Author Archive

The Bell Island Mine Quest Expedition      

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

By Robert Osborne


A superstitious person might believe that there’s some cosmic force at work trying to prevent the Bell Island Mine Quest Expedition in Newfoundland, Canada from succeeding, and it’s not an unreasonable conclusion. From the beginning, one natural force after another has seemingly conspired to oppose the project.

Readers may remember that the Bell Island Mine Quest project is an attempt by some of the world’s best cave divers to explore a long-abandoned and flooded mine and to re-open it for the dive community. At the same time, several groups of scientists are using the opportunity to study the effects of extreme diving on the body. It’s a project that’s been endorsed by the Explorers Club and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

But these lofty goals have taken a dramatic beating in the first few days of the expedition. It started with an epic snowstorm that locked down the entire province of Newfoundland on the day all the divers and scientists were supposed to fly in, with nearly 12 inches of snow falling on the airport at St. John’s within a few hours. Flights from around the world were cancelled, and divers Phil Short and Gemma Smith, arriving from the U.K., were stranded at the airport in Halifax for nearly 24 hours. Photographer Sabine Kerkau, flying in from Switzerland, was held up in Toronto, finally arriving at 3:30 in the morning. On the day the expedition started, the crew had to dig out the mine-shaft entrance before they could even start to take equipment down to the water line.

Then there were the windstorms blowing across Conception Bay. Each day, the team must catch a ferry across to Bell Island, but on February 16 the winds kicked up and the tiny ferry was cancelled — leaving more than half the team stranded for the night on a rocky island that has no operating hotels or restaurants. The winds kicked up again the next day and after abandoning our vehicles we managed to make it out just in time.

Today, the winds are supposed to hit 62 miles per hour.

And yet despite the constant adversity, the project has been making huge strides. Exploratory divers have laid down more than 1,200 feet of mainline in the mine. Others have begun to make an inventory of the artifacts that are being discovered, along with a photographic log of the treasures. A massive biological life mass has been discovered, and nobody is quite sure how it survives in the pitch dark.

DAN scientists have already made some interesting discoveries: the dives to this point have not been deep or long, and researcher Neal Pollock suggests that traditionally, people might assume that decompression risk would be low. And yet in this kind of cold water, with the divers under significant workloads, Pollock and his assistant Stefanie Martina are finding surprising decompression-stress indicators as they scan the divers.  What that means in terms of impact on dive tables and computers could be profound, potentially changing ideas on DCS that are currently based mostly on theory, not extensive field research.

So far the expedition has been a classic struggle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The unstoppable Bell Island Mine Quest discovery team has met the immovable object of brutal weather and so far has been able to prevail. Today, the team is relocating to Bell Island in an attempt to foil the weather gods, and we’ll feature more updates later in the week as this author finally dives the Bell Island Mine.

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Exploring National Marine Sanctuaries: Florida Keys

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

By guest writers Rachel Pawlitz, communications coordinator, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and Elizabeth Weinberg, social media coordinator and editor/writer, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

For more than 40 years, national marine sanctuaries have worked to protect special places in America’s ocean and Great Lakes waters, from the Hawaiian Islands to the Florida Keys, from Lake Huron to American Samoa. Backed by one of the nation’s strongest pieces of ocean conservation legislation, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the sanctuaries seek to preserve the extraordinary beauty, biodiversity, historical connections and economic productivity of our most precious underwater treasures. And — lucky for you — most of these places are accessible to recreational divers. Sanctuary waters are filled with unique ecosystems, harboring a spectacular array of plants, animals and historical artifacts, all waiting to be explored. National marine sanctuaries belong to everyone, so dive in.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In the crystal-clear waters of the Florida Keys, angelfish and butterflyfish dart among the corals of North America’s only living barrier reef. Scattered wrecks lie in testament to the risks the reef once posed to shipping. Rachel Carson called the Keys “America’s only coral coast,” and Ernest Hemingway famously fished its bounty. This unique region is protected by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1990 to preserve the coral barrier-reef ecosystem and these historic shipwrecks.

Today, the sanctuary encompasses 2,900 square nautical miles, including most of the Florida reef tract and surrounding seagrass beds, sand flats and backcountry mangroves. These stunning habitats support more than 6,000 marine species, from gentle manatees to mountain star coral.

Parrotfish and grunts are a common sight on spectacular spur-and-groove reefs found at Sanctuary Preservation Areas such as Carysfort, Molasses, and Looe Key. Patch reefs, such as Coffins Patch and Cheeca Rocks, are interspersed with coral and seagrass, supporting yellowtail, grouper and other fish that feed each night in seagrass beds. In the sanctuary’s Western Sambo Ecological Reserve, healthy stands remain of the once-abundant elkhorn coral. The sanctuary uses a network of zones with specific regulations to preserve the ecosystem’s health, so when planning your dives, check the rules on the sanctuary website for each location.

The reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are home to more than 500 species of fish, including young French angelfish like this one. (Photo credit: NOAA)
The nine historic ships of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail provide sanctuary visitors with an on-site history lesson. The remains of the City of Washington, which ran aground and sank on July 10, 1917, lie on Elbow Reef. Divers can explore the 325-foot-long wreck site and follow the contour of the ship’s hull. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Bursts of color are a common sight in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, as corals, gorgonians, sponges, fish and other marine species cluster in the sanctuary’s barrier reef. Here, a spotfin butterflyfish flits through the reef’s menagerie of colors. (Photo credit: Bill Goodwin/NOAA)
Extensive seagrass beds within sanctuary waters are home to sea stars and manatees alike. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects more than 50 species of coral, including the federally-protected staghorn coral. Divers in the sanctuary can help protect these threatened corals by avoiding contact with the reef: even a minor brush with hands or fins can damage these delicate animals. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Large, branching elkhorn corals support a diverse assemblage of other marine life within the sanctuary. These special corals are particularly susceptible to damage from sedimentation, so when diving, take extra care to keep from stirring up sand with your fins. (Photo credit: Todd Hitchins/NOAA)
Nurseries can help regrow coral fragments from certain coral species, allowing corals damaged during events like ship groundings to be rescued and used for restoration projects. Floating freely in the water while hung on “trees” made of PVC pipes improves water circulation between the corals, which helps prevent predators such as fireworms or snails, and increases their survival rate. (Photo credit: Mitchell Tartt/NOAA)
The topographic relief formed by stony corals, whose rigid carbonate skeletons build up the reef’s vertical structure, makes coral reefs excellent habitat for fish. Here, a school of French grunts seeks refuge from predators. (Photo credit: NOAA)
Pillar corals grow upward, forming what looks like fingers or columns. Swimming by these you might get to glimpse their polyps: extended during the day, these polyps give the coral a fuzzy appearance. (Photo credit: NOAA)
The remote coral reefs of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve are the crown jewel of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Clean, clear water and powerful ocean currents fuel the diversity of life in this region, from abundant coral to more than 400 species of fish. (Photo credit: Jiangang Luo)

The sanctuary also features the Shipwreck Trail, a series of nine shipwrecks dating from the Spanish Armada-era San Pedro off Indian Key to the scuttled Coast Guard cutter Duane off Key Largo.

When you dive in the Florida Keys, you can take care of this special place by using the sanctuary’s mooring buoys to prevent anchors from damaging coral and other sensitive habitats. If you are booking a charter, look for the sanctuary’s Blue Star certification and know that you’re selecting an operator dedicated to education and coral reef conservation. With over 700,000 divers and snorkelers hitting Keys waters annually, a little bit of extra care goes a long way. To preserve this unique area, the sanctuary is in the midst of modernizing its zones and regulations to ensure the Keys’ ecology remains intact for the next generation.

Experience the wonders of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other national marine sanctuaries via more photos here.   

Cover image credit: Steve Lonhart/NOAA


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Green Fins: Diving in Symbiosis with the Reef

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

By guest writer Samantha Craven, Project Manager, The Reef-World Foundation

Diving can open someone’s eyes to the beauty and fragility of the ocean ecosystem; the nature of the sport almost demands that we become more aware of major global issues like marine debris, coral bleaching and illegal fishing. And while the diving industry can represent an early-warning system for detrimental changes on the reefs, it can also cause significant damage to the very resource divers and dive shops rely on. Anchor damage, direct contact with coral and harsh cleaning products running onto beaches and into waterways are just a few of the threats diving can pose. While these impacts aren’t on the same scale as global threats like climate change, they do weaken the reef’s ability to withstand those bigger threats. “Reef resilience” is one of the latest catchphrases in marine conservation. Climate change is, without a doubt going to have a major impact on our reefs and, as divers, we can do our small parts to help slow this seemingly inexorable process. By following best practices, divers can significantly affect a coral reef’s resilience to these global threats.

What is Green Fins?

Green Fins, an initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme, provides the only internationally recognized environmental standards for the scuba-diving and snorkeling industry. It uses a unique three-pronged approach to marine conservation to enable these industries to become stewards for sustainable marine tourism.

Green certifications of dive shops

Over 400 operators across six Southeast Asian countries currently participate in this free membership program and have committed to improve their practices and protect coral reefs by following the Green Fins environmental code of conduct.

Members (operators) are supported by trained Green Fins assessors, who perform annual assessments to determine compliance with the code. This allows assessors and dive-shop managers to identify the biggest environmental threats in the area and come up with realistic solutions to put in place by the next year’s assessment. To maintain their Green Fins membership, dive shops must improve their environmental practices annually. By doing so, businesses in diving hotspots can drastically reduce the impacts of intensive reef diving by implementing solutions to everyday challenges.

From giving environmentally aware dive briefings to strictly enforcing a no-touch policy and installing effective garbage management, Green Fins provides a platform for businesses to share successful policies and access all the tools and materials they need to mitigate environmental threats and measure their improvement. Members that achieve the lowest environmental impacts will find themselves on the Green Fins Top 10 members list, making it easier for diving tourists to choose responsible operators.

This is not some “over the counter” accreditation. Their trained staff assessed our dive shop and divemasters on actual dives and made suggestions on how we can improve.” – Savedra Dive Center, Moalboal, Philippines

A dive center receives a Green Fins certificate
Green Fins flag on dive boat
Green Fins training staff in Vietnam
Guide correcting a customer
Guide giving environmental briefing
Responsible Divers on a Reef

Environmental education for dive staff

There are few dive guides around the world who are not intimately connected with the reefs that sustain their jobs; their passion and knowledge of their environment are part of what make reef diving such a successful industry. However, some guides feel pressure from management or their customers to allow bad behavior — touching or harassing marine life, touching coral — from their divers just to get that much-needed tip.

Along with the annual Green Fins operator assessment, the assessors provide training sessions for dive staff and boat crew. Staff learn about the importance of environmental standards, putting their extensive local knowledge about coral reefs in the bigger ecological picture. Assessors share tips and tricks for guides and boat crew to promote best practices to their customers, from giving environmental briefings and correcting damaging behavior, to sharing information about MPAs or the damage caused by anchors.

Dive staff are in a unique position to not only positively influence their peers and local communities, but also to teach divers fantastic lessons for low-impact diving, which they can use on future dive vacations. Next time you go diving, consider tipping your guide for their environmental positivity — and let them know you approve — as well as their customer service and you will go a long way to reinforcing that behavior.

We make more money as a company by following good environmental practices. We get good feedback on TripAdvisor specifically because of this and therefore attract more customers.” – Evolution Diving Resort, Malapascua, Philippines

Strengthening regulations

No one understands the shortfalls of environmental laws in developing countries like the diving industry. Divers can hear the dynamite blasts, see the ghost nets, and will often be the first to notice that there’s no patrol at that marine protected area. Green Fins is managed in each country by a National Management Team made up of governmental bodies and often supported by national NGOs, so the program offers the diving industry a chance to directly voice these concerns to the decision makers in a neutral setting, and perhaps collaborate to come up with practical solutions.

On top of this, Green Fins is a useful tool for these government teams when it comes to strengthening regulations governing the marine-tourism industry. This provides even more support for businesses that want to improve their practices. Together, the assessments and strengthened regulations represent the bottom-up and top-down approaches, and when combined, reach that conservation sweet spot for effective change.

While many of the Green Fins activities occur behind the scenes and out of sight, tourists are in the perfect position to push this movement towards sustainable diving. Choose a dive center that enforces environmental standards and tell them that’s why you’re there. Compliment and tip your guide when they help you avoid damaging the reef, and make sure you never add to the marine debris and plastic pollution that plagues the oceans. When the demand is there for sustainable diving, the diving industry will be more than equipped to supply it and, as a diver, you have a pivotal role to play in this revolution.

U.K.-based charity The Reef-World Foundation  has been working to inspire and empower people to conserve and sustainably develop coastal resources in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean for over 10 years. As the principle technical partner for the UNEP initiative, Green Fins, Reef-World has worked with national governments, the private sector and local communities to expand the initiative to six countries. To find out more about their work, please visit their website or like them on Facebook.

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How to Have Your Best Dive

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Much can happen to mar a dive. Equipment issues, aborting early, unrealistic expectations, buddy issues — each can play a role in wrecking what should be a fun experience. The following are some of the most common situations that lead to disappointment dive, and the best ways to avoid them and have your best dive.

Equipment Failure

All too often, divers suffer hours at a desk job, just dreaming of that next amazing dive destination. They finally arrive, and, just as they get ready to enter the water, a hose pops, a computer hasn’t synced, a fin strap breaks, or another minor calamity befalls them. What could have been an amazing dive is sacrificed while sorting through a gear issue.

These inconveniences, which can lead to worse problems underwater, can be prevented almost entirely by simply taking the time go to thoroughly check your gear’s condition before you’re ready to splash in. Does that mask strap look a bit sun-cracked and dried out? Replace it before an issue arises. And how many times have you heard, “I just had this thing serviced?!” Important as that may be, it’s equally important that you get the gear in the water, before your drive trip, and check to make sure it was serviced properly. Your gear is your life-support equipment; give it the care and attention it deserves.

Managing Expectations

I’ve seen divers return from a dive unhappy because they thought they were going to see whale sharks and mantas herding unicorns — an exaggeration of course — because they saw spectacular photos when they typed a dive destination into Google. Some are upset because the conditions — too much current, not enough current, poor visibility — weren’t to their liking. As traveling divers, the biggest favor we can do ourselves is to do some research, or contact a dive center in the area to discuss the conditions or what marine life we might expect. It’s best, though, to keep these expectations in check — just because whale sharks are frequently spotted in an area, doesn’t mean they will be on your dive. The ocean is a wild place, as we know, and each dive is best remembered for what it is, not for what it lacks.

If there is a certain animal you’re dying to see, make sure you find out the best time of year to visit, and time your trip for that season to increase your chances. Attending and remaining attentive during dive briefings can also give a diver a much better picture of what they can expect on their dive.

A Dive Ended Early

The most common reason for a diver to come to the surface before everyone else is simply that they just plain ran out of air. The best way to avoid this problem is to get some exercise — walk, run, hike, ride a bike, use a stationary machine. Get your body used to strenuous activity and focus on drawing slow, deep breaths.

When you’re on your next dive trip and you picture yourself as a majestic sea creature, moving slowly and precisely, you absolutely will notice a change in how fast the needle on your gauge drops. Sure, you can add more tanks, or get a rebreather, but don’t you want to get the most out of expensive equipment, too? Invest in yourself and stay active. It doesn’t cost anything and will give you a better return on your dives than any additional or larger tanks.

Dive-Buddy Woes

Diving with a buddy can greatly enhance your trip, but it can also cause problems that keep you from enjoying a dive. The biggest obstacle between buddies is communication.

You and your buddy should discuss dive plans, as well as contingency plans, and make sure you’re both on the same page. Have a firm understanding of what you’ll do if one of you can’t equalize, or if a piece of equipment or camera misbehaves, or you can’t find each other.

Often you hear frustrated divers complaining because their dive buddy was going one way and they wanted something else. The easy solution here is to share. Let one person lead one dive, and the other lead the next. When your buddy is in charge, let them plan the dive and make the decisions underwater; vice versa when it’s your turn. What if you and your dive buddy don’t have that kind of compatibility? Break up.

It is inconceivable to many that someone they have a crush on or their best friend might not be compatible with them underwater. This is actually often the case. Although some have trouble separating the two, diving isn’t dating. It’s okay to dive with other people. If you and your dive buddy aren’t getting along, rather than force yourselves into a frustrating and possibly dangerous situation, take a break and spend a dive with someone else.

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Say Goodbye to Fogging Dive Masks

Friday, February 12th, 2016

By guest blogger

What diver hasn’t envied the mythical mermaid (or merman), who’ve no need for oxygen tank and certainly no need to spit into a mask to see clearly? But, since divers don’t live under the sea — as much as we’d like to — we are pretty much stuck with the apparatus needed to enjoy the wonders of the deep. Now, as someone who loves the ocean, I’m sure you’ll agree that good gear makes for a good dive, with the same holding true for lousy gear laying the groundwork for a dive full of mishaps and misfortunes.

Most of us dive as a hobby, for the love of the sport…weekend warriors if you will. And since our free time is precious, we must make the most of what we’ve got, which means good pre-planning and good gear. Can you imagine arriving somewhere and realizing you forgot to fill the tanks? Highly unlikely.

Or, how likely are you to just show up at a dive shop with no reservation and expect to have it all come together and go? Also very unlikely. My point is that if you time, energy and resources into having a great dive experience, why would you risk having a fogged up mask?

Dive-mask fogging is an ever-evolving issue — there are better masks, better polycarbonates, anti-reflective lenses, and smart lenses, and yet the issue remains. And no matter how many articles are written on the subject, folks still fall back to that age-old remedy, spit.

Now, if you don’t mind winging it and hoping for the best, then spit might do you just fine. But, if your goal is to make the most of the experience, then why not use the best product available to combat fogging on eyewear.

Sven Can See is an innovative solution to combat fogging on eyewear. No matter the use, Sven Can See will solve the fogging issue. What makes this product so unique is that it uses no alcohol to solve the fogging problem. The folks at Sven Can See delved into to the root of the fogging issue and found a solution within nanotechnology, whereby they keep the water molecules that make up fog from crystallizing. No fog.

Sven Can See is also perfectly clear. Oh, and it has a really cool back story. You see, Scott Newman, the creator was looking for a name for his new product.  “When my daughter was really little,” Newman says, “I used to tell her bedtime stories of Sven the Mountain Climber.”

The key to success with Sven Can See is twofold. First, less is more, so use only a very little drop and rub it with your finger onto the entire lens surface. Next, you must apply it to a dry lens. And if you rest between dives, “dry and reapply.”

Sven Can See is the real deal. It’s a very cool product that has no alcohol, no ammonia and no odor. And it really works. And, if you are not 100 percent satisfied, Sven Can See has a money-back guarantee. Check it out today, and don’t let mask fog ruin even one more dive.

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