Archive for the ‘Featured Travel’ Category

Belize Liveaboard Diving on the Sun Dancer II

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

The bell rings and we gather around the dry-erase board on the middle deck of Sun Dancer II like an amped-up soccer team. Second Capt. Megan O’Meara has created an illustration of Belize’s iconic Blue Hole, our first dive of the day. Sipping just-brewed coffee, I expect a briefing filled with secret caves, lost treasures and mythical creatures hiding in the depths.

I’m still waiting for a spine-chilling anecdote when O’Meara summarizes: “It’s basically a big blue hole, but the topography is impressive, and great for photography.”

She’s right. The 400-foot submarine sinkhole in the heart of Lighthouse Reef Atoll drips with underwater structures, stalactites and stalagmites. Yet, by our fourth day at sea, we’ve become a little spoiled. Where are all the sharks? It also doesn’t help that my GoPro has stopped working.

Back on board, a busted O-ring confirms my fears.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” O’Meara says. “I’ll never forget the time I was diving with a pod of dolphins and almost missed the whole experience because I was fussing around with my camera settings. I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to enjoy what’s happening around you.”

A SHARKY START

Belize is located on the Caribbean side of Central America, bordered to the north by Mexico. It’s easily accessible from the United States, with daily fights into Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Ladyville, a short drive from Belize City. From there, the Radisson at Fort George dock provides the perfect spot for a rum runner before boarding the Dancer Fleet’s 20-passenger dive yacht Sun Dancer II for five-and-a-half days of nonstop diving.

Our first dive of the trip begins at Site Y on the southwest side of Lighthouse, where we explore a wall that begins with a smooth, sandy bottom. On descent, stealthy moving shadows along the reef’s edge materialize into two feisty blacktip reef sharks. Greeting us like playful Labs, they circle our group in innocent curiosity, until they decide they are more interested in our cameras than us. After a few lens bumps, they depart as quickly as they arrived.

“I was so busy looking at the wall that I almost missed the sharks, until one of them just about clipped me,” my partner and dive buddy, Jamie Connell, says once we’re back on board.

Big-animal encounter complete, we aren’t disappointed in the wall either. With viz at 100-plus feet, we can see the reef is in such good shape — with the exception of a few lionfish not yet picked of by the crew — that it’s obvious the only people who explore these parts are the finned kind.

“It’s clear the Belize government has taken a lot of effort and care in protecting the marine environment,” says fellow passenger Caffery Joseph.

Indeed the reef speaks for itself. On our next dive along Half Moon Caye Wall, we spot a curious green moray eel weaving through the crevices of the coral, a couple of angelfish darting about on a supersize sponge, and a pack of tarpon showcasing its version of an underwater square dance. Of course, no wall dive is complete without an eagle ray drive-by — we get one of those too.

THE AFTER-HOURS CLUB

Belize is the perfect place to fine-tune your night-diving skills, to see another side of these untamed waters.

At dinner, forgo the unlimited wine for a night dive afterward. That’s when the ninjas come out to play. Basket starfish unfurl tangled legs into open water;octopuses and green moray eels hunt; and sleeping parrotfish tuck themselves safely away in their made-to-fit bubblelike cocoons.

“I saw sharks, turtles, eels and lovely coral,” says Caffery’s wife, Rebecca, after one of our evening dives, at Lighthouse’s Long Caye Ridge. “But the smaller fish were my favorites because there were so many of them.”

While the active critters at night are the big draw for many divers, some discover that not having the visual distractions of the daytime reef makes diving easier.

“I found that I went through less air,” Jamie confides. “It was also easier to navigate, knowing that many of the cool things weren’t far from the anchor line. Right under the boat I spotted a seahorse and an octopus, and caught a green moray eel tearing into some unfortunate fish.”

Caffery also experienced some firsts on the post-sunset dive. “Rebecca and I found an electric stingray — that was a first find for me,” he says. “And we saw a red seahorse, a pair of scorpionfish — very hard to spot, but cool when you can find them — and a school of squid, all of which are pretty amazing to find out in the open,” Caffery adds.

THE LAST FLING

As every diver knows, your next dive promises the possibility of being your best. For us, that comes during our final dive at week’s end, at Sandy Slope, west of Northern Lagoon in Turneffe Islands Atoll. Turneffe is the largest of Belize’s three atolls and the closest to the mainland. Sandy Slope is a popular spot, and we soon see why. All our favorite creatures make an appearance: A curious grouper follows us; a swirl of blue tangs darts along the reef; an octopus tries to blend in with a coral head; and a loggerhead turtle nibbles on sponge, with his angelfish sidekicks coming in from the back for scraps.

We hit our safety stop under the boat, and a 10-minute finale strikes up, from a 100-plus orchestra of horse-eye jacks. If you haven’t had the honor of hovering in the middle of a school of these silvery gents, add it to your list — you’ll get some killer video too. Burning my borrowed camera battery dry, we head for the surface.

Then, as if O’Meara had cued the encore herself, we are welcomed by a pod of dolphins playing in the wake of a passing boat. I hastily try to squeeze a last bit of juice out of my battery, but the camera stubbornly goes dark.

I start for the boat to grab a backup when I remember O’Meara’s advice, and stop to enjoy the next 20 minutes of dolphin time — and come away with one memorable surface swim that will be tough to top.

5 Reasons to Choose Belize Sun Dancer II

01 VIP DIVING

When you swim up to the ladder, don’t be surprised if one of the divemasters jumps in the water to remove your fins for you — the Aggressor and Dancer Fleet crews are known for their attention to their guests. Once you’re back on board, you can take a warm shower and dry of with a heated towel.

02 NITROX, NITROX, NITROX

Multilevel profiles make nitrox your best bet for making the five dives a day you’re likely to log. It also helps that you’ve got instructors on hand, so you can make the ocean your classroom.

03 BANANA BREAD

Each meal is like your very own feast (hello, taco night!) but nothing beats getting out of the water to warm, just-baked banana bread. Surface from your night dive, and you’re treated to a steaming cup of spiked hot chocolate.

**04 SO LONG, SOCIAL MEDIA! **

Even the biggest social-media mogul will secretly enjoy being forced to log of. Your best read for the next few days will be the good old-fashioned kind — a book.

05 DIVE BUDDIES FOR LIFE
Divers usually just like one another. “You spend the entire trip with the other divers, allowing you to get to know everyone on a more personal level,” says Caffery Joseph.

NEED TO KNOW

WHEN TO GO Belize’s high season is November to May, making hotel rooms cheapest June through November. If you’re looking for the big guys, peak whale-shark-sighting season is April to May.

DIVE CONDITIONS Visibility is affected by daily tidal changes, although seasonality plays a part; the clearest seas are March through June. Water temperatures hover between 78 and 82°F, with warmer readings in summer. A 3 mm wetsuit is recommended.

OPERATOR Dancer Fleet (aggressor.com) operates the 138-foot steel-hulled Sun Dancer II, which carries up to 20 people in 10 staterooms, and departs from Belize City, Belize. Trips run from Saturday to Saturday. Shared public areas include the galley for dining, dive deck and two
sun decks.

PRICE TAG Prices start at $2,495 per person, double occupancy, nitrox not included, for seven-night cruises with five and a half days of diving.

Underwater Secret Spot: Russia’s Vad Lake

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

Viktor Lyagushkin

Vad Lake

Russia’s Vad Lake is one of the best secret spots for divers looking for adventure.

Tucked away in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region is the otherworldly Vad Lake. For hundreds of years the lake, which is about 325 miles east of Moscow, was fed by two springs. One of the springs has collapsed, creating an immense sinkhole more than 150 feet down. The pressure of water from the remaining spring is so strong that it creates a convex lens above the surface of the lake. In the summer, this surface layer can be warm and murky, but a 33-foot descent reveals water so transparent, it seems as if you’re flying over land. To increase this sensation, I gave the diver brightly colored balloons to carry as he hovered above the blanket of green algae.

More Secret Spots:

Best Unknown Destinations of 2014 | Finning with Crocodiles | Alaska’s Many Moons

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.

Hawaii 2.0: A Beautiful Underwater Photo Gallery from the Big Island

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Here are 20 images I captured in September 2015, while diving off the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island from a liveaboard boat.

Last month I shared a gallery from the incredible manta night dive. The images in this gallery are daytime captures of reef and critters. I will be doing one more gallery from this trip, from night dives, which were great!

I hadn’t been diving in Hawaii since I was a newbie, way back in 1997 — long before I even dreamed of becoming an underwater photographer. I was pleasantly surprised to find some very pretty reef structure on some of the sites we dived, and an interesting array of marine animals to photograph. Although Hawaii does not have the amazing biodiversity of destinations like Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, etc., it does have a significant number of endemic species — that is, stuff that is only found in Hawaiian waters, and an impressive population of eels! I saw several varieties on this trip that I had not seen anywhere before.

Hawaii is an easy five-hour flight from hubs on the west coast. Our group chartered the Kona Aggressor, and had a fine time cruising up and down the west coast of Hawaii, enjoying the five dives a day on offer. The Kona Aggressor has an excellent crew, and is well set up for live boat diving (so no transferring self and gear to dinghies to get to the dive sites — all dives are done off the main vessel). The Kona Aggressor has also set moorings on the sites that they regularly dive, which is really great, as they are not damaging any reefs by repetitively dropping a big anchor on them. This is a standard that all live aboard and day boats should aspire to.


Judy G is a traveling underwater photographer. Check out her blog HERE and follow her on Facebook: Judy G Diver

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