Archive for the ‘Advanced Adventure’ Category

Fire and Ice: Diving in Iceland

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Our van rumbles down a road that leads to the very heart of the tectonic rift system while our guide, David Sigthorsson, tells us about the myths of Norsemen who settled his home country.

Embraced by volcanoes on either margin, this foreign landscape intensifies all of our senses. Long stretches of evergreen grasslands, yellow and orange wetlands, and little streams of bright-blue water pass by my window as if on their way, as we are, to Thingvallavatn Lake, two hours east of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Rain and glacial water traverse unconventional routes on their way into this basin. Most of the glacial water from Iceland’s second-biggest glacier, Lángjökull, filters through the porous basalts for hundreds of years before welling up in the many fissures found around the lake. That is why it is so clear and clean, a diver can drink from it. But there is a price to visiting this wondrous place: water temperatures of 36 degrees.

A convenient staircase allows me to descend into Silfra, or “Silver Lady,” one of many ruptures caused by tectonic activity. The cleft is quite narrow, its deepest point around 195 feet. A steep wall of magmatic rock near the entrance guides me into a labyrinth of cavities, arches, troughs and saddles filled with the planet’s purest fresh water. Above my head, a shimmering effect turns the surface into a silvery mirror. Only at the very end of the dive am I reminded of the limiting temperatures.

A short break in the bright but faint summer sun gives us enough warmth to continue our dive in a shallow lagoon. At the bottom, just above bright-white sediment, tiny gas bells cause wisps of light-green algae to flutter softly in their stream. Soon we re-enter the main fissure, and a cathedral of massive basaltic boulders steals my breath. Here Earth is split in two by energy coming from the deep mantle below. We are diving between continents, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge system.

Geologically speaking, Iceland is very young, roughly 20 million years old. Much of its landscape has not yet been leveled; Europe’s most powerful waterfalls tumble from great heights as they carve their way into lava fields. It is one of the most active places in Europe, home to more than 30,000 live volcanoes.

The island consists of volcanic rock generated at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain that stretches north to south along the entire Atlantic Ocean. Here two tectonic plates are being pushed apart, leaving a gap in the middle, where hot magma rises and crystallizes on the ocean floor; much of the ridge lies below the surface of the water. In some areas, the ridge rises above sea level, creating this island country. Iceland is also situated above a hot spot, a region of high volcanic activity due to the rise of a hot mantle plume, similar to the Hawaiian Islands. Mantle plumes come from much deeper than the average mid-oceanic ridge — nearly 2,000 miles below the Earth’s crust.

Led by David Sigurthorsson from Dive.is, Iceland’s biggest dive operator, we start a 10-day journey around the island. Diving in Iceland is slowly becoming more popular; fortunately for us, few of the locations on our schedule are commercialized. Not many diving facilities exist — tanks are filled at fire departments.

When sudden volcanic activity on our second day forces us to abandon the coastal road to the east, Sigurthorsson questions whether inland rivers and unpaved roads will be passable. Cautiously, he decides to wait for outfitted Jeeps to cross the rivers before guiding our heavily loaded van through the water. Inland, the volcanic landscapes are as varied as the pages of a geological textbook. Black, barren moonscapes are covered with pumice and volcanic bombs, providing NASA an ideal place to train astronauts for moon landings in the ’60s. We round a corner, and all of a sudden, rivers are carving into glowing hills and valleys, and nothing remains to remind one of Iceland’s destructive nature.

When evening sets, we finally arrive at the southeast coast of Iceland. Here its biggest glacier, the Vatnajökull, flows majestically down the mountain and calves icebergs into a shallow lagoon. The icebergs will have to melt before crossing an even-shallower pass into the ocean. Some of them are colored black by ashes from last year’s eruptions, which indicates that the iceberg has not turned since. Seals march up and down next to the ice, and give us a curious look before disappearing in the dark water.

On a thick, mussel-covered rope, I descend into Seyois fjord, just at the foot of a small authentic fishing village in the east of Iceland. The fjord is a spectacular U-shaped valley carved by a glacier that has now receded. On the ridge of the valley lies a thick cover of snow, even in summer. Although the ocean water is said to be a few degrees warmer than the fresh water in Silfra, the cold soon seeps in, and it does not take long before darkness envelops us. El Grillo, a 7,000-ton, 278-foot-long oil tanker, slowly contours in the beam of my light.

It must have been a cold day on Feb. 10, 1944, when British soldiers stood against the railing watching German forces approach from the sky. El Grillo was built by the British in 1922 and positioned in this natural harbor during the Second World War to supply the Allied forces with fuel. The ship took a serious hit but did not sink right away. Out of fear that the Germans would return, its crew sank El Grillo that same day.

Today we conduct two dives. The deepest part of the ship is at 146 feet, and it reaches up to about 91 feet. We descend upon a metal frame covered with little sponged, echinoderms and crustaceans. Despite the limited bottom times, this dive into Iceland’s history provides another amazing experience.

From the WWII wrecks in east Iceland, we travel to Oxarf fjord, a little more than 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. In the deltaic landscape, a small crack named Nesgja connects a brackish lagoon to nearby open ocean. Unspoiled, the vulnerable environment includes thick, plasticlike microbial mats covering the rocks like a translucent veil. A bluish-green hue distorts any sense of depth, and there seems no end to it. Fifteen minutes later, we are forced upon a shallow, razor-sharp saddle of basalt that forms our way to the lagoon. Inside, the undisturbed floating algae thrives, forming a landscape of hanging curtains.

That afternoon we stop at a somewhat hidden spring in the middle of nowhere. With a grin on his face, Sigurthorsson puts our patience to the test. With only drysuit, mask, snorkel and fins, we enter water not deeper than 6 1/2 feet. At the bottom of the spring, an extraordinary phenomenon takes shape: Geothermal energy wells up and creates bubbling mud lakes and troughs where colored minerals and shells are juggled in the water column.

Our Zodiac travels full speed over the dark water of the Eyja fjord, close to Akureyri, the capital of the north. Adjoining volcanic mountains pierce the gray clouds that lie low above the water line. In the middle of the fjord, a line descends to Strýtan, a hydrothermal vent that rises from more than 200 feet up to nearly 50 feet below the surface. We are here to dive on the world’s shallowest known hydrothermal vent, called a “smoker,” a phenomenon normally restricted to the abyssal plane, many thousands of feet deep.

Our guide, Erlendur Bogason, discovered this massive white formation in 1997. When hydrothermal vents were first encountered in 1977, the scientific community was amazed to find entire ecosystems totally isolated and, more important, not dependent on sunlight. Microbes and other unicellular organisms that live in this total darkness use chemicals from the hydrothermal vents as a means of energy instead of sunlight, a phenomenon that has been studied for clues to the origin of life.

Strýtan is a white smoker, due to the white color of the clay mineral smectite carried in hydrothermal vent fluids. These fluids circulate through the oceanic crust under high temperatures and pressures, which causes them to saturate with lots of crustal elements and minerals. Upon mixing with cold ocean water, these minerals coagulate and form the chimney. The hot water — 176 degrees F — that seeps from the top of the vent causes a visible thermocline; if you’re careful, you can warm your hands by removing your gloves.

The chimneys are not the only things that make this one of the most spectacular dive sites on the planet. Big schools of pollock and cod circle the site, massive wolf eels emerge from their caves, and every rock is covered with anemones and sponges. This is how our seas should look — like a garden of life.

During our last dive, Bogason opens a thermos and fills it with the hot water. Back on the boat, he adds a chocolate mix just as a humpback decides to honor us with a visit, surfacing an arm’s length away. This is diving in Iceland.

Need To Know

  • When to Go: Silfra is good year-round. Other sites, April to October.
  • Dive Conditions: Silfra always offers perfect visibility; ocean diving is hard to predict and highly variable. Viz ranges from 6 to 80 feet.
  • Operators: Dive.is (www.dive.is), in Reykjavik, does diving and snorkeling day tours to Silfra and other sites, as well as packages and multiple-day land and sea tours all over Iceland.
  • Price Tag: Dive.is’ 10-day tours start at about $3,650. Silfra Snorkel costs about $120; other multiple-day tours start at about $720 for a three-day tour.

Operation No Fear: Diving with Oceanic Whitetips

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

By the time I realize what’s happening, it’s too late.

Tunnel vision is instant: The last thing I remember is the blunt end of an oceanic whitetip shark scratching an itch against my fins — my yellow it-won’t-be-a-problem fins. Normally these fins are so dependable that they don’t warrant a second thought — it was only their bad-as-a-banana color that gave me pause a few days ago when I packed for Cat Island. I knew this Bahamas trip would be different. In places like Nassau and Grand Bahamas, Caribbean reef sharks have become habituated to systematic feedings. The sharks showing up are all regulars, where every handler knows their names — it’s like Cheers, except the cold ones are herring.

In open water, the rules are different. There aren’t any — only procedures based on predictability. Sharks here act more on instinct, less on habit. Pink, baby blue, yellow or other light-colored fins could be interpreted as fish.

Luckily, sharks’ body language is as subtle as a pickup artist. With these predators, a sleek pectoral fin angling downward signals that all bets are off — and the hunt is on. Those same fins slicing horizontally away from the body is good.

This is called polite feeding, and it’s the only behavior Stuart Cove’s allows guests to experience, whether at its Nassau hub or satellite Cat Island operation, run by Beto M. Barbosa and Charlotte Faulkner with boat captain and all-around chill guy Alvin Duncanson.

Earlier that morning, I was the opposite of anxious as White Bungi, the 46-foot-long custom-built Newton, carried us 13 miles offshore of Columbus Point, an idyllic white-sand crescent. It’s a spot favored by big-game fishermen for the same reason we’re here now, engines idling.

At 70 feet, the reef gives way to a 3,000-foot abyss where anything can appear — the closest on-ramp to a superhighway of life.

And it’s officially spring break: For a few magical weeks in April and May, it’s Tunas Gone Wild, a migration of epic proportions. Big-game fishermen score. And the oceanics, practiced hunters that are opportunistic by default, know how to take advantage. It’s little wonder these sharks have made headlines picking off shipwreck victims.

That same energy-saving instinct brings them to Columbus Point. Just as Caribbean reef sharks have learned what it takes to score a handout from a chain-mail-clad feeder, so too oceanics understand what happens when a big haul is on the line, snatching the marlin, sailfish or other prize just before it’s lifted from the salt water.

Anglers in the Billfish Blast tournament held here every May label them as pests. But it’s all that fin flapping and those pulsing hearts that attract the oceanics — and the reason that Stuart Cove’s has started tours here.

Dive teams intentionally replicate the actions of a fishing boat, including gunning the engine into reverse.

“All the cues are there, so the sharks are confused,” Faulkner says. “They’re like, ‘Where the frig is the line?’”

Trickle Down Theory

The process starts with a slick of menhaden oil — a fish-attractant that smells like wax and is as common here as white ice chests. Next comes chum.

Barbosa slides a glove on, and then secures a hunk of mahi against a cutting board while perching off the swim platform. Down comes the hatchet as he flings bloody bites of sushi into the flat sea.
Sometimes the sharks appear right away — or, rarely, not at all. It’s the wild, not Disney World. Today it’s only 20 minutes before the first dorsal fin cracks the surface. We climb into our gear, and then plunge in behind Barbosa.

There is a system for the dive: An aluminum cube holds enough enticing scraps to persuade the predators to stick around. Tis is the worm on the hook — the bobber is a standard tagline buoy, which lets surface support know where the divers are at all times because the buoy is tethered to nothing. The whole show travels.

Barbosa keeps a light grip on the line connecting the bait box to the buoy. He stays at the center of the action, and can dole out fish bits if the sharks appear to lose interest — unlikely, given that it’s also raining chum. When Duncanson brings the boat near the group, Faulkner lobs tuna heads and skins into the mix, helping photographers get the open-jaw shots.

For me, the trickle-down of meat is just another obstacle to avoid. I keep it in mind when I first get in the water — when things are still quiet.

Swimming with oceanic whitetips requires mental gymnastics: Just as a juggler stays mindful of every brightly colored ball lobbed aloft, a diver must swivel one’s head about, keeping an eye on the ever-swimming sharks. As a species, they are known for nudging — then attacking — the unsuspecting. But they always knock first.

It’s polite feeding, remember?

In the water, tracking one shark is easy. Then it’s two. Three and four make me thankful for my second cup of coffee. Five and six make me wish I’d thought of a better system of staying aware of their positions. Photographer Elly Wray and I had considered diving with our backs up against one another so we wouldn’t be caught off-guard, bumped from behind. When the dive started, this seemed silly. Now I scan for her. Her hooded head is fixed behind the camera, strobes firing. She’s happy in her element.

That’s one of my first mistakes: I had been watching my buddy, not the sharks, when I first spotted the female whitetip who had me in her scope, pressing steadily forward. With each flick of her tail, my heart beats faster. And yet, this is why I’ve come. The primal rush of a shark approaching, unafraid, is a high that divers rarely encounter on a reef; most sharks keep their distance, darting away when spotted. Photographers call this head-on approach the Mercedes shot. Experience it, and it will be imprinted on your memory.

Right now, as this graceful powerhouse swims closer, it’s like watching target practice. I know it’s just a matter of seconds before it will veer away. Right? And just like that, doubt creeps in, quickly replaced by the sweet smell of panic — at least from the shark’s point of view.

She noses against my fins. I get the bright idea to use that soft plastic to swat her. That plastic is as deterring as a flopping fish, which, incidentally, is exactly what my fins must feel like.

If this were a movie, this is where there would be frames missing.

When I finally snap out of it, I realize I’m gripping Barbosa’s forearm. With his fingers tight against his chest, he makes the smallest OK sign. A question. I nod. With a flat hand, he gestures a reminder to slow my breathing.

Suddenly, the lessons come back. I have been diving with sharks a dozen times. I know the drill. Don’t show fear. Make yourself appear big. Yet I feel so small. The only positive thought flickering through my mind is that as long as I’m clinging to Barbosa, we must look like a giant fish. My other happy thought is that at the rate I am breathing, my tank will soon be low, even though we’re only at a depth of about 15 feet.

Strangely, this starts to relax me. With Barbosa as my personal bouncer, I’m free to admire these pack animals. Their fins are so long that they remind me of outrigger canoes. Oceanics have a cool, faux-aloof confidence — watching them in their natural habitat is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I suddenly realize how lucky I am. Fifty minutes into the dive, and the sharks still have demonstrated only curiosity, never aggression.

Scanning the group again, this time I see I’m not the only one who made a fashion faux pas. Another member of our group is sporting yellow fins, and he too has the unyielding attention of a shark that demonstrates all manner of pliability as it checks him out. But when the rest of the paparazzi approach this twosome of diver and shark, it’s too much stimuli, and the shark resumes swimming wider circles around us all.

When my air supply is sufficiently low, I signal to Barbosa. Once I’m safely back on the boat, I stop shaking. By the time I down a bottled water, the rest of the gang is aboard — it’s time for the halftime show.

Sharks are like houseguests: Once invited, they get cozy until the cupboards are bare. And right now, we’re packing two Rubbermaid coolers full of fish. The photographers ready their cameras, lowering the domes halfway into the water for over/under shots. The chum-slinging resumes, only this time, the chorus of oohs and ahs is audible.

Memory cards soon fill and residual nitrogen depletes. It’s time for dive two — only now jumping in requires trying not to land on a shark’s backside, their noses nearly pressed against the transom.

Other divers plop in, but I can’t bring myself to giant-stride smack into the middle of circling sharks that have been served only appetizers. While the others take advantage of round two, I join Faulkner on the bow. We’re mere feet from snapping jaws, but from this vantage point, I can re-collect my courage. It’s secondhand experience, but right now, it feels first rate.

Hours later, we make the 40-minute drive east from Hawk’s Nest Marina to Greenwood Beach Resort, a rustic, charming inn favored by Europeans. Dinner is served just after dusk, and I take solace stuffing my face: warm conch fritters, potato soup, lobster dinner and coconut-cream pie. Comfort food. I return to the room, belly bulging, and climb under the cool sheets, nodding off as Wray reviews her images and gives me a pep talk. She admits that she was surprised at how afraid I was, especially given how many years I have been strapping on fins and tanks.

As tiredness sets in and I think about tomorrow, part of me wants nothing more than to walk the white-sand beaches — the ones that Bahamas is famous for — and forget all about sharks.

But it’s not beaches I dream about. When I finally fall asleep, I’m picturing a fearless version of myself — in black fins.

I Am Not Bait

Take two. Morning at Hawk’s Nest Resort and Marina. The Stuart Cove’s crew has already set up our gear. As we embark on the hour-long boat ride, I take advantage of the fact that Andy Brandy Casagrande IV

is on board to shoot video. The GoPro-sponsored daredevil makes a living being fearless around sharks, including swimming outside the cage with great whites. Of course I hit him up for advice on how to be fearless around the sharks. Or for me, perhaps simply less fearful.

He says the biggest thing is to not think or act like bait. The sharks will pick up on that instantly. And with that, I find my mantra: I am not bait.

Faulkner answers another prayer: She hands me a pair of fins. Dark blue ones.

In the water, the first few passes the sharks make are a simple display of power — Lamborghinis doing warm-up laps. I work to make my buoyancy as perfect as possible. I want to avoid needless kicking, so I make like a statue and simply watch.

Sharks are funny. Anyone who has swum with them confidently likens them to dogs. Puppies even. Part of me understands. When interacting with us, they are harmless. They rub against divers to get a reaction.

I think they’re more like cats: curious and seemingly packing an agenda. They’re processing infinite amounts of complex data in any given moment. They scheme.

This occurs to me as I watch them twitch their freckled snouts. The movements are small, almost imperceptible. Te sharks are angling their noses and bodies into different positions, like rotating satellite dishes, to provide better positioning for their jelly-filled, cuplike receptors — the ampullae of Lorenzini. This is how they smell fear.

It’s this moment that I want to hold onto. I’m watching my fear swim around me, and it’s beautiful.

4 tips for shooting oceanic whitetips

1. Stay Shallow Oceanics are most territorial — i.e., more likely to come 
in close — from zero to 10 feet. This is also the sweet spot for surface reflections, or dappled light on their backs.

2. Don’t Chase Pursuit will only scare the sharks away. The electrical field emitted by your strobes should attract their curiosity.

3. Body language showing too much confidence might prevent a close encounter. Break eye contact from time to time. Letting your guard down (just for show) should bring them in.

4. Strobe Strategy Your camera-to-shark distance can change instantly. Be prepared to reposition and change the output of your strobes from close to camera at low power for a dome-bumping pass to wide set at high power when they’re farther away.

NEED TO KNOW

When to go Oceanic whitetip sharks flock to Cat Island in April and May, coinciding with the tuna migration.

Diving Conditions April and May temps average 75 to 80 degrees F. Visibility extends 70 feet or greater.

Operator Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas (stuartcove.com) brings a custom-built, 36-foot Newton to Cat Island, running trips through
 Hawk’s Nest Resort and Marina.

Price tag From $2,082 per person for 4 nights/3 dive days.

Diving the Bermuda Deep

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

We had been planning this dive over our entire careers.

Our Mission: Descend more than 200 feet in open water, find the peak of a majestic volcanic seamount, then drop to below 450 feet to search for signs of ancient sea levels on what was once a small Atlantic atoll. Our dive would more than double the depth of previous underwater expeditions into the secretive Bermuda Deep.

Biologist Dr. Tom Iliffe and I scanned each other for bubbles and positioned our open-circuit bailout regulators within close reach. We nodded, with a last look at the support team on board the Pourquois Pas – “Why not?” – the name etched on the transom. I chuckled to myself. Iliffe and I glanced at each other, dumped the gas from our wings and rocketed downward, racing to ensure every possible moment would be spent gathering data and documenting our work. I filmed his descent from above, a tiny figure disappearing into the void.

Bermuda ranks high in the history of deep-sea exploration, yet technical scuba and rebreather diving is completely new here.

In 1934, Otis Barton and William Beebe made a record-breaking descent in Bermuda to more than 3,000 feet in their crude metal bathysphere. We would follow in the footsteps of a more recent, unmanned ROV, dispatched by Iliffe as part of a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration mission to find Bermuda’s hidden underwater caves, to explore links between their prehistoric shorelines and the island’s unique cave ecology.

While famous for its caves, Bermuda does not permit recreational cave diving. This is based on efforts to protect these remarkable environments and the life within them. Bermuda caves are biodiversity hot spots for at least 25 critically endangered species, some of which are endemic to a single room in a single cave on the planet. As a result, only a few fortunate scientists and researchers are granted rare collecting and work permits allowing diving with the support of local guides. In this way, the underwater galleries and tunnels of Bermuda will be preserved as delicate time capsules of unique forms of cave-adapted life that might teach us about survival, evolution and the history of our planet. Our hope was to uncover caves or the evidence of former caves in the depths of the bank and seamounts, and perhaps reveal a migratory pathway for the unusual creatures still thriving on Bermuda today.

Iliffe and his team already had mapped the island’s walls and seamounts using side-scan sonar. Following the best leads, he deployed the ROV to create a video preview for targets we should dive. This unprecedented information gathering allowed us to focus on key features of interest to the mission’s scientists. Two years of advanced underwater imaging have brought us to the day’s objective.

The Dive Begins

Dangling his legs from the swim platform in the azure Caribbean water some 18 miles southwest of Bermuda, Iliffe quietly checked his equipment. An attentive safety diver assisted him as he prepped for what would be a challenging dive.

“Can you reach the clip for my bottom-left bailout bottle? I’m having trouble,” Iliffe said. “My sledgehammer seems to be in the way.”

In a calm but firm voice, dive-safety officer Brian Kakuk reminded us that this would be the last deep mission of the project.

I understood his inference: Often it’s the final dive of an expedition that seduces divers into unnecessary risk. Intent on completing all of a mission’s tasks, divers sometimes cut corners. They let the pressure lure them into dives that should have been shelved.

Kakuk was reminding us to keep cool and come home safely. If we had to abort this mission within a hair’s breadth of success to ensure our safety, we would.

Iliffe’s face is barely visible under the increasing load of equipment, now well over 250 pounds. He looks like a Transformer. I run through my own mental checklist. Rebreather: Checklist done. Four bailout tanks: Check. Camera on the transom: Check. Video lights, camera strobes, sample bag, measuring tape, reel, lift bags: All checked. Checked. And double-checked.

With my Sentinel rebreather, bailout tanks and video gear, gravity is not my friend. Slipping off the platform, it’s a relief to hang weightless, the bulk of my equipment suspended and neutral. Support diver Gil Nolan swims in a tight circle around me, giving me a final look, tugging on my gear, then nods approval to Kakuk. Alex Chequer from the Bermuda BioStation radios the Fisheries Department and the hospital, informing them that we are ready to descend. You could cut the tension with a knife, but it’s reassuring to know the entire island is on standby, supporting us with a safety team some 35 miles long.

The Challenger Bank

We reach the timeworn peak of the formidable Challenger Bank in less than three minutes.

A lonely lionfish hunkers in the clumping masses of coral where our hook jerks and bounces, dangling slightly, taut at its maximum reach. The orange surface marker is long out of sight, bobbing overhead on the waves marking our position. Moments like this make me acutely aware of my humanity, swimming awestruck in a place that has been out of reach until now.

Iliffe swiftly ties on his cave-diving reel and flies out over the precipitous drop. It seems like an eternity before he lands on a tiny crag at 460 feet, with the endless wall sloping infinitely downward and out of sight.

He locks off the dive reel, positions his mesh bags and tools and then intently goes to work. I train the camera on my usually reserved friend, preparing to document careful sampling. But Iliffe is like a Walmart shopper crashing through the door on Black Friday. We have only minutes at this depth, and he’s making the most of every breath. Hammer swinging and arms flailing, he grabs rock samples and delicate coral twigs. As though he were loading Noah’s Ark, he bags sets of animals, ensuring he has at least two of everything new or interesting.

I alternate between photographing his feats and the delicate wall, covered with fragile purple hard corals and crusting fiery sponges, flaming in bursts of color. Schools of curious jacks zip around us, while huge crab-eating permit reflect the sultry light back toward us. In this previously unexplored twilight zone, there is no shortage of extraordinary life.

Iliffe collected more than 50 species of plants and animals on those dives that today are yielding new discoveries for Bermuda, some previously unknown to biologists.

Geologists are studying our photographs and rock samples, trying to piece together the changes in sea level over time. Examining deep cave structures and wave-cut notches, they can now determine when sea level was at its lowest point.

The first glimpse into Bermuda’s netherworld suggests that exploration and discovery are still in the very early stages. Future work will focus on determining how the unique life in Bermuda first populated remote island caves.

Did cave-adapted animals migrate upward from deep ocean vents? Did they swim through tiny spaces within the matrix of rock? Or did they arrive in some other way?

We know more about outer space than we know about the pristine Bermuda, Argus and Challenger banks. Yet for those of us lucky enough to be working there, Bermuda Deep offers the chance to join the ranks of aquanauts on the edge of underwater discovery.

Tec Diving in Bermuda

Enrolling in a technical-diving class is one way to experience Bermuda’s rarely dived locations. Deeper dives are generally conducted on the sheer walls around the margin of the Bermuda Bank. Bermuda sits atop a large platform, so these dives are generally farther offshore than dives in recreational depths.

The ultimate tec dive in Bermuda is a visit to Argus Tower, some 35 miles southwest of the island. The peak of this volcanic seamount is reached at 192 feet; on it lie the remains of a submarine communications tower. With swarms of fish, including some large pelagics, this spot also attracts fishing boats seeking a prized catch.

Bermuda also has a very active scientific-diving community that is increasing its efforts on the front lines of the lionfish invasion. Researchers and technical divers have discovered a robust breeding population in the matrix of corals in the 200-foot range. Scientific and research organizations say they will appeal to qualified divers to aid in research and trapping.

Need to Know

You can dive year-round in Bermuda, but the most active season is May to October. Daily dive charters are available during the high season, but check ahead for scheduling. Water temperatures range between 65 degrees F in the winter and 82 in the summer, with visibility from 60 to 150 feet. Late-summer visibility is the lowest of the year.

TRIANGLE DIVING

trianglediving.com

BLUE WATER DIVERS & WATERSPORTS

divebermuda.com

DIVE TEK LLC

441-705-3536

OCEAN SUPPORT FOUNDATION

For information on conservation efforts: oceansupport.org

Advanced Adventure: Fjord Diving in British Columbia

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Lords of the Fjords

Past the century mark now, and still we drop. Time slows but my heart rate quickens as we leave light far behind. Into the void, past pale, twisted, unrecognizable shapes. The darkness is visceral. I’m breathing in a blackness that seeps through me, painting even the insides of my eyelids black. One hundred and fifty feet, then 160. Finally, a burst of red, then another, and another deeper still. Gorgonian sea fans light up the night like flaming cotton candy. Extending from the wall in sprays and arcs, they are exquisite, and seemingly out of place in this cold, harsh nothingness. Also clinging to the vertical face are cloud sponges, huge masses of spiked, trumpet-shaped tubes glowing ghostly white and gold. My unfettered imagination sees gigantic melting candles in a macabre dungeon, or pearly flowstone formations oozing through a subterranean chamber. Spindly-legged crabs clamber about this convoluted kingdom where rockfish stare suspiciously at us and something else moves wraithlike along the wall. The scenery is mesmerizing, alien.

Then my computer’s depth alarm sounds, loudly breaking the spell. I had programmed it for a wake-up call at 180 feet. The pull to keep descending is seductive, but more beeping and blinking jangles my nerves and reminds me our time is up. We signal each other game over, and begin a long climb back to the surface.

Twenty minutes of deco later, we’re welcomed back by Kal Helyar, master and commander aboard Devilfish. “And how was it? Did you make it to the sea fans?”

Waddling back to the bench, I plonk down and spit out my reg, grateful to take a load off.

Haltingly, as if I’m struggling to recall the power of speech, I answer, “Awe … some. Yes.”

“Scary and beautiful,” my wife, Melissa, says. “And strange,” I add. I breathe deeply, inhaling the pure scent of rain on a brisk February wind, seasoned by the tang of salt air. Helyar gets some hot chocolate into us, and then a veritable novel comes pouring out, beginning and ending with “amazing.”

Deep in the Emerald Gloom

We’ve come to Canada’s rugged Sunshine Coast northwest of Vancouver for a midwinter escape from the rain and cold, and to push ourselves with challenging dives like the aforementioned descent into the Powerlines in Agamemnon Channel and — if the fates are kind and the tides align — Sechelt Rapids in Skookumchuck Narrows. This is fjord diving. There’s no better place to do it, and no one better than Helyar to point you in the right direction, which usually is down. He and his wife, Ann Beardsell, own Porpoise Bay Charters and Strong Water Retreat near the tiny town of Egmont on the Sechelt Peninsula. Having dived BC’s inland waters for 25 years, they know the current-swept passes and deep reaches intimately.

Over a hearty breakfast we reminisce on yesterday’s out-of-body experience and waves of terror among the eerie sponges, and how fear gave way to fascination. Helyar smiles and says, “We’ll get you back there for another splash, but today let’s do the Chaud and then shoot the Skook. Decent slack in the afternoon, so we’ll go deep first, then fast!”

The Chaud, officially the HMCS Chaudiere, is a 366-foot-long Canadian destroyer escort and a survivor of the post-WWII nuclear blast tests in Bikini. It’s currently stationed below the waves, precariously perched on a steep slope off Kunechin Point, where its bow hangs off a ledge at 140 feet.

I first dived the Chaud just a month after it was intentionally sunk in 1992 — 23 years later, it looks better than ever as we follow the ship’s starboard flank downward from 60 to 100 feet. The water temp is 45, and viz about the same. Orange and white plumose anemones sprout a foot tall from railings. Smaller anemones and glassy tunicates coat its svelte sides, shimmering and winking back the light from our roving LED cannons. Perch flitter out of our way; lingcod remain in loiter mode, unfazed by our intrusion.

We bank hard left at midships to descend another atmosphere in the superstructure’s oppressive shadow. My guts lurch, and equilibrium goes out the window. My internal gyroscope temporarily scrambles, knocked off its axis. Lying at 90 degrees on its port side, deep in the emerald gloom, the Chaudiere can be disorienting. I pull out of my off-kilter swan dive at 135 feet, just above the mud bottom, shake my head to clear the cobwebs and stare upward right into doom: the massive twin barrels of the front turret guns, with me directly in their sights. Daunting and dramatic, it makes a killer shot. But it’s not easy to work both brain and camera down here, and all too soon my 28 percent nitrox mix is running low. If only we were on rebreathers.

Helyar and Beardsell host advanced divers of all stripes — trimix techies, power lifters lugging chandeliers of stage bottles, scientists doing three-hour, 300-foot submersions to study fragile deepwater sponges and gorgonians — including many keen to drift the Skook, our next stop.

Shooting the Skook

Under a leaky, leaden sky, we wind our way back up Sechelt Inlet. We’re not in any particular hurry because we have to wait for the tide. Grateful for the boat’s covered (and heated) cabin, we watch ribbons of fog weave through moss-bearded cedar and fir. A bald eagle materializes out of a low bank of cloud just above the dead-calm black water. “No real movement down here right now, but it will still be cranking up at the rapids. Time to relax, enjoy the scenery,” our captain advises. It is stunning country, mountainous and wild, like the backdrop for a Viking movie.

Sechelt Rapids is also known as Skookumchuck Narrows, or the Skook for short. In the First Nations’ language, skookum means strong.

Famous among daredevil kayakers, infamous among boaters and alluring to at least some divers, these are strong waters and — make no mistake — potentially dangerous. A Coast Guard boat flipped here in 2012, killing two people. Divers also have met their end here. Standing waves, whirlpools, downdrafts, layers of water racing in opposite directions — the current can scream up to 16 knots here, making these the fastest navigable waters in North America.

To dive the Skook safely and enjoyably, lots of things have to come together. Skill, experience and fitness are mandatory, as is a live-boat pickup. A good slack window really helps too. Winter’s smaller tidal exchanges are generally best in this regard, giving you longer slack time between ebb and flood tides, when water movement is at a minimum. Slack might be five minutes or 20, and some days it’s zero, switching directions without a lull. One can usually go with the flow for a few moments before and after the change, but you absolutely need to know when it’s time to end the dive.

Helyar looks at his watch, consults a well-thumbed book with current tables and then throws an oyster shell overboard. We watch it sink, fluttering back and forth, but with an obvious sideways trajectory to its descent. The ebb current is still too strong along Observation Wall, probably the most popular Skook site within the Narrows. Melissa and I are ready to go, but the old shell trick tells us to wait.

A few minutes later we’re given the green light. Into the drink, with no dallying at the sur- face. We bomb straight down to 50 feet and press tight up against the wall. There’s just a hint of the dying ebb. With military precision, Helyar has dropped us in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. We smile, thanking the oyster that gave its life for our safety and enjoyment.

And so begins our swim through a kaleidoscope. It’s a living, tentacled mosaic of thousands of anemones in red, white, pink, yellow and green, stretching left and right, up and down. Sponges, urchins and sea stars compete for real estate. Life is stacked upon life, a common theme at BC’s best dive sites. I see kelp greenlings and rockfish nonchalantly dancing about in the water column — it will be a different story in half an hour when they have to hunker down like sponges once the maelstrom returns. We spy gobies and sculpins, nudibranchs and crabs, and a magnificent red Irish lord with bulging eyes speckled like a starlit sky. Twenty-five minutes drift by peacefully before someone grabs my fins and turns me around. A bit perturbed that my wife would play such a prank, I look back. But she’s beside me. An invisible, irresistible force begins pushing on my forehead, driving me back. Melissa makes an elaborate signal, two hands circling each other, spinning wildly, and then motions as if she’s sweeping plankton through the water. Impressive, but huh?

I realize I’m kicking now and just barely holding position along the wall. A kelp greenling zings past me to wedge itself snugly into a rock crevice packed with sponges and purple sea stars, their five arms gripping tight. The current has come calling. Our time is up.

Back on board, Helyar’s grin matches ours. “And how was it?” Melissa’s answer says it all: “Can we do that again?”

I blurt out, “And Powerlines too?”

“Sounds like a plan for tomorrow,” Helyar says. “Forecast is even calling for sun.”

Sun on the Sunshine Coast? Maybe, but I look forward to leaving the light far, far behind, deep beneath the sea.

WHAT IT TAKES

Part of being an advanced diver is being able to avoid damaging marine life. The fragile, delicate nature of many of the creatures found in this area makes operators hesitant to take careless divers to some of these sites — good buoyancy and spatial awareness are key. There’s plenty of current and depth in these inlets; the author cannot stress strongly enough the wisdom in diving with those who know these skookum waters. (Though this article focuses on advanced sites, the region also has many wonderful sites for novices and intermediates.)

NEED TO KNOW

When to Go British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast offers year-round diving. In general, fall and winter months have the best visibility (50 to 150 feet). Plankton blooms (more common in spring and summer) can reduce visibility, but it’s often still clear below a green surface layer. Topside weather runs the full gamut from cool and rainy to warm and sunny.

Dive Conditions The fjords are well-protected from open-ocean storms and swells. Water temperatures hover around 45 degrees at depth. Drysuits are a must, especially for wintertime multiday diving trips and the long bottom times often realized in technical diving.

Operator Porpoise Bay Charters (porpoisebaycharters.com) has unmatched expertise in these waters. It caters to divers of all skill levels, rec and tec, and is well-equipped to facilitate advanced diving. Cozy waterfront accommodations and savory home-cooked meals at Strong Water Retreat will satisfy all your needs above the waterline.

Price Tag Complete packages (diving, accommodations and meals) cost $250 Canadian per day.

FOUR TIPS FOR SHOOTING THE FJORDS

1 Be wary of the unique, rare and very fragile marine life at sites like Powerlines. Cloud sponges and gorgonians are easily killed by careless kicks, grasping hands, flopping gauges and flailing gear. Respect and protect to ensure these deepwater denizens will be there for the next shooter.

2 Balance your rig with foam floats or buoyant strobe arms. At sites subject to current, you’ll appreciate a neutrally balanced rig you can shoot with one hand — your other might be needed to hold onto bare rock or dead barnacles to keep you in position.

3 On the Chaudiere, keep your shot list simple and do your homework. Disorientation and frustration can snowball into trouble. Study a drawing of the ship. Take a slate with you on which you’ve sketched the wreck, your intended path, photo targets, and depths and locations of the fixed buoy lines.

4 Know your photo gear well. Practice on easier dives (or in a dark closet while wearing your gloves) so knowing which buttons to push becomes second nature. There’s no time to waste fiddling around when the slack-tide window is closing fast.

Diving Down Under: Australia’s Olwolgin Cave System

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

The adventure starts, as all Nullarbor trips do, with packing. Spare batteries — camera, strobes, primary light, backup lights, video lights, headlight for camping. Food — cooked and frozen pasta and stews, roasted nuts; don’t forget the washing-up bucket. Tanks and tents, underwater lights, drinking-water drums, a camping stove, hundreds of feet of guideline. There are no opportunities to buy on arrival when you’re on a road trip to the middle of nowhere. We will be completely self-sufficient for the duration of our stay, camping by the cave entrance, generating our own power and filling our own tanks. From my home in Melbourne, Australia, it’s more than 1,400 miles to Olwolgin Cave.

NULLARBOR BOUND

Most stories of diving the Nullarbor caves talk about the route. First, major multilane highways. Then, after Adelaide, gentle rolling hills and billboards. As the farmed greenery fades away nearly 1,000 miles later, options disappear. From here, it’s a single-lane highway snaking along the southern coastline of our continent.

We pass suicidal kangaroos and thundering road trains, and stop for the night in a tiny country town. Two days later we are on the Nullarbor proper, where the Southern Ocean crashes against high limestone cliffs.

The Nullarbor Plain was named from the Latin “null” and “arbor,” meaning “no trees.” It makes fat and feature-less into a feature. The limestone cliffs swerve inland from the sea, and we drive down onto the lower plains. From the highway turnoff, it’s a slower and bumpier journey along a dirt track.

The entrance to Olwolgin Cave is just under a mile from our campsite. After initial trips walking tanks between camp and cave in backpacks, some bright spark pointed out that the sandy walking track had become quite fat. The next trip out saw an explosion of wheelbarrows. The key to correct wheelbarrowing of dive gear is to move most of the weight over the front wheel, reducing stress on the arms. Of course, if you move all of the gear to the front, the wheelbarrow is almost impossible to steer and will tip over uncontrollably. Like many things in life, it’s a balance.

A FUZZY FRONTIER

Because we are down below the cliff line and close to the water table, the entrance to Olwolgin is a small depression rather than a massive doline. A rocky overhang shields two pools of water from the midday sun. Both were first dived in early 2002; the more promising-looking pool was declared a no-go — too small, with no way on. The smaller, harder-to-climb-into pool did the opposite — it opened up to a maze of shallow tunnels. Over the course of a few years and a lot of trips, the known extent of the tunnels was festooned with orange guideline, and the map rapidly expanded.

Unlike the clear-blue water and huge tunnels of the deep caves above the cliff line, Olwolgin features dark-green water. In some underwater caves elsewhere on the planet, divers can see a halocline — a clearly visible layer where heavier salt water and the overlying fresh water mix. In Olwolgin, this layer is dispersed through the tunnel, with the different salinity concentrations blending smoothly into each other. When we unavoidably swim through the mix, the disturbance creates a blurry layer of water that bends and traps light. I watch my buddy, Tim Muscat, swim past, seeing the wake of his gentle fin kicks in whirling fuzzy water behind him.

The mixing layers have created fantastic shapes, eroding the limestone at every level. But it makes photographs difficult — I cannot take a picture through water that someone has swum through. Instead, I find myself swimming hard up against one wall before turning into the middle of the tunnel and doubling back toward my following buddy. As long as both Tim and I keep moving forward into undisturbed water, the photos are clear and sharp. If I stop, the fuzzy mixing layer envelops the front of my camera housing. There are a few midwater collisions as we try to get the timing right. Tim is remarkably patient with my camera obsession. Distracting, unseen tunnels beckon left and right at every intersection of the guideline.

Tree roots from the surface have found their way down to the cave below, spreading out on subterranean surfaces until they drop into the depths under their own weight. The saltier layers farther down kill the roots, and the tree starts anew, growing another net of roots on the surface. The ghostly remains underneath form a fragile, tangled web hanging in the water. Signage reminds divers to swim along set pathways, ensuring that neither water movement nor a careless exhalation destroys these eerie creations. I try to get close enough for photos while staying far enough away to protect the roots from my presence.

A TALE OF TWO POOLS

The rest of the team is not here for photographs. After several years of exploration and new tunnel discoveries via the first entrance pool, the cave seemed to have given up most of its secrets. Then, on a trip in late 2010, original explorer Paul Hosie decided to have one more look into that promising pool on the other side of the depression. With years of familiarity with the cave and its small crevices, he pushed down a twisty underwater chimney and through nearly 200 feet of a very small fattener. With an epic effort behind him — and a long, zero-viz exit — he was rewarded with a massive tunnel ahead. Suddenly, the push for newly discovered cave tunnels was on again, and the “downstream” Olwolgin rapidly showed itself to be larger, longer and more complex than the originally discovered “upstream” side.

While the others eagerly push into unknown territory and find inter-connecting side passages, I rejoice in being able to maneuver my large camera housing through the very small entrance. The rock scalloping in this newly revealed side of the system is stunning, and bigger tunnels give more room to swim around the fuzzy waters. Tim and I have limited time, and we select the most photogenic areas to visit, capturing images of places seen only by two or three divers so far.

Over the past five years, downstream Olwolgin has been the gift that keeps on giving. The exploration frontier is now more than a mile from the entrance, with more than 5 miles of mapped passages. There are huge rooms that make you wonder what’s holding up the roof, and tiny restrictions to convince you that you’ve reached the end of the cave — until squeezing through reveals large, continuing passages. In places, the roof has one set of bubbles down the middle, evidence that the exploration divers swam straight through to new territory, and no one has looked closely at either wall yet.

It’s a stunning cave, and it’s a privilege to be the first to dive these unseen places.

WHAT IT TAKES

Olwolgin is classified as an advanced dive site. Bookings of qualified divers are managed through the Western Australia Department of Lands. By limiting the number of divers, each diver has a better experience underwater, and the impact on the cave is reduced.

To become qualified for cave diving in Australia requires three courses after your Advanced Open Water cert: Deep Cavern, Cave and Advanced Cave. Each has experience requirements and prerequisites. Divers with other cave qualifications can complete crossover courses with the CDAA; international visitors can obtain a visitors permit and temporary membership of the CDAA with a local sponsor.

5 TIPS FOR SHOOTING OLWOLGIN

Olwolgin is a challenging place to take photos, with green, blurry water and things like navigation to concentrate on. Photographing here takes special techniques to capture the cave.

1 Add more light Although the water is dark, the cave walls are white. By putting extra strobes on your buddy, you can extend the light beyond the camera and bring depth to the photos.

2 Keep swimming The mixing halocline layer will make every photo look out of focus. Keep moving forward into undisturbed water to get a clear shot.

3 Pre-focus Modern cameras are great at low-light focusing, but they still struggle in darker caves. Your buddy might not appreciate a primary light in her face for focusing each shot. Pre-focus the camera at the right distance, and snap happily.

4 Go wide Tunnels here can be large, but there are beautiful sights in the smaller areas too. The little tunnels don’t provide an opportunity to back up to capture it all, so a very wide-angle lens is key.

5 Be gentle Olwolgin has some beautiful and very delicate features such as tree roots and scalloped rocks. Before you get close to them to photograph, work out how to carefully approach each one, and think through how you’re going to swim away afterward without causing damage.

NEED TO KNOW

Olwolgin is a long way from anywhere, and there are no commercial operators running cave-diving trips to the region. PLANNING a trip to the Australian desert carries its own risks completely separate from the cave-diving experience. A car breakdown without appropriate EQUIPMENT can leave you stranded and in serious trouble. Things like additional spare tires, a satellite phone and an extensive first-aid kit should all come into consideration. From a diving perspective, there are no spares on site. The most innocuous failure (like a drysuit seal or a smashed prescription mask) can leave a diver sitting at camp while the rest of the team enjoys themselves underwater. Think through your kit and consider things you don’t have a second option for because they rarely break. Both the car trip across the country and the wheelbarrow trip into the cave can lead to unexpected gear breakage before you even hit the water. COSTS for diving here are not huge; the ACCOMMODATIONS come at the cost of a BYO tent. Fuel for the vehicle, a hotel room for a night along the way, and beer for your stay-at-home dive buddies so you can borrow their dive gear for extra spares are the largest expense items. TEMPERATURES can climb to more than 100 degrees during the day and drop below freezing at night at any time of year. So, although spring and fall tend to be milder, a warm sleeping bag and a big hat are essential. Once in the cave, the water stays a constant 61 degrees year-round.