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Entries in scuba (7)


Near death between tectonic plates

Ever get the feeling that you are in a place where humans are just not meant to go? I spent the morning diving in the ice-cold glacier water that fills up the Almannagjá fissure, the crack that has been created by the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America pulling apart. It is this primordial activity that has created Iceland, by allowing the upwelling of magma from below the surface of the earth. The enormous forces have created both the volcanoes and this rift valley that cleaves Iceland in two. Part of the rift valley is filled with water, forming Lake Þingvallavatn, while the rest of the rift is a scenic valley of massive fissures and soft green moss. Our destination was the Almannagjá fissure. When I saw it I thought "is this it?", just a narrow crack in the rock, only 2-3 metres wide but kilometres and kilometres long. Yet this narrow crack goes down 60 metres and is the site of nearly daily earthquakes - it is the exact epicentre of the rifting between tectonic plates, on one side you are in Europe on the other side you are in America.

The fissure is filled by glacial meltwater filtered through volcanic rock. The slow seep of glacial water keeps it at a constant 2 degrees Celsius, so unlike the lake it never freezes in winter. British troops stationed in Iceland during WWII thought the water itself was special and used it to fill their radiators instead of anti-freeze, which of course ended in destroying their engines. We suited up in dry suits to descend down, my first (and now probably only) experience in a dry suit. It is incredibly constricting, layer upon layer tightly wrapped around your body to stop you dying of hypothermia in the freezing waters.

I could hardly move in the ill-fitting suit and it was so hot that it was a relief to step into the freezing waters - until they hit my head and hands (due to small tears), when I felt coldness so severe it seemed like I was burning. The pain numbed as we prepared to dive, and underneath the water we could see the startling blue of crystal clear waters - visibility 100+ metres, the best of anywhere in the world with perfectly pure water.

Oddly, after successfully getting down, my suit started to self-inflate and I bobbed up to the surface. The guide said it was normal on the first dry suit experience and stuffed more lead weights into my vest. I went down, then a few minutes later the same happened - over and over again I was frustrated as I rose to the surface and was just given more lead weight, until finally I sunk well, straight to the bottom of the rift.

The happiness lasted only a minute as I worked out why I was now sinking - a faulty tube had leaked my entire oxygen tank into my suit until it ran out, leaving me with lead weights at the bottom of a tectonic right without any oxygen!

It could have been a lot worse, the rift was only 10 metres deep at that point and I didn't have so much weight on that I couldn't swim up to the surface (the lead vest was impossible to take off wearing the dry suit mittens), but I was fairly oxygen-deprived when I did make it there. My tour operator finally recognised the faulty tube and offered to change it for the second dive, but I instead decided to indulge in oxygen and watch the goslings graze of the green grasses of the rift.

For our last evening with Icepedition, Chris organised an amazing traditional Icelandic meal in the house of some good friend of his, with great food and drinks and a delightful end to a perfect holiday.



Diving on the Great Barrier Reef

We just spent three glorious days diving on the Great Barrier Reef, living aboard the Reef Encounter. John had planned to take his Open water course, but a cold he had picked up scuttled those plans so he went snorkling instead. Lydia and I had a bonanza of diving - we did ten dives in our three days. It was the most luxurious way of diving, the water was so warm I didn't bother with a wet-suit, and the staff on the boat kept our tanks full and the scuba outfit set up, so we could just strap it on and set off the boat. When the water was choppy they even lowered us and picked us up using the boat lift. Except for our two night dives, we did all the dives by ourselves, the first time I have ever dived without a guide. It went surprisingly well, despite not diving for a year we had our buoyancy and diving skills fairly polished and we even navigated fairly well, especially on our second and third dives of a site.

I certainly felt more competent under the water than I ever had before, and the sting was taken off by being able to hop into the hot tub afterwards.

As well as being easy, the diving was fantastic. We saw giant clams (with flesh that glowed and sparkled in colours you would not expect), green sea turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, lion fish, clown fish and sting rays, not to mention the innumerable tropical reef fish in their spectacular colours, and the enchanting corals. Most spectacular to me were the two night dives (my first under the ocean at night). Being under the water at night must be one of the most alien experiences possible. Gravity and direction are weakened, replaced instead by the pressure of water in every direction. Your senses are distorted, sound becomes bizzare and light is absent, save for the sparks of bioluminescence created by your every movement.

In the first the reef seemed abandoned, with the small fish almost absent. A glance at the corals instead revealed a plethora of tiny orange lights, with our torchlight reflecting back on the eyes of the delicate cleaner shrimp. Our second night dive explained the absence of small fish in the first. We jumped into the water only to be surrounded by a pack of hundreds of Giant Travelli, each around a metre long and armed with savage jaws. They prowled around the reef like a hunting wolf pack, taking full advantage of our weak torch light to seize any small fish that wandered out from safety, with half a dozen Giant Travelli darting in from all directions whenever we spotted a fish. The swarm of GTs in hunt were much more intimidating than the solitary sharks we saw. As a final pleasure, at the very end we came across a sleeping green turtle, resting on the reef floor.

We spent around five hours under the sea during our three day stay, with the rest of the trip being spent with pleasant company. We talked to John and Gavin, our new chatty and cheerful British friend, spent time in the hot tub, watched the bottle-nose dolphins follow our boat, took abundant naps and played board games, a most relaxing interlude to our hectic travels.


Diving in Bonaire

Last night after getting back on board after Aruba we watched Pirates of the Caribbean while drinking champagne in our cabin as the sunset over the ocean through our port window. We then had dinner with a nice couple from Puerto Rico and a family from North Carolina with solarium tans and ultra-white teeth. The couple from Puerto Rico told us that they visited Australia for the Sydney Olympics and thought that it was one of the coldest countries in the world. We also talked about whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st State of the US, or whether it should become independent. The couple actually wanted Puerto Rico to stay in the American Commonwealth, but for them to be independent in foreign affairs and trade, more similar to the position of Australia in the British Commonwealth than the status quo.

Last night was the first night where the ship noticeably rocked in the waves of the Caribbean, I guess it is more choppy here close to the South American continent.

This morning we reached our port in Bonaire. Lydia had arranged to meet a naturalist, Dee Scarr, to take us scuba diving. The diving was simply fantastic. We dove off the beach in the harbour, swimming first over the sandy bottom then to the reef. The reef was in really good condition, because anchorage in Bonaire is banned, with all the ships using moorage. There were beautiful hard corals, such as the bright orange brain coral, and finger-like pale purple soft corals. We were surrounded by different species of tropical fish in every direction. Dee's partner David went ahead of us to find the best spots for the wildlife, so we were able to feed Yellow French Grunts with some shrimp that Dee brought down and to watch Snapper Shrimp filter feed from their homes.

We saw several Goldentail Moray eels, and also a Spotted Moray Eel. This one Dee offered a shrimp to, it grabbed it in its main jaws and we saw it get racketed down into its throat using its pharyngeal secondary set of jaws. It then became irritated and swam towards me with its fanged mouth, before swimming off into a coral. We also found some sponges and Dee showed us how they filter feed by squirting a little food dye in the water near them. The sponges sucked the dye in and squirted it out of the top. We saw the touchmenot sea squirt, bonefish and held a sea cucumber. We visited a cleaning station and we watched Sergeant Majors guarding their nests of tiny purple eggs. Dee tried to show us how tidy they were by placing a small piece of coral onto the nest, the Sergeant Major just ignored it though, so she moved it onto another nest where the more diligent father immediately swept down to move the offending piece.

Finally, we also saw an octopus. She had made a nest between two pieces of coral and had gathered some bright pieces of coral and a Sprite can in it. Dee tried to remove the Sprite can but the octopus was very attached to it, suckering onto Dee's hand until she let it keep the can. It was really great to go for a dive with a naturalist who would stop and show us the animals, writing on her Magna Doodle while still under the water. After the dive we had a walk through the main shopping street of Kralendijk, before heading back to the ship.

Over lunch we had the misfortune to have to share a table with the most obnoxious couple I have ever met. When asked if they had enjoyed Bonaire they curtly replied "we don't get off the ship", and proceeded to complain that at the end of this cruise they had to get off the ship and recheck in for the next cruise, even though they were staying on the same ship.

Then unprovoked they started to talk about global warming and how environmentalists were a cult just like Marxism, and they were making it up because they wanted to keep their jobs as activists. They said that "to understand the environment you had to appreciate that God started the universe and created Man". They then started to rail against all the immigrants in the US, with a mangled complaint that the Mexicans were flooding in and going on welfare, and then their babies that were born in America were considered Americans and ended up squeezing "real Americans" out of Medical Schools, and that real Americans then had to go to foreign Medical Schools (a very specific complaint). When Lydia mentioned that we were immigrants in America, and that the work visa system was incredibly expensive costing around $1000 a year and involving huge amount of red tape (making it essentially impossible for anyone intending to work on minimum wage), they asked us where we were from.

On hearing it was Australia, they then started to say that it was just as well that all those convicts were sent to Australia, as they were able to build the country just like the American pioneers, and that the Australian Aborigines had had thousands of years there and hadn't built anything. Just to make sure that we understood how racist they were they went on to say that Africa was just the same, never developing any civilisation because the people didn't work. I'm sure that the list of close-minded topics would have been longer if we hadn't wolfed down our meals and left the table.

As a plus we just had an interesting talk about St Kitts. I thought it was odd that the cruise would organise a session talking about the history of the Caribbean, but it turned out that it was just a passenger giving the lecture.

He was a great (x7) grandson of Sir Thomas Warner, the first European to colonise the West Indies. While the Spanish had been in the area for years they weren't interested in building colonies, so it was only after the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Amada broke their grip over the New World that colonists moved in. The first was Thomas Warner in 1624. He landed at Sandy Point on St Kitts and grew a crop of tobacco. He returned to England in 1625 and gained a letter of patent from Charles I as governor over the island. Back on St Kitts the colony was swelled by a French party. This alarmed the Caribs, who realised that the Europeans were growing in number. They attacked, but Warner was warned by his Carib mistress Barbie, so he ambushed and massacred the Caribs. He slaughtered the entire population, such that he had no workers left for his plantations, and so he started the slave trade from Africa. He was known to boil alive or tear apart with horses rebellious slaves. They separated the slaves by skin colour - the darkest worked in the fields, while the lightest (the children of black women raped by their owners) were the house slaves. It is a horrible legacy that the Caribbean has to deal with.


Red Sea Diving

My last day in Egypt was a good one. Last night I had a nice mushroom soup for dinner, and an amazing chocolate thickshake, which was pretty much a litre of chocolate ice cream in a glass with a chocolate wafer stuck in the top. I had enough naps during the day that I woke up refreshed this morning, even with the snoring of my new roommate Ken, and today I had two wonderful dives - the Canyon and the Blue Hole.

The first dive went really well, I had the buoyancy spot on, and the dive master afterwards came up and said I was a natural diver, he was surprised I only had six dives. The Canyon was nice, but being below 18m I couldn't go in (Michelle said there were pretty much no fish inside the cavern anyway - she had trouble equalising due to sickness, and didn't enjoy the first dive much). The second dive was at the Blue Hole, a 900m deep sinkhole in the reef. We swam around the edge of the sinkhole (I went down to 30m because the divemaster was confident it wouldn't be a problem), watching the fish dart out for a metre past the reef, then back to safety. There were thousands of small orange and blue Red Sea Lions floating in schools just off the reef. I swam into the school and they floated all around me, hanging suspended like golden snowflakes...


Red Sea and Luxor tombs

I just had an amusing incident. As I was walking to the internet cafe, one of the shopkeepers called out to me, "where are you from my friend?", I smiled and nodded and kept on walking, as they continued "what is a destination?". Philosophy instead of a sales pitch? I stopped, turned around and listened to the shopkeeper, a young man. He continued, "can I ask you what this word means? A destination?". I answered. He then pulled out his mobile phone and asked me to read him a message from someone written in English. I read it word for word, but didn't translate the subtext to him, which was, "I am pregnant, I need your details for the birth certificate and maybe for legal reasons and I won't ever see you again you bastard". He smiled and asked me to text her back, which I did, then continued on my way.

Yesterday I was by the Red Sea, scuba diving and snorkelling. On our first dive we went to a place that very commonly has dolphins, dove down, and saw many fish and a stingray, but no dolphins. Giving up, we got out of our gear and drove to the second site. On the way we saw a pod of twenty dolphins, he stopped the boat and we all jumped in. The dolphins swam over, under and through us, coming within a metre of me, it was beautiful and amazing. The second site was called the 'visual garden'. He gave us some fish food to take with us, and hundreds of fish swarmed in and ate out of my hands. I saw Barren Wrasse, Moon Wrasse, Bird Wrasse, Sand divers, Vermiculate Wrasse, the beautiful Spotted Sweetlips, Sunrise Dottybacks, the long thin Flute fish, Malabar Groupers, Redmouth Groupers, Scalefin Anthias (I thought they were two different types of fish, but they strong have a strong sexual dimorphism), Pennant fish, Crown Butterflyfish, Antenna Butterfly fish, Racoon Butterflyfish, Masked Butterflyfish, Lined Butterfly fish, Threadfin Butterflyfish, a large Royal Angelfish, Yellowbar Angelfish and Lizardfish. 

After the diving we joined the police convoy back to Luxor and checked into our hotel, walking through the ubiquitous metal detectors at every hotel and tourist site, that are set off by every person and ignored by the guards.

This morning I started with the Valley of the Kings, where later Pharoahs were buried once they saw that pyramid stood out and were robbed. The valley has nearly a hundred tombs in it, with no outward display, just a small entrance blocked with rubble. They have all been cleared out now (all but one by graverobbers, Tutenkahmen by the Egyptian museum). The valley is overlooked by a pyramid shaped mountain called Al-Qurn (‘The Horn’).

We visited the tomb of Rameses IV (20th dynasty), which was lived in by Coptic Christians ~150CE, and contains antique Jesus-graffiti. It was just a short passageway leading to a small room with a giant sarcophagus, but what was amazing was the carvings on every surface, hieroglyphs and religious scenes, all still with fresh colours on. The tomb was decorated with the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, the Litany of Ra, the Book of Nut, the Book of the Night, and the Book of the Earth.

The second tomb I visited was that of Rameses III (20th dynesty). This was a larger tomb, with additional chambers of mummies of musicians to keep him company. The tomb had a kink in it, as the builders bumped into a lost tomb while digging, and had to redirect their efforts. It contains paintings of the burial offerings, the king with the gods, the Litany of Ra, the Imy-dwat, the Book of Gates, the Book of the Earth, the Book of the Dead, and astronomical scenes. The third tomb was that of Rameses I (19th dynasty). It was tiny (it is assumed it was a hasty burial), but the paintings were the most vivid of all, and I could imagine the Temple of Karnak in its full glory of colour.

After the Valley of the Kings we visited the Tomb of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was the most powerful Queen of Egypt, ruling ~1500 BCE after her husband died. She made herself coreagent, displaying her step-son, and ruled for many years, building temples and tombs, waging major wars and so forth. When she finally died, her stepson took her place and removed her carvings from all of her monuments. The Tomb of Hatshepsut is enormous, a three tier columned monument carved into the mountain, looking more like a modern five-star hotel than an ancient tomb. The area is now desert, but at the time she built a three kilometre canal to irrigate the valley and plant a garden, complete with trees imported from the land of Punt (modern Somalia, the tree roots are still in the valley.

Finally, we went to the Valley of the Queens. Like the Valley of the Kings, it is a barren valley surrounded by high stone cliffs, with many hidden tombs. We went in two, the plain Tomb of Tyti, and a Tomb to the prince Amunherkhepsef, who died when he was nine. His mother was so upset she gave him her tomb, then miscarried the child she was carrying and left it in the tomb to keep him company.

Just as a side note to the Valley of the Queens, Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (~500 BCE) had this to say about embalming: When the wife of a distinguished man dies, or any woman who happens to be beautiful or well known, her body is not given to the embalmers immediately, but only after the lapse of three or four days. This is a precautionary measure to prevent the embalmers from violating the corpse, a thing which is said actually to have happened in the case of a woman who had just died.

On the way back we visited the Colossi of Memnon. The ancient Greeks believed they were statues of Memnon (slain by Achilles in the Trojan War), but they are actually the only remaining quartzite statues for a temple built by Amenhotep III. After an earthquake in 27 BCE a bell-like ring was sometimes heard from the statues, until the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus tried the repair the statues in 199 CE, and stopped the ringing.


Sea Dragon

A tough but rewarding day. Russell and I drove down to the Wirrina Marina, stopping off for an excellent vegetable pasty at Yankalilla (one good thing about country towns is the quality of the bakeries). At the marina we kitted up, and headed out on the boat to Rapid Bay. I was feeling really crusty, I think I have come down with strep throat or something, so I probably shouldn't have gone out, but I really wanted to get my diving certificate for the Red Sea.

It was about a ten minute boat trip from the marina to the disused jetty at Rapid Bay. The first dive was terrible. With blocked ears I couldn't equalise, so I had severe squeeze on the way down. It threw me off, so I used up 80 bar just getting to the bottom. I saw lots of schools of fish, including John Dory, Senator Wrasse, Rainbow Cale, Eastern Blue Groper, Common Cuttlefish, Jewel anemone, whiting and snook, but it was not an enjoyable dive. On the way back to the surface I had reverse squeeze.

The second dive was completely different. I was expecting the squeeze so I made a slow neutral buoyancy decent down a pylon, taking the chance to look at the different soft algae growing in the area. I took a while to reach the bottom, but I was relaxed, and even ended the dive with 100 bar left. As well as the fish, this time we saw an eleven legged starfish and several conspicuous starfish. The place chosen for our fin pivot had a black and white nudibranch right in front of me, and I saw the startlingly bright Verco's nudibranch. As the crowning moment of the dive, I saw a Weedy Sea Dragon. Sea Dragons achieve perfect neutral buoyancy, allowing them to hover effortlessly at any height, because of this any forced changes to height, even 50cm, can rupture their swim bladder killing them. I could sit right in front of it, maybe 30cm away, for five minutes as it serenely drifted around. It was beautiful and graceful, with a delicate snout and vivid colours. My Sea Dragon made all the diving worth while


Scuba-diving in Adelaide

My first ever scuba dives today. We drove up to Port Hughes on the Spencer Gulf, kitted up and dove of the jetty. It was a great experience, but again I was too buoyant. It took 20kg of lead to allow me to sink to the bottom.

The water was beautiful, and soothing on my sunburn. We went down for 42 minutes on our first dive, looking at the vivid purple, pink, blue and green soft algal growths on the wooden pylons, as well as the swarms of intricate small temperate reef fish.

Lunch was amusing, we carried the BBQ across the car park, and when we reached the rest of the divers they said "let's have it right here" (in the carpark - they were serious). We laughed, and said we would take it to the lawn/shade/table area 30m away. One guy seriously got in his car and drove the extra 30m - Chris did say that divers were lazy.

Our second dive was even better, great marine life. We saw a large (50cm) Long-snout Boarfish, with its black and white stripes and discus shape. I held a slender Port Phillip Pipefish, and Chris scared a Globe fish (a type of puffer fish) until it puffed up into a 30cm diameter sphere, and drifted away looking indignant. We also saw Western Smooth Boxfish, Smooth Toadfish, Southern Rock Lobster, Porcelain Crabs, Hermit crabs (very cute under the water, I picked up the shell and it hid away inside), Patch Starfish, Southern Goat fish, Magpie Perch, Old Wifes (does it become Old Wives?), Moonlighters, Truncate coral fish and the very cute Shaw's Cowfish. Chris scared a Cuttlefish so it flashed its luminescent green and jetted away. I had problems after 4kg of lead fell out of my belt and I became too buoyant, but aside from that, it was a good day.