Cracking an egg underwater

Brian and his raw egg
Brian and his raw egg

Have you tried this? It’s an art, but if you do it gently you can remove the entire shell of a raw egg without the white and yolk coming apart. The water pressure holds the contents of the egg intact.

South African eggs have really hard, thick shells – I learned this from watching British cooking shows on television – so it’s a delicate procedure to strike the egg hard enough to crack the shell, but not so hard that you splatter the contents everywhere. Having witnessed it, I can also add that smashing the egg on your buddy’s head will not have the desired effect.

Here are Brian and Esti playing with eggs during their Advanced course at Outer Photographer’s Reef.

[youtube=”www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KE4mCJmjk0&w=540″]

Whether you manage to crack your egg perfectly or not, a passing fish will be very grateful for the meal. Does this count as chumming?

Sea life: Red sponge nudibranch

Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock
Two red sponge nudibranchs at Spaniard Rock

Last year I did a dive at Spaniard Rock in False Bay. Tami was my buddy, and Georgina Jones of SURG was with us. Georgina is the author of the invaluable Field Guide to the Marine Animals of the Cape Peninsula, and it was during an interlude when Tami had gotten lost that she found and showed me a red sponge nudibranch (Rostanga elandsia). These animals are remarkably well camouflaged – they feed on reddish orange sponges, and get their colouration from the sponge.

I went off hunting after that, and found and photographed another red sponge nudibranch (above) that upon closer examination turned out to be two: there is one just above the top shell near the middle of the photo, and another on the right hand side pointing downwards. You can just see that there are small, darker spots on their bodies.

Next time I spot one I’m interested to see whether they leave marks in the sponge where they’ve been feeding. They are very hard to spot, though!

Thank you and happy new year

Hey dive buddies! Thank you for a year of amazing dives and good friendships. Please find yourself in this selection of happy diver photos taken in 2013. I’m sorry we don’t have one from every single dive we did. We look forward to many more good dives together in 2014!

Printer jam

I teach both SDI and PADI dive courses, and – as any small business owner does – I am occasionally required to print out some forms, student exam answer sheets, or other supplementary material. Mini cat’s fascination with the printer, and great love of interfering with the pages as they emerge, can make things tricky.

Mini cat jams the printer
Mini cat jams the printer

Red Sea trip photos: diving from a liveaboard

Here are some photos to show you what it’s like to dive off a liveaboard. They were taken on our Red Sea trip in October. The centre of the diving activity was the dive deck at the lower level of the boat, at the back. There we hung our wetsuits, and we each had a cylinder and a box to keep our loose bits of gear in. We used the same cylinder throughout the entire trip, and the crew used the long hoses of the compressor to fill our tins right where they stood. We didn’t unbuckle our BCDs from our cylinders once.

A black (air) or green (Nitrox) tag around the neck of our cylinders indicated what gas we were diving with. We used Nitrox throughout. A numbered tag attached to the shoulder of our BCDs enabled the crew to keep track of who had returned from their dive. They also wrote down our dive times and maximum depths for each dive, and we signed those figures off each evening. This is in case of an accident – they know what your dive profile is for the week.

There were dives before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch, and at night. On the first and last days we did three and two dives, respectively. I managed three dives a day. Christo did four! Most of us skipped a dive here and there, owing to fatigue, illness (don’t drink the tap or sea water, is all I can say), and general laziness! The briefings were detailed, with maps or slideshows to familiarise us with each dive site. We were told what creatures to look out for, and where they like to hide. For wrecks that could be penetrated, the dive guides explained the preferred route more than once.

After getting into our wetsuits we sat down in front of our kit, shrugged it on with the help of one of the crew, and walked down to the dive deck. There we either put our fins and mask on and giant strided into the water, or held our fins and climbed onto one of the Zodiacs to be driven a short distance to the dive site. This technique was used at busy sites where there were many other liveaboards already anchored, or locations where it wasn’t safe for the big boat to go.

To get out of the water we were either fetched by a Zodiac, or we returned to the back of the liveaboard and climbed up the dive ladders in our full kit. Helping hands were ready to assist us with our fins. We’d put our kit back, hang up our wetsuits, put cameras into the rinsing container on the dive deck, and then eat. Every dive was followed by food! And often, a nap.

At times strong currents had us hanging onto lines down to a wreck, and this also made getting back to the liveaboard a challenge at times. On one occasion the current was so strong that I wasn’t sure I’d make it from the line tied to the corner of the stern onto the ladder in the middle of the stern – a distance of two metres – without getting swept away. Some acrobatics and long arm stretches from Tony saved the day!

The process of diving off a liveaboard is far less strenuous than diving in Cape Town, which is why we could still walk after doing three or four dives a day. For one thing, the warm water means you get far less fatigued, and you use less air, too. The crew were extremely helpful on our trip, even zipping our wetsuits and providing soapy water when pulling on our thick cold water Trilastic suits seemed too much like hard work!

Surviving underwater in an air bubble

A news story in June resonated uncomfortably with me: a Nigerian sailor survived for two days in a pocket of air trapped beneath the tugboat he was in, which capsized in heavy seas. The tug was servicing an oil platform off the Nigerian coast.

I was immediately reminded of the Miroshga, an unseaworthy whale watching vessel that capsized in appalling conditions off Hout Bay in October 2012. The boat had its bilge pump installed UPSIDE DOWN, and was rated for over 40 passengers when it’s only five metres longer than our boat – which can take seven passengers (and when Seahorse is fully loaded, she feels full). Furthermore, the Miroshga hadn’t had a SAMSA inspection since fundamental changes were made to the vessel and its engines. The money-hungry decision to head out in a 25 knot south easterly wind and high seas was incredibly irresponsible.

Most people who go on seal cruises, whale watching or cage diving don’t spend half their lives on or near the sea, and simply don’t have the tools to assess whether conditions are safe and whether the boat is seaworthy. The passengers trusted the charter operator and SAMSA, and were badly let down. One man drowned, and three women were trapped under the boat in pockets of air for several hours, their limbs dangling in the freezing water, until rescue divers brought them out. I cannot imagine how traumatic the experience was for them. The rest of the passengers were rescued by a boat full of poachers, and by some incredible NSRI volunteers. It was a shameful day for the boat charter operators, and for those responsible for legislating and enacting maritime safety provisions in South Africa.

I digress. What happened in Nigeria? Out of the twelve crew on board the tugboat, ten bodies were recovered, one was lost, and the twelfth crewmember, Harrison Okene, was discovered alive, under the boat in 30 metres of water, surviving by breathing from an air pocket. Upon being rescued by divers sent to retrieve the crew’s bodies (can you imagine their shock at being greeted by a living person when they were expecting only corpses?), Okene had to undergo sixty hours of decompression in order to avoid being bent. He’d been breathing air at four atmospheres for two and a half days!

The incident prompted a fascinating discussion on StackExchange, a discussion forum for a variety of disciplines (I lurk in the statistics and quantitative finance forums). A user posed the question:

How large does the bubble have to be so that a person in it can have indefinite supply of breathable air?

The reason it’s even possible to have an “indefinite” supply of air is that if the bubble is large enough, oxygen will diffuse out of the surrounding water back into the bubble, and carbon dioxide won’t build up to fatal concentrations. You can read through the discussion if you want to (fun to see physicists arguing, nice if you like formulas!) or there’s a news article here about the theoretical bubble size that would be required for survival. Turns out the actual air bubble was close to the size calculated by the physicists that would allow survival for at least the time that Okene was submerged. Lucky, lucky man!

Update: Here’s the helmet cam video from one of the rescue divers who brought Mr Okene to the surface. The text at the beginning is wonky – persist. Note the South African accents! The diver’s voice is squeaky – I think because he’s breathing a gas mix with helium in it. It gets good at about 5:30 but it’s extremely interesting to watch in its entirety to see what sort of conditions these divers work in, and how the surface support talks them through their tasks and keeps them calm.

Handy Hints: Hitching a ride

Do you get tired during long dives? Would you like to know how to conserve energy, use less air, and annoy your buddies all at the same time? Fear not. The inimitable Kate is here to show you how it’s done.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjTzo-q943Q&w=540″]

Kate was back in town during August, September and October, along with her squire Brian. The two of them dived a lot while they were here. Kate was up to her usual tricks: here, she rides on the unwitting Brian’s cylinder during a dive at Shark Alley in September (no cowsharks to be found). Notice her perfect buoyancy, allowing her to let go as Brian turns around, and then grab hold of his gear again as he turns his back to her.

She did this to me once for almost an entire dive on the Clan Stuart. I felt as though my own buoyancy was up the pole, but couldn’t figure out why. Also, I used up my air really quickly and felt quite fatigued after the dive. Kate, of course, emerged from the dive with a nearly full cylinder, bursting with energy!

Red Sea 2013 trip report

Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck
Me, Christo, Kate and Veronica on the sundeck

We returned from our Red Sea liveaboard trip on Sunday, and have been slowly returning to normal life (essentially doing things other than eating, sleeping, diving in warm water with magnificent visibility, and lounging around on deck like millionaires). It’s been tough.

Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty
Two of the blue o two liveaboards at the jetty

The itinerary we followed was the Northern Wrecks and Reefs one offered by blue o two. Our vessel was M/Y blue Melody, on the right in the photo above. We dived wrecks like the ThistlegormGiannis D, and Chrisoula K, and a number of reefs. We did a couple of spectacular drift dives, and on most of the wrecks there was the opportunity to go inside for the suitably qualified. It was compulsory to dive with an SMB. The most memorable reef dives were done inside the Ras Mohammed National Park.

Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck
Captain Mohammed and Tony on the fly deck

Life on board the boat had a simple rhythm: dive, eat, sleep, repeat. During surface intervals the crew moved to new sites, and we either dived directly from the liveaboard or were transported short distances (in full kit) on Zodiacs – rubber ducks like the ones we use in Cape Town. During the time we were away, we had the opportunity to do 21 dives of which four were night dives. The diving was spread over six days. We skipped a couple of dives for various reasons including tiredness and illness, but overall managed to do a lot of diving in a short space of time. The warm water and helpfulness of the crew meant that it wasn’t nearly as physically taxing as you’d imagine. We used Nitrox throughout, not so much because we were doing particularly deep dives and needed the extra time (though it certainly helped), but for overall health reasons and to minimise fatigue.

Bluff Point
Bluff Point

Most of the time we were within sight of land. The landscape is mainly desert, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The reefs rise to within a few feet of the surface, and are clearly visible from the boat when it isn’t moving. Navigation in the Red Sea must be very tricky for the inexperienced, however. The number of spectacular wrecks is testament to this!

Sunset over the Red Sea
Sunset over the Red Sea

The day we arrived in Egypt and the day of our departure were mostly spent at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada, waiting to board our vessel (the first day) and the plane (the last day). We lounged by the pool and checked out the private beach there, and felt very relaxed.

Prior to the trip we had some (understandable) concerns regarding the safety of travelling through Egypt to get to the liveaboard, but we kept tabs on the travel advice provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Since we would merely be in transit through Cairo airport, and would not actually be sleeping a single night on land, we were happy to go ahead with the trip. The Red Sea coastal area has been extremely calm throughout the recent unrest, and, as it derives 95% of its revenue from tourism, the locals have been keen to keep it that way.

The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada
The beach at the Marriott Hotel in Hurghada

We took a lot of photo and video on the trip, and will be sorting through it and sharing it over the next couple of months. Watch this space!

Series: Underwater Universe

Underwater Universe
Underwater Universe

The four episodes of this History Channel series cover waves, tides and currents, predators, and pressure – all powerful features of the ocean that can be sensationalised (some more easily than others) and presented for shock value and as imminent threats to human life. Full advantage is taken of this fact.

This very American offering doesn’t boast the measured, mellifluous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch or Steve Toussaint as narrator, but the line-up of (mostly in-studio) guest narrators is quite impressive. Bruce Parker (The Power of the Sea), Susan Casey (The Devil’s Teeth and The Wave), David Gallo (scientist presenter of the TED Talk I mentioned here), Scott Cassell (student of the Humboldt squid), Richard Ellis (writer of a number of ocean history, art and science books), and Neil Hammerschlag (shark scientist) were familiar to me, as was big wave surfer Ken Bradshaw, from this article. The strange, uncomfortable way in which the studio narrators were filmed, with silent close ups interspersed with talking, was very annoying and must have been incredibly embarrassing to shoot. Or perhaps the cameraman took the footage when the narrators didn’t realise they were being filmed.

Unlike BBC documentaries, which tend to rely purely on incredible photography and fluent narrative to convey information, the History Channel favours a CGI-heavy approach that we encountered in Treasure Quest, Deep Sea Salvage, and also in the National Geographic Shark Men series. For the subject matter of this series – particularly the sections on waves, tides and currents – it was very appropriate and informative. The first episode, devoted to tsunamis, rogue waves and “monster waves”, made good use of CGI to illustrate the concepts as they were explained. The series was produced shortly before the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (there is a hastily tacked on “thoughts and prayers” disclaimer) and features interviews with a survivor of a tsunami in Samoa. I am fascinated by rogue waves – the whole episode could have been devoted to them but they don’t make for good television – we only have indirect evidence of their existence. Also, I could have done with more footage of giant ships battling storms, but that’s what youtube is for…

The least interesting and most irritating episode was the one devoted to the ocean’s top predators, which suggested that orcas are a serious threat to humans. As evidence, the cases of captive killer whales drowning and injuring their trainers at marine theme parks were cited. No mention was made of the psychosis that these whales suffer from as a result of confinement in a small, barren, completely unnatural environment. An incident in which orcas inexplicably rammed and sank a yacht in the Pacific Ocean is also described and re-enacted. Whether the orcas did what they did because they wanted to kill the people on board is highly debatable. There is also a half-hearted attempt to paint whales as potentially vicious killers, recounting incidents when sperm whales rammed whaling boats in the 19th century. More power to the sperm whales, I say.

The other dangerous predators were (predictably) white sharks, Humboldt squid, saltwater crocodiles and Australian box jellyfish. There was a small environmental message at the end of this episode, mentioning that squid will probably end up the top predators in our oceans if current trends – fishing out large predatory fish and global warming in particular – continue.

The third episode, on the immense pressures that objects in the deep ocean are subjected to, was very interesting to Tony and me as divers. A confusing interview with a diver whose brother got DCS on a wreck dive leaves (I suspect) much out. Were they even qualified divers? Why was he surprised that his brother felt unwell and confused as to the cause after he popped to the surface from 30 metres after a 30 minute dive?

The bulk of the third episode, however, recounts a 1981 experiment called Atlantis III in which three volunteers were taken in a saturation system to a simulated depth of 686 metres while breathing Trimix 10 (70% helium, 20% nitrogen and 10% oxygen). It took 31 days for them to decompress. The chief of the experiment, Peter Bennett, was the founder and former CEO of DAN. There’s a more information about the project here – worth a read (download the pdf slowly), and a briefer account here.

The series concludes with an episode on tides and currents, including rip currents. The massive tidal range of Morecambe Bay in the United Kingdom,  is discussed at length. At low tide, up to 300 square kilometres of mudflats is exposed, and flooded again when the tide comes in. The guides who escort people out onto the mudflats when the tide is out seem like charming individuals – it is recommended not to wander around at low tide without local guidance. In 2004, the rising tide trapped and drowned 23 Chinese immigrants who were working the cockle beds – with such a large expanse of land to cover, the rising tide comes in at great speed. There is also a harrowing re-enactment of a father and his two sons getting washed out to sea in a rip current in Kauai that should make you think twice about swimming at beaches with warning signs on them.

You can get the DVDs here if you’re in South Africa. Foreigners, go here or here.