Monday, July 7, 2008

under da sea

I'm in Dahab, on the Sinai coast. Beachfront dinners are awesome, and isn't that the best-looking plate of grilled vegetables? It, with appetizer and dessert, was $10.

But let's get to business. Dahab is a diving spot. I'm a diver.

Is there any hobby as expensive as diving? Faberge egg collecting?

But the Red Sea is a diving mecca, and I am, er, was well under budget. So in the past week I've logged over 20 hours underwater... and spent well over a thousand dollars. Yikes. But,




Let's start with a live-aboard. This is an eat-sleep-dive kinda adventure, where you spend X number of days on a boat with a bunch of other dive-nuts (X = 3 in this case), and you dive before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch, and a night dive after sunset and before dinner. It's intense. It's awesome.

First, head to diver central and find your boat.

Check-ins, all sorts of formalities, let's get to our first dive site already. Ooh, what an inviting shade of blue!

(Or sometimes an eery thick black, just after sunset, and then out with the flashlights and glowsticks for the always kinda creepy night dive. That's scary water:)

Pre-dive briefing.

Suit up.

An unflattering shot of your humble narrator, in decidedly heavy and awkward attire for land.

The last thing you see before splashdown. Hello fishies!!

Like everyone, when I was little I wanted to be an astronaut. But at some point I learned astronauts are glorified engineers, and while I'm hardly knocking it, it's not really what I meant. I wanted H.G. Wells-style planet discovery! I wanted to explore alien worlds, see life suited to different physics, different constraints and limitations, different wonders! I wanted to be an aquanaut!

Here's just a teeny, tiny sampling of the inhabitants of a totally different planet that share Earth with us.

Stonefish (must've been two dozen I passed for every one I spotted: it's even hard to find in the photo below! And they're kinda scary: can-be-fatal-ly poisonous dorsal spines and they don't move out of the way, so you can touch them).

Regal angels.

Blue-spotted boxfish (hahaha, you're so cute!).

Lionfish (pretty poisonous, but slow as rocks, and there was probably one for every one I saw; they're tough to miss).

The brilliantly-named Pajama nudie.

Garden eels (lawns of 'em).

Sea moths (cute little guys, very rarely seen).

Titan triggers (huge and territorial - appreciate from a distance).

Blue-spotted rays.

Lettuce corals (they look JUST like lettuce!).

I could go on and on and on. And, AND, they have the coolest behaviors. Schools of tiny anthias hang around a brambly coral head, and if you go near, they all disappear into the tiniest coral nooks and crannies. Hundreds of juvenile triggers hang in a puff like drops of vapor in a cloud. Sergeant majors display their fins as irridescent cleaner-wrasse give them a run-down. The tiniest little damselfish bonk into your mask, defending their territory from any intruder, regardless of size. Huge Napoleon fish lazily cruise by and curiously keep an eye on you. All this while you're 80 feet below the surface, flying weightless over the most magnificent palette of corals. There's nothing like being under water.

The Red Sea is home to a wild variety of biota, but it's also filled with shipwrecks. Every other page on the Sinai Red Sea dive guide booklet looked like this:

Most wrecks aren't actually that neat to see: the ship's wood has long deteriorated and the cargo of lentils or cotton or whatever is no longer there. Usually, though, the wreck is a bonus. These ships sunk because they struck the reef, so you dive the reef, and hey, whaddya know, there's a ship down here. Sometimes they're extra neat: the Yolanda itself has rolled into deep water, but its cargo still sits conspiciously among the corals.

But the shipwreck that deserves very special mention -- it was the main feature/destination of the liveaboard, and is consistently rated in the world's top 10 dive sites -- is the wreck of the Thistlegorm.

The Thistlegorm left England in 1941 with a cargo of military supplies bound for Egypt. The Mediterranean was controlled by Germany, so the vessel went all the way around Africa and up the Red Sea. While waiting for the go-ahead to enter the Suez Canal, the Thistlegorm was targetted by German planes, who unloaded their excess munitions on the ship while returning from a mission. On October 5th, 1941, a direct hit on hold four sunk the 419 foot Thistlegorm. Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreck in the fifties, but kept the location secret. In the 1990's, it was rediscovered, and has since become one of the world's most famous dive sites.

The Thistlegorm isn't the easiest dive -- you're penetrating an enormous wreck 80-feet deep, and the resident stonefish make me a little nervous -- but woah! It's like swimming around a WWII museum. Anti-aircraft guns, motorcycles with sidecars (how WWII are sidecars!), machine guns, tanks (yes, two entire tanks!), trucks, boots, airplane wings, and a million other military odds and ends, all coral-encrusted and guarded by schools of silent squirrelfish and patroling sergeant majors. But it's not just a dive, and it's not just a museum; it's very real. It's quiet, and it commands respect. It's a war memorial. People died.

Anatomy of the wreck:

Anatomy with some photos you can zoom in on:

It's really an amazing piece of history.

The diving was phenomenal. Unfortunately for the above-water part of the trip, the boat was 9 Danes and myself. I don't speak a lick of Danish; that made for some long meals. I spent a lot of time watching the stars (I slept on the deck all three nights), and inspecting the boat for all things interesting. What's wrong with this hours-of-sunlight graph?

The cab back to Dahab winds through some beautiful Sinai interior. At one point I saw a bush that looked just like a camel, but then I realized it was a camel. I don't know why I thought it was a bush.

More diving in Dahab. One trip was to a reef in Ras Abu Gallum, a park so protected, so out of the way, that it's inaccessible by car. But we had an idea...

Load your dive gear onto a camel, and let's play Moses and wander through the Sinai.

Wait, how far? Okay, let's load my dive gear and myself onto the camel.

(These photos are both of me just 'cause I was on the Formula One camel, so if I wanted a photo of the I-can't-believe-this-is-happening caravan, I had to shoot behind me.)

Before we even get to the site, I love this trip! Is that beautiful or is that beautiful?

And you just keep thinking: I can't believe I'm taking a camel to a dive site. I love my life. And that reef? SO PRISTINE! Corals like heaven, blues and greens and yellows and whites! It was like skittles and science class and The Little Mermaid and The Discovery Channel and a box of crayons. It was the best.

But, alas, today's my last day of diving -- it's a very expensive addiction and I need to cut myself off. I'm in Dahab, and the Blue Hole is a very famous... er, infamous site, so I thought I'd go see it. The blue circle is 300 feet deep. Just left in the photo, outside the reef, the ocean bottom is 1000' down.

While not at all intrinsically dangerous, Blue Hole is sometimes known as Diver's Cemetary*. The dive instructor at my place says the Blue Hole's claimed well over 100 lives. It's a morbid scene at the entrance:

* - If you're curious why, basically, it's the temptation of trying The Arch. The Arch is an 80'-long tunnel though the reef, connecting the 300'-deep hole to the open ocean outside the hole. Here's the rub: The Arch is 200-feet deep. If you really want to go into why that depth is dangerous, look up nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxification, and air consumption at depth -- but for reference, without advanced certifications, divers are allowed to go to 60'. A deep dive is 100', and 120' is very deep. As long as we're going tangential, freedivers (breath-hold diving) replace all the problems of breathing compressed gases by, well, holding their breath. You want to see an amazing video? (The divers filming are tec divers, with several cylinders filled with air, nitrox, trimix, hydreliox, or other exotic gases.) And you can see, as William descends, the ambient pressure compresses his body enough that he becomes negatively bouyant, and he just sinks the second hundred feet down to The Arch. Of course, then he has to swim back up!

I thought about not writing this into the blog, because it's really bothersome, but I'm going to anyway. The dive was fine, but when we surfaced, there was a crowd gathered on the shore just feet from the water's edge, and in the middle, three men were performing CPR on an unresponsive diver. I don't know what happened, but it's really... I don't know, it just makes your stomach churn. They're pumping resolutely and have him hooked up to oxygen and people are ogling and some are crying, and the diver is just totally limp and his big belly's so lifeless, and sometimes water comes out of his mouth when they pump, and it's just awful. I don't know what happened.

So I'm really sorry to end on such an awful note. I'm sorry my dive vacation-within-a-trip ended like that, too. But it's a morbid reminder, perhaps, not to get too complacent underwater. Even if everything, everything goes right, it's still dangerous. And it always makes me a little nervous to see someone get a 2-day certification in Cancun or Ko Samui, and plunge in too headstrong to admit he's underwater and on life support. So I know this sounds really patronizing and campy, but I'm in a kinda blue mood after seeing that today: If you're a diver, please stay within your limits. Be safe.


Betty said...

Jake -

Thanks for a wonderfully exciting narrative on your recent diving adventure. Your UW photos are great. Like you, I also started out wanting to be an astronaut. Scuba diving is less expensive in comparison, and definately more accessible. Besides, in outerspace, you wouldn't get to see grouchy stone fish and 'lawns' of garden eels, and ceramic toilet bowls.

The Thistlegorm wreck is pretty amazing. You do a good job lining up all the info and reference material on it. I dove a wreck in Lake Michigan once and saw the frame of a Model-A Ford, but that's nothing in comparison. Your dive nearly rivals those of an archaeologist friend who dives wrecks from Renaissance times.

I think I've seen everything now -having a camel transport your scuba gear to a dive site! You are certainly resourceful.

That is really too bad about the diver you saw trying to get resuscitated. Bad things happen. There was the recent scuba murderer that was convicted (he left his wife on the ocean floor, out of air or something like that, and he was even Rescue certified).

You missed the shipment of 30 sharks that just arrived at the Dubai Aquarium. You should go back to check it out!

Forgive me for such a lengthy comment, but your postings are really great and worthy of comment!


Anonymous said...

Great to hear from you and so sorry about how it ended. Had brunch with J2 today--Jeanne wants to go to the English countryside, so we're planning for next summer!
We're all good, but now we're counting the days until you come home.


Jake Cooper said...

Mom -
1 - I may be going back to school, but unlike you and Joshua and Jeanne, I still don't get summers off. I'll see what I can swing.
2 - According to my where-I-stayed spreadsheet, I'm 84 nights into the trip. So what, 31 left? One month to Chicago! I love traveling, but I sure love America too.

Betty -
1 - Your comments rock!
2 - Every time I see a blue-spotted ray, I think of Shedd.
3 - The photos that require an underwater camera are not mine: I just stole 'em from the dub dub dub. It's killing me that I can't find a photo of an alpha male Yellow Boxfish online (the darn things never use computers! rimshot!) -- they're the most gorgeous animals, and I saw two of them!
4 - The Thistlegorm really is amazing. You know I've never dived Lake Michigan? So cold! There was an ancient wreck off Alexandria that, if I could get a group big enough, you can dive. The Yolanda wreck had lots of toilets, but also one BMW. Not as historic as the Model A, but probably way more comfy.
5 - How many sharks to the Dubai Aquarium?! THIRTY? What are they gonna do with thirty sharks?
6 - We'll still get to outer space one day. You and me, Betty; we're gonna do it.
7 - It is really too bad about the diver, and... I don't know, it puts you in a funk. But I actually ended on a sweet note, with my last dive being an incredible night dive with eels and rays and shrimp and phosphorescent plankton and bioluminescent I-don't-knows and an octopus and two flounder and, this is the best part, a tiny cuttlefish that got mad at me and squirted ink and turned blood-red and went ballistic for a little while, then morphed, T1000-style, into the spitting image of a coral head. And the dive ended by surfacing to still black water under a million stars. One of my best dives ever. So that was good.
8 - How's THAT for a long comment!
9 - Thanks.

Jeanne said...

that is super scary. i kind of wish you found out what happened to the diver so that you could learn some kind of lesson from a tragedy. i'm glad you are safe.

i keep thinking about getting real diving lessons. and, as brave as i am, i do think the deep ocean is a scary place. you know that i'm a good swimmer, but being that deep underwater in an element that is completely foreign to me... i don't know. you remember the story of josh and i encountering the multi-colored fish with a tumor growing on its head while snorkeling. i mean, I FREAKED and i was on the surface. who knows what'll happen if i'm deep in the water. than again, i guess you can do dives that don't go beyond 30-50 feet deep...

anyway, did you go by bus or taxi to dahab? have you heard anything about the ferries from hurgada to dahab? still trying to figure out how we're getting to sinai from luxor...would appreciate any advice you have.

daddy said...

1- great diving !!! great fish and nudie

2- do you remember that you and i and josh saw an eel garden diving off of st.john?

3- i'm surprised that the danes didn't speak some english

4- you realize that you have know idea what happened to the guy, his death need not have been related to diving

Cam said...

i'm going with the constant 12 hours of sunlight in june, july and august. last i checked, the equinox was june 22nd or 23rd. silly egyptians... you'd think they'd have gotten that one right by now. i mean, know when night is coming would have to be a pretty handy bit of info to a desert-dwelling people, but c'est la vie.

jdcooper said...

Now those grilled veggies really do look good. 'Course, I can't stand eggplant, and I make an even better onion, but I'd still eat that.

The sun graph: I'm not sure about how the rounding would work out, but shouldn't the whole thing be completely symmetrical - 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7?

nice diving pics (stolen, no kidding)

also, how do you keep your hair dry down there?

Jake Cooper said...

Dad and Jeanne:
The diver's problem may have been totally unrelated to diving - he might have had a heart attack - but that's why I say even if you're Mr. Within-Your-Limits, diving's still dangerous. 60' under water is a really bad place to have a heart attack. Hell, I've had foot cramps during dives, and it's a bad place to get a foot cramp!

You kinda learn how to freak out underwater and calm yourself (in a good class), so it's okay. When your mask gets kicked off underwater (rarely happens, but happens), and cold salt water floods your face, basically everyone flips out. But you learn how to deal with it safely. And some of the best diving is in shallow water, where the sunlight is strong and the colors are vibrant. One of my dives in Alexandria had max depth 18 feet. I've heard bad things about the Hurghada ferry (which goes to Sharm, not Dahab). Buses take you everywhere in Egypt, and they're comfy and somewhat promptish. To go Dahab to Aswan, I'm taking a bus. Taxis are easy but way more 'spensive.

Of course I remember the gar'n eels! It was great diving! The Danes spoke some English, but they conversed in Danish.

Cam and Joshua:
Maybe there's some other definition of "hours of sunlight" that includes clouds or something, but, you know, astronomically, it has to average 12 hours per day. At the equator, 12 every month. At the poles, 0 for 6 months, 24 for 6 months. But it has to average 12. And yeah, Joshua, you're right, too, though I didn't notice it. It has to be symmetrical around the summer solstice, but since the solstice isn't exactly in the middle of a month, the months themselves might be rounded a touch differently.

You do make good onions.

jdcooper said...


I'll make you onions when you get back. Jeanne and I have been eating at this one vegetarian Indian place lately. Weird, I know.

You're right that the sun should be 12 hours a day at the equator, but you're pretty far North of the equator. You're at a similar latitude to Florida. The equator goes through Brazil! But you have a point: Miami's daylight (well, sunrise to sunset, not really the best way to measure daylight) ranges from 10-14 hours a day. Not only does that average to 12 (I see your point now), but that's more realistic than having a max of 12 hours.

Jake Cooper said...

I always do kinda forget how far south the equator is.
I remember seeing this CO2 graph in some earth science class and asking why the annual up-down. It's 'cause, compared to the southern hemisphere, there's just so much more land (and forest in particular) in the northern hemisphere that CO2 decreases during June July August when all those northern trees do their photosynthesis thing. 2/3 of Africa is in the northern hemisphere!

20 neat geography surprises

Woah, Mumbai is further south than all of Egypt! No wonder India's so hot.

I'm online now because I locked myself out...