers. As an instructor working closely with the student (customer) you are in a perfect position to advise them on further diving, training or equipment. Dive centre owners and managers like to employ people with sales and marketing backgrounds as they are likely to be more able to recognise revenue generating opportunities.

Customer service – Having experience in managing customer expectations and generally keeping people happy is an asset. Many dive businesses rely on repeat business from their customers and they all should be concerned with online reviews that their customers leave. For these reasons they need to employ people who are able to ensure the customer leaves happy even when things don’t necessarily go as smoothly as you would like.

Ability to work with children – Not everybody (myself included) can work well with kids. Nowadays there are so many programs for younger divers, being able to accommodate them means more business for the dive centre.

Leadership – As a dive professional you will need leadership skills, people need to feel confidence in doing what you ask of them. Beyond this, larger dive centres like to employ people that they feel can work up to managerial roles. If you can demonstrate that you have been successful in people management then this will help you.

First Things First….

Before you go looking for a job, there are some things that you absolutely need to get squared away, these include:

  • Your own skills. If you have trouble with basic concepts like buoyancy, navigation or deploying an SMB then it will be noticed. Be the best you can be – if you know you have weaknesses in fundamental skills that you are supposed to teach to other people then practice the hell out of them and improve yourself.
  • Starting out your dive career with no money, or even worse, in debt is a bad plan. Your income for the first year probably won’t be very much so plan on saving enough to pay for your instructor training as well as having a bit of a cushion to keep you afloat.
  • Having your own gear is not something that will put you head and shoulders above the competition, it is a basic requirement. This includes ancillaries like an SMB, computer, compass etc. Tough, practical, hard wearing gear is best and if you know where you want to go to work it is worth looking at how easy it is to get your brand of gear serviced and maintained in that area.
  • When the brown stuff hits the fan things get very expensive very quickly, trust me, you need insurance. As a professional (depending on where you work), it may make sense to think about liability insurance as well.
  • Make sure your instructor certification is valid and that you have paid up all your membership fees.

Building a CV/Resume

Like any job, you are going to need to get a CV or resume together. I am deliberately not going to offer a template because your CV should be personal. You can research ideas but I would suggest keeping it short and sweet. Dive centres get sent sackloads of emails from people wanting work, yours needs to stand out and should not include pointless blurb.

It should include:

  • Your contact details
  • Web presence details e.g. Flikr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blog addresses and forum user IDs
  • Personal profile
  • Education history
  • Previous employment history
  • Dive training, certifications and experience
  • Languages & other relevant skills

It should not include:

  • Paragraphs about your love of scuba, this should go without saying
  • Statements like “I don’t care where I work, I just want to get a dive job”

Make it yours, keep it neat and if you feel the need to add graphics of any description then be sure they maintain a professional image.

Making contact

My advice is not to wait until an opening is advertised. When a dive centre advertises that they have a position available, they get absolutely bombarded with emails from people with all kinds of experience. Watch the wording of an advert “would suit a new instructor” often translates in to “come and work for free.” Of course there is no harm in responding to adds if you see one you want. Leading agencies have jobs boards and there are other places you can look for example facebook sites, dive job websites and sections on forums like scubaboard. Keeping an eye on these sites can help you build an overall picture of the employment market. It shows you what region is hiring at a particular time and can also point out places to avoid like somewhere that constantly has to repost the same job advert over and over again because they can’t hold on to their staff.

The best way to get started is to go in to the dive centre in person, meet the boss and talk to them about getting a job. Unfortunately though, this is not always possible. If you want to work in your home country then this may not be an issue as you may even know the staff already. If you want to leave your home country and work overseas then this becomes a lot more difficult depending on your available time and money.

The alternative is to email the company. When sending an email I would suggest a template is a good idea but a blanket email is not so. The email itself can have your cover letter in the body text and attached should be your CV, a clear photo of you out of the water and some references if you have them. Avoid anything that makes your email too large as that’s a good way to get deleted immediately and be sure to run a spell check on everything!

However you make contact with the dive centre you want to work in, it really helps to create a good impression if you tailor your approach to them. For example:

Approach 1

Dear Dive Centre

I am coming to Thailand and really want a dive job, do you have any openings in June?

Approach 2

Dear Mr Smith

I note with interest that your dive centre is an eco-operator. As a diver with a passion for environmental sustainability I would like to enquire about forthcoming employment opportunities within your organisation.

Approach 1 is of course the easiest and can be sent out blindly to hundreds of dive centres at a time by putting their email addresses in the BCC field. Even though you can reach more people in less time, it is likely any reputable organisation will trash the email.

Approach 2 shows that you have an interest in the dive centre, it appeals to their ego a little and shows them that your personal interests are in line with the company goals. Little things like this help you appear to be interested in working for that specific company as opposed to just getting any old job that you don’t really care about.

Although the above example is based on a written approach, you can do the same in person. If you are able to walk into a dive centre to talk about job opportunities then at least take 10 minutes first to look them up on the internet. Try to find their identity, what do they do, what sets them apart from other dive centres? If you get talking to the manager about what it is you really like about his/her centre then he/she will be more likely to remember you over anyone else that has called by recently.

Special Skills

There are skills that may not be a particular requirement for a job but can help you get work over others if you have them, these include:

  • Photography skills. Having an underwater camera and knowing how to use it is advantageous. A good photographer with a camera enables the dive centre to offer so much more to its guests. In addition to this, it is good for the centres own marketing to have someone on the team creating and posting good quality pictures.
  • Tech skills. Being a tech diver shows an extended knowledge of dive theory and practice. Just having a basic tech course will really help you stand out.
  • Every language that you can speak opens up a new customer group for the dive centre you are working for. The importance of language skills varies depending on where in the world you want to work as does the languages you speak. In some parts of the world, being able to speak a few popular languages is the most important asset a dive instructor can have.
  • Having a background in sports can help in general as that shows you are more suited to an active lifestyle. Most dive centres prefer nonsmokers so if you do smoke then maybe now is a good time to think about stopping. If you are good enough to offer classes in anything else like swimming or yoga then it is always worth approaching the dive centre with your pitch.
  • Social media. Dive centres have to utilise social media in order to promote their business so it helps if they have staff who understand how to use it effectively. Having your own online presence is a good idea, this could include blogs, facebook, twitter, Instagram, tripadvisor and scubadviser, as well as being active on forums like scubaboard. Think about what you post and what is posted about you for example a cover photo of you lying in a pool of your own vomit after your DM snorkel test does not create a very good image of a reliable dive professional. Keep it clean and avoid posting offensive beliefs or strong comments on subjects like politics or religion.

Getting Out What You Put In

There are so many opportunities out there it is impossible to imagine. You don’t even need to limit yourself to working for other people, there is nothing to stop you setting up as an independent instructor. When chasing a dive job, you need to be wary, some could offer the best job for you in the world, others could end up being an expensive disaster. Never rush in to anything and always do your homework. Research the location, company, hours, work etc etc etc. Don’t just go out there and desperately grab the first place you are offered because it is critical for your success that you find the right place. Ask yourself genuinely what do you want and then try to find it. Getting your first job is tough but there are thousands upon thousands of dive professionals out there working who all managed it, myself included.

Good luck & safe diving.

Diving in the Land of The Morning Calm

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.

sea squirt

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.

sea hare

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.

buddah  octopus starfish

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.

Deadly Invasion

Divers in the waters of the western Atlantic are on a killing spree. Armed with spears and containment devices, they take to the water in order to cull as much as possible. Tournaments are held with cash prizes awarded for the biggest, smallest and heaviest haul. There is one specific species targeted, but no discrimination between age, size or gender. Environmentalists, scientists and even governments actively support the culling. But exactly what are they hunting and why?

The target is the lionfish and the reason they are being culled with such ferocity is due to the devastation they are inflicting on a beautiful habitat. Such is their appetite, that their stomach can stretch up to thirty times to accommodate prey over half their own size. A study in the Bahamas found them to cause an 80 percent reduction in native fish in just five weeks. They breed and spread at an astonishing rate and have been found to hold up to 60 dead fish and crustaceans in their gut at one time. Native species now struggle as they compete with this newcomer, and immense strain is being put on the food chain. Simply put, the lionfish are literally eating the reef population in to extinction.

fish and diver

The problem stems from the fact that these fish are not native to the east coast of America. Their arrival has caused chaos within this ecosystem. Lionfish are referred to as an “invasive species” due to the fact that, since their introduction in the mid 1980’s, their population has simply exploded. They have found a utopia in this new habitat as they feed gluttonously without the threat of any natural predators. Dr. James Morris from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has said that: “Lionfish may prove to be one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”

The exact story behind how they arrived in the Americas is unknown, but there has been much speculation. A popular theory was that an ocean front aquarium containing lionfish was damaged in 1992 during hurricane Andrew causing its contents to spill in to the sea. While this may well have happened, it cannot be the sole cause of the problem as the first reported sighting in Florida, USA, 1985 predates the hurricane. Scientists believe that the earliest recorded sightings were of fish that were released in to the ocean by private aquarium owners. It is also believed that the present situation results from multiple releases as opposed to one careless owner.

To call the lionfish invasive as a species is, I think, unfair. These fish made no conscious decision to uproot themselves from their native waters and venture in to new territories with grand plans of domination. The truth is that they are more a victim of their own extraordinary beauty. Lionfish have a unique, majestic appearance that, unfortunately for them, makes for a good commodity in the aquarium trade. It is this attraction that has resulted in them being plucked from their indigenous Indo-Pacific seas. Aquarium owners who bought lionfish have been known to struggle to keep up with the demands of their appetite. In these cases instead of killing them or rehoming them in another aquarium, they were dumped in the ocean.

Divers who have been lucky enough to encounter the lionfish in both their Asian and American habitats have noticed that there are differences between old and new. A common observation is that the new arrivals are much bigger in size than their cousins in their natural habitat. Their behaviour is also different; they are far less timid than their relatives, due to the absence of any kind of threat from other marine life, and they congregate in larger groups. Photographers notice that the more defensive lionfish in Asia will point their venom-filled dorsal spines at anyone who gets too close, a survival instinct that is far less common in their Atlantic relatives.

What is incredible about this translocation is the speed at which this species has conquered such a huge amount of territory. Since the first recording in Florida, lionfish have now been reported as far north as New York and as far south as Venezuela. They spread at such an alarming rate because the females are capable of releasing up to 30,000 eggs every 4 days. The egg sacks float in the water columns, where currents transport them to their new location. Previously uninvaded reef areas become affected when the current washes large numbers of eggs on to them starting a population boom.

They are a very versatile species, having the ability to live just below the surface or even at depths as great as 175 meters.

lionfish

Attempts have been made to incorporate this voracious carnivore in to the existing food chain, but so far there has been little success. Hunters have tried spearing the fish and then feeding them to predators such as snappers, groupers, moray eels and sharks, who happily eat the dead or dying lionfish from a spear, but very rarely will actually attack or kill the lionfish. In Grand Cayman for example, feeding lionfish to other species has now been banned. Having tried this as a potential solution it was found that it only contributed towards the unbalance, as predators started to associate divers with food. Reports of moray eels swimming towards divers (often causing panic attacks) are one example of a negative impact on diver safety. Changes in the behaviour of fish such as groupers and snappers have been observed, for example in their closer proximity to divers who could be hunting illegally. These are just a couple of reasons why the Department of Environment concluded that feeding was not the answer.

As nature struggles to adjust to yet another blow from human intervention, there does not appear to be an overall solution in sight. Ideas along the lines of importing more species from Asia who already feed on lionfish have been written off as too risky. One lionfish culler jokingly suggested starting a rumour that lionfish are an aphrodisiac that stimulate weight loss.

In a desperate attempt to suppress the population growth, local communities are promoting the hunting and killing of both kinds of invasive lionfish – pterois volitans and pterois miles. Mass fishing techniques are not possible due to their inhabiting confined spaces like small tunnels or space under ledges. Currently, the most effective way to remove lionfish from the reef is for divers to spear them.

There is a misconception that lionfish are poisonous but in truth the white meat is perfectly edible. They are equipped with venomous spines which they have to defend themselves but once removed, the fish is very good to eat. As the lionfish venom is not heat stable, when subjected to high temperatures it is even possible to make dishes with the spines on creating quite a dramatic visual effect on the plate.

Lionfish culling has become a very popular activity throughout the tropical western Atlantic. Some kill the fish to eat, others to sell, some to try to offer relief to the struggling reefs, and then of course there are the gung-ho chest beaters who just want to kill something. Innovative entrepreneurs have established tradelines with companies specializing in catching, killing and exporting the fish to fine dining restaurants in the States. Lionfish now appear on menus throughout most of the Caribbean with specialities that range from lionfish ceviche to some very authentic tasting lionfish and chips. Many dive centres are actively assisting in the culling activities by providing spearfishing training and education. Cullers are made aware of how to hunt safely and responsibly in order to avoid injury to themselves or their surroundings. While on Caribbean holidays, divers can be trained in the use of spear guns, Hawaiian slings or even nets to catch the fish and then how to safely remove the spines before handing them over to the kitchen.

lfish

Culling lionfish is a risky business, being stung or “spiked” by a lionfish spine is not something to be brushed off. The venom causes intense pain and swelling and can cause necrosis of the flesh or even send the recipient in to anaphylactic shock. Most injuries are sustained to the divers hands and often occur when trying to put a lionfish in to a containment device underwater or when handling the dead fish back on land.

No -one knows yet how this story will unfold. It is speculated that we have not yet seen the worst of the invasion, and it is believed that their population will continue to rise. As the footprint of the lionfish upon the reef gets deeper, so the struggle becomes harder for native marine life. It is hoped that controlling species will develop a taste for lionfish but until such time the dive community accepts the responsibility to do what it can to keep numbers as low as possible. For now, the advice is to eat our way through this and given the taste of some of the fine dishes being cooked up, I for one am more than happy to do my bit.

Diving with Buzz Aldrin

Diving has taken me to some incredible places and enabled me to do things that would have once been unimaginable. There are a few experiences which will always stand out, some good, some bad and certainly some ugly. Recently I had the very distinct pleasure of not only meeting Buzz Aldrin, his son and his personal assistant but guiding them all on a DPV (underwater scooter) dive in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman.

When I started working for Divetech in 2013, I recall staring with amazement at the signed photos of the moon landing that were behind the counter. Boyish excitement rose within me as I recalled my childhood fascination with space. So when I was informed by my operations manager that I would be guiding Buzz Aldrin on a DPV dive I will not pretend that I was anything less than awestruck.

I knew that Buzz participates in fundraising activities for the Astronaut Scholarship Fund (ASF) and that in the past he had been diving with us in order to raise money for that cause. My initial assumption that this visit was along the same lines turned out to be wrong, this time round Buzz was on vacation.

It goes without saying that life for an astronaut will be different to most other peoples, vacations, it turns out, are no exception. I was soon to learn that this would not be a relaxed affair where we had all afternoon to casually stroll in to the ocean like one of our normal gigs.  The dive was sandwiched in to a schedule involving activities like school visits and presentations, even on vacation it seems that the work never stops. This trip to Grand Cayman was certainly no vacation for his personal assistant. In the brief glimpse of their lives I had, I could see that she never switches off and the ability she demonstrates in keeping the tight schedule on track is an art form unto itself.

buzz cropped

When the day came, I made my introductions and tried to play down my excitement, after all, I was there to do a job. Underwater my focus would primarily have to be on safety as it is with any dive regardless of whether the people with me have been to space or not. Immediately I sensed that time was not to be wasted. The group as a whole were more than polite and pleasant but also keen to keep things moving in order to honor their next commitments. Knowing they were all experienced divers, I kept my briefing to a minimum, just covering what was required to make sure everyone was on the same page.

At first, it took the group a little while to get to grips with the scooters. All but one were tentative in their initial approach, trying the controls to see what did what. Buzz was the one who was not so interested in starting slow, he clearly wanted the thing to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. Before long, we were on our way, shooting through the water like a bunch of crazed maniacs. I love DPV dives. As soon as we got moving, this one proved to be as much fun as any I’ve been on before. Everybody held on tight with the scooters between their legs, occasionally swerving to avoid coral heads and other underwater obstacles.

As I looked around the group to make sure everyone (including the man who once walked on the moon) was OK and keeping up, my mask shuddered and my reg pulled at my mouth under the velocity. We flew through the water just a couple of feet from the sandy floor, the mini wall to our left hurtled by way too fast to pick out any detail.

Periodically, I checked in with each of the group to ensure that everything was good by giving the “OK?” signal. Although everyone responded, in truth this was one of those times when you don’t really need to see the confirmation as you can tell from their faces that OK is an understatement. Everyone was having an amazing time, me included.

As all good things must come to an end, constrained by air, decompression limits and battery power we had to start thinking about ending the dive. Following a decrease in speed while we did our safety stop we cruised on in to the exit point. Breaking the surface it was smiles all round. In the excitement of the dive, I had forgotten to be star struck, it was just so much fun that everything other than the thrill of the moment ceased to exist.

Back on dry land, opportunity to talk about the dive was minimal. Buzz said his good bye by giving me a “Get Your Ass to Mars” T shirt and mentioned that he hopes I see someone land on Mars in my lifetime as (in his words) he probably won’t get to see it in his.

buzzdd

Then they were gone, what a whirlwind of a morning! I slowly set about washing and packing up the gear, taking the opportunity to rest a little. I still was not fully able to digest what had just happened. As I made my way back home, I started thinking about the Mars project and wondered what it would be like to be the first person to go there. What would go through your mind to truly pioneer something like that?

It is my sense of adventure that attracted me to diving. This same attraction has kept me traveling the world in search of new and interesting underwater escapades. To meet a living legend who has had an adventure, the likes of which I can only dream of, was nothing short of inspirational. This encounter gave me an interesting perspective on what is achievable in life. From here on in, whenever I set my sights on something, I will never again worry about punching too high. As Buzz can tell you, not even the sky is the limit.

First Ever Blog

I must admit when I first heard of blogs I didn’t like the sound of them. I don’t know if it is because I don’t like the word “blog” itself or whether I had an idea that reading about other peoples lives would be boring, like an edited, public friendly version of their personal diary.

turtle

As the internet and how we use it continues to grow, so blogs have taken their shape and become what they now are. People use blogs in different ways, this one is mine and I will be using it to post stories that I write. The stories will mostly be on the theme of scuba, either journalistic or instructional. I will mention myself in these stories but this blog is not about me or my journey, it is about what I see in my life as a scuba professional.

I hope you enjoy what you find here