Monday, November 16, 2009

Living a dream in the deep

Fraser Debney and his friend wanted to get their advanced scuba rating quickly so they would not be excluded from some of the most interesting dives at southern resorts.

Open water divers (the beginning level) are restricted to a depth of 60 feet. With the advanced qualification, they could go down to 130 feet, “which allows you to participate in pretty much all the dives at a resort.”

Yearning to dive in warm-water locations with exotic sea life and colourful coral reefs, they began their course in April of 2009. They trained in Montreal, where Fraser, who grew up in Pickering, Ontario, now lives.

There was an added financial bonus to fast-track: “At the time I took the open water course, the dive club was offering a reduced rate for the advanced course if you bought both at the same time,” said Fraser. “As long as you passed the requirements, you could move up a step.”

Within months, Fraser was living his dream. His first such experience was with a Kissimmee, Florida –based dive shop. Leaving shore from Jupiter, on the Atlantic side, the boat took them on two reef dives in 90 to 100 feet of water. “On the first dive I saw a turtle about the size of a double bed.”

The reef creatures and colours of the coral were highlights, but the biggest rush came at the end of the second dive. Hovering with two other divers15 feet down for three minutes before resurfacing (to guard against the bends), Fraser saw three creatures in a triangular formation coming down the reef right at him. They were black-tip reef sharks and came within 25 feet of the divers before veering off. When they got to the surface Fraser asked his fellow divers if they saw the reef sharks. The boat crew responded quickly with “half a dozen hands” reaching out to help them aboard. When he returned home to Montreal he did some research and discovered that reef sharks usually hunt in groups of three.

To Fraser, taking diving training with a friend made a lot of sense because divers need to dive with a “buddy.” While dive boat operations can usually pair divers up, it’s nice to go with someone you know. And if you want to practise your skills between boat dives, a friend who’s a dive buddy just a phone call away is a bonus.

Fraser had been warned that the theory part of his diving courses would be boring, but he didn’t find it that way because he was so interested in the sport.

He did have to coax some of the younger instructors to teach the dive tables as a backup to a diver’s wrist-bound mini computer. With youthful attachment to all things electronic, they were used to wearing two computers to back each other up. But at a cost of about $500 each, Fraser felt it was cheaper to buy just one computer and learn the tables. The instructors complied and taught the dive tables.

During in-water training for his open water course, Fraser found his greatest challenge was to obtain “peak performance buoyancy,” which is maintaining a constant depth. He found that even the pace of a diver’s breathing (too fast or too slow) can affect this. “If it’s too fast – a panic type of breathing – you’re all over the place.”

When he did his open water test in the St. Lawrence River at Prescott, “six of us (student divers) were in the water waiting at specific points.” The instructor would come down and tap them on the shoulder when it was their turn and by the time he came for the fifth or sixth diver, the silt or mud at the bottom was churned up, restricting underwater visibility.

That test was in June. Three weeks later at the same location, they qualified as advanced divers.

Fraser had a bit of an edge on one element of the advanced course – the requirement for proficiency in the use a compass. Now retired from the military, he could call on the compass skills he was taught in the army. Still, plotting a course under water introduced different challenges. Compasses rely on the magnetic north pole as their base point in determining direction, so it’s important to be aware of metal objects that can result in errors in compass headings. For instance, a nearby metal sea wall could cause false readings. With visibility much less under water, it’s more difficult to see similar bearing-altering structures there. The test of compass reading skills involved swimming a square course underwater, with the diver required to come back to the starting point, plus or minus a couple of feet.

Fraser had no hesitation in signing up for both courses together because he knew from an experience in 1993 that he wanted to dive. Off for a few days leave while serving in the Canadian army in Egypt, he first experienced the sport at a resort there. It was a half-day excursion out on a boat in an enclosed area, in this case a small bay. They were given a tank and regulator, but no training or safety instructions. The dive group did have experienced divers that kept an eye on the novices as they went down about 30 feet. “All the things you learn safety wise, back then I had no idea about them.”

But beside the euphoria of his first diving experience in Egypt, there was another important benefit for Fraser in taking up scuba diving. He had suffered injuries during one of his deployments with the military that led to chronic pain and the ongoing need for medical care. “It was better for me and the military that I ‘medically’ retire,” he said.

“There has not been any other form of physical activity that I have been successful with in the last few years, without irritating my current physical issues. Swimming was one of the best things, and then the issue of scuba was discussed with my doctor,” said Fraser. “I have found that my pain virtually disappears when I am buoyant in the water. My doctor figures that the release of all weight on my damaged parts probably releases the stress put on the nerve endings, and thus the pain signals are blocked to the brain. Whatever the issue, it works and is a definite bonus for enjoying this sport even more.”

Fraser thinks scuba can help a lot of people cope with their pain. He was also amazed during one of his courses to see the mobility scuba gave to an older man in a wheelchair. “I watched him descend as able as any of the other divers without the use of his legs.”
While Fraser and his friend qualified at the higher level quickly, he has no aspirations to teach or dive professionally. “For me it’s strictly recreational. It’s calming and peaceful. It’s a totally different world underwater.”

Instead, he will pursue diving experiences in interesting locales. One of those was Santa Lucia, Cuba, where in October he hooked up with a dive shop called Sharks Friends. As the name suggests, this shop specializes in dives with sharks, specifically the more aggressive bull sharks. The weather was bad in the area where they find the sharks on the day he was scheduled to dive, so it was cancelled. The following day was fine but since it was within 24 hours of the time of his flight home, it would be unsafe for him to dive. He did see the videos of the dive master using an extended bar to feed the bull sharks, which the tourist divers watched from about 10 to 15 feet away. For their own safety, tourist divers are no longer allowed to feed the sharks themselves.

Earlier in his week in Cuba, Fraser did participate in a dive to a spectacular reef that the Cubans say is the second largest in the world. He went down 82 feet and the water temperature was 82 degrees. The marine life included a sting ray and “lots of blue lion fish. They’re taking over the reefs now and eat smaller fish.” They have long barbs that take on the appearance of a mane, and hence the name “lion fish.” He came within a few feet of them but didn’t know at the time that their sting is poisonous.

Fraser also swam into a small cave where he encountered the biggest lobster he had ever seen. His dive buddy declined to enter the cave and explained later, “It’s nice to go into them but you don’t know what’s coming out in the other direction.”

During a January visit to Las Vegas, he plans to dive in Lake Mead, a reservoir created when the Hoover Dam was built. “They pretty much buried a city. There’s a cement factory there and it’s all under water.”

While trips of this nature and relief from pain are what drive Fraser’s diving aspirations, there are a variety of reasons why people take up scuba. A case in point was a woman in Fraser’s class in Montreal. She wanted to overcome her feelings of terror for the water.

It worked.

“She did very well.”

Kathy Dowsett

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Urgent Help Needed to Protect Lemon Sharks!

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Sponsored by:
Coalition of scientists, divers and shark conservation groups

Lemon sharks aggregate off the East Coast of Florida every winter. They are an enormously popular attraction for scuba divers, giving a welcome boost to Florida's struggling recreational diving industry. But commercial fishermen are gearing up to target lemon sharks now. The primary purpose for this harvest is for their fins, which is a cruel and wasteful use for this animal. We need your support to stop the slaughter !Research with satellite tags shows that the lemon sharks' winter aggregation is composed of individuals from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and the Bahamas. These large gatherings occur in a relatively small area off Palm Beach, close to shore and within a highly predictable time frame. This makes them easy targets, and scientists studying Florida's Lemon Shark Aggregation fear that commercial fishers can wipe out the lemon sharks in just one or two seasons.Till now the commercial lemon shark fishery has been tiny -- less then 15,000 lbs annually nationwide. The Sandbar Shark, which is now protected, has had a commercial annual quota of 2 million pounds. Because of the new protections for Sandbar Sharks and other fish, commercial fishers have clearly stated their intention to re-direct fishing effort to lemon and other large sharks.Large coastal sharks, including lemon sharks, hammerheads, bull sharks and tiger sharks, have already suffered massive declines of over 90% in the past 30 years, and are badly in need of protection.The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is seriously considering adding Lemon Sharks to the Prohibited Species List and your support is absolutely critical!!If you value sharks and want to help save these beautiful and ecologically important animals, please sign this petition. And if you will be in Florida on October 19th - 20th, please attend one of the FWC Public Lemon Shark Workshops . Everyone is welcome to attend!Oct. 19th - Fort Myers, FL - 6pm - 8pm - Joseph P. D'Alessandro Office Complex, 2295 Victoria Ave.Oct. 20th - Dania Beach, FL - 6pm -8pm - IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, 300 Gulf Stream Way.

Kathy Dowsett

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Diving and Driving

The fishing harbour in Nha Trang.Image via Wikipedia

How does a guy who drives a transport truck between Montreal and Texas find time to teach scuba diving in Southeast Asia?

“I half-retired from driving,” says Guy Dumas, smiling warmly during a break at a truck stop off Highway 401 on his way back to Montreal.

By that he means he now confines his driving to the six-month period between mid-April and October. He spends the other six months in Southeast Asia, mainly Vietnam, indulging in his passion for scuba.

Guy was introduced to the sport when he moved to the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Magdalen has perhaps the highest percentage of scuba divers of any place in the world. Of its population of 14,000, about 700 are divers. He quickly joined their ranks, taking scuba lessons to become a recreational diver and adding further qualifications until he found himself diving for a living.

He lived there for 18 years, teaching diving and running his own dive shop for 10 of those years. He supplemented his earnings by obtaining a contract with the Canadian and Quebec governments to dive for a scallop farming research project. It involved underwater surveying and “all kinds of experiments.”

They determined the best time of year to collect eggs, the best type of material in which to collect them and moved the eggs from their natural habitat to an area where there were more nutrients. Under those conditions, a scallop would attain the same size in two years as it would in five years in the wild. The work was done in collaboration with the Magdalen Islands’ association of scallop fishermen, which was allowed to sell 20 to 25 per cent of the scallops in the experiment. The others were released back into the wild to continue to grow.

Guy and his brother also had a dive shop in Montreal, but in 1998 they closed both shops. Guy, who had begun his truck driving career in 1973, returned to trucking. But the travel bug – especially to warmer climates where the diving was good – was too great an attraction. He started spending the other half the year in Southeast Asia, first in Thailand and later in Vietnam and Cambodia, quickly finding work as a scuba instructor.

It was in Vietnam that he met his future wife in 2003. They were married the next year. His wife lives in Vietnam year round because he’s be on the road most of the time he’s in Canada, anyway.

Guy has also taught diving in Haiti. Ever the entrepreneur, he recruited students there by paying Haitians who had access to a resort $5 for every student they delivered. It was near Gonave Island, in Haitian waters that Guy and a diving friend met their first large shark. It swam by within five feet of them. “It was so beautiful, all the grace,” says Guy, illustrating the swimming action of the shark with his hands. He estimates that the shark was about four metres long. They weren’t afraid at the moment, but on swimming back to the boat, they caught themselves looking back occasionally to be sure they weren’t being followed by the big predator.

Guy is committed to preserving the aquatic environment. He has trained in surveying reefs in Cambodia, thus qualifying as a volunteer for Reef Check, an organization whose mission is “to protect and rehabilitate reefs worldwide.” This involves surveying the reefs, noting fish of all species, other aquatic life and the health of the reef, and recording it for Reef Check.

In Vietnam, Guy dives at Phu Quoc, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, off the Vietnamese coast. He teaches at the Coco Dive Center, which has operations in both Phu Quoc and Nha Trang.

Guy has taught almost all levels of divers. But when asked one day by a diver how he kept “that flame in your eye,” he said it’s because he never stopped teaching beginners.

That is a reality some people tend to overlook as they advance in their teaching qualifications. Whether you’re teaching someone to dive or fly an airplane, the moment a new student’s face lights up, flushed with first success, the instructor also relives that magic moment from his or her own novice days. It’s an experience that can be recaptured over and over again through students.

As he says goodbye before resuming his trip back to Montreal, Guy Dumas still has that flame in his eyes and friendly smile on his face. Half retirement – diving and driving if you will – seems to be a good fit.

Kathy Dowsett ----

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Finding work in an under-water world

Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of Brit...Image via Wikipedia

His interest in the under-water world sparked through recreational diving, Ron Vermeltfoort was looking for “a ticket to the next level.”

He found it many years ago in the commercial diving course at Seneca College’s King City campus. Graduation from the comprehensive program led to a career path under the sea that he followed for six to seven years before returning to London, Ontario, to work as a firefighter.

Most of Ron’s work was up and down the British Columbia coast, among the Queen Charlotte Islands and off Vancouver Island. There, he dove for the seafood industry, harvesting horse clams, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, usually at depths of 20 to 60 feet. Most of those products were exported to Japan, whose own seafood industry had been damaged by over-harvesting.

Many of the clams were embedded in the bottom of the ocean, with just the tip visible. The divers were equipped with a high-pressure water jet to free the clams from the bottom. They were collected and then hoisted up by crane to the surface.

“We’d stay down for three hours straight, take a break and then go back down for another three hours,” Ron recalls.

Those long periods under water were made possible by what is known as “surface supplied diving.” Unlike recreational divers, commercial divers don’t carry an air tank on their backs. The air supply is on the surface, either on a dock or a boat, and is pumped down to the diver. It provides an unlimited supply of air and enables divers to be more mobile. “We were often walking around on the bottom.”

“It was a strange environment. There were eels and sharks, but for the most part the sharks were small enough that they were not a huge threat.”

Of greater concern were the currents and tides they worked in. The captain of the dive ship kept the divers informed about them, using either radio communications or line signals. The latter involved pulling on the diver’s line. Two pulls would mean something, three pulls something else, and there were short pulls meaning something different again. The divers would return the signals from the bottom.

In Ontario, he worked for an engineering company that rebuilt government wharfs. This involved salvage work, underwater welding and taking videos of underwater structures needing repair. “We did videos of the structures underwater to analyse where the weakest points were.”

Another career option for divers, of course, is becoming an instructor.

Ron finished his commercial diving career in 1992 after thousands of hours under water. He rarely dives now and says if he did, it would be “anywhere south where the visibility is better.”

He doesn’t regret his years spent working under the sea. “It’s (commercial diving) seasonal, but there’s still work out there for divers. You’re at sea for three or four weeks at a time. For a single guy it’s a good job and it paid well.”

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

A ‘privileged’ life beneath the seas

Whether it was working under water in the construction of docks, or later as a deck officer on ocean-going ships, the early days of Veljko Pesakovic’s career meshed nicely with his passion for scuba diving.

A young student in the naval academy in the former Yugoslavia at the time, Veljko’s diving training led to jobs, as well as recreational diving opportunities that only a privileged few enjoyed.

In building concrete marina docks, his job was to assemble under water the planks that would serve as forms to contain the cement. He also found work in ports, cleaning the hulls, bottoms and propellers of 150-foot vessels that ferried 80 to 100 passengers between the islands and the mainland. For a young recreational diver looking for every opportunity to pursue his sport, getting paid to do it was a bonus. The pay breakdown was split evenly in three ways – to the diver, the diving club and for operating expenses.

But his favourite memories were of the recreational dives his group of eight to 10 friends from the diving club would make from their base in Split (in the former Yugoslavia) to the islands in the Adriatic Sea. In his homeland, divers underwent rigorous training to be certified, spending two months in classes before they even went into the water. As such, they were valuable to the navy, which sponsored the diving club and provided them with a boat, free fuel and access to places few others could go.

The diving club had two focuses for these trips. One was the “archaeological group,” which sought out sunken ships from the Roman era. The interesting artefacts on those ships included “amphoras,” which were vases two- to four-feet tall that were used to transport goods such as wine or spices. The other was the “gastronomic group,” which dove for rare shells known as “prstaci,” found underwater in the rocks of the Adriatic islands. They were considered a delicacy and Veljko says they took hundreds of years to mature. In August, they would dive for lobsters, but in Yugoslavian waters they were not allowed to catch them with the aid of air tanks. Being young, fit and experienced divers, they had no trouble going down 60 feet without an air tank to catch the lobsters.

When he graduated from the naval academy and began to cruise world on commercial ships, the big bonus for Veljko was the opportunity to dive during his down time in ports. Among his favourites were Durban in South Africa, Newcastle, Australia, the island of Mauritius and the Canary Islands. He rented equipment from local diving clubs and went on their organized dives, usually 20 to 40 miles from the ports. These locations were prime diving locales. There, warmer water temperatures would mean that the spectacular aquatic life that divers enjoy exploring would be at much shallower depths. This involves several advantages, Veljko says. One is that the colours of the plants and fish in shallow water are much better because water absorbs the light. By 130 to 140 feet, “everything is grey.” Shallow depths also make aquatic life more accessible to divers and allow for more time to enjoy them before air tanks run too low to safely continue the dive.

For Veljko, who now lives in Montreal, Canada, the Adriatic dives and those at his favourite warm-water locales around the world reinforced his passion for the sport. “I was spoiled,” he says. “I was privileged. I was a paid tourist.”

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hollywoods Love with the Water!!!

Besides the well known scuba diver, explorer and ecologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventor of the aqua lung, many other Hollywood types are scuba divers. Tom Cruise and his wife Katie, Sandra Bullock, (who took up the sport to conquer her fear of being underwater), William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Nikki Taylor, Lauren Hutton, Gene Hackman, Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt), Kathleen Turner, Bill Gates, Penelope Cruz, James Cameron (Titantic), Joe Perry (Aerosmith) and Tiger Woods with his famous quote about scuba diving "The fish don't know who I am".

Flipper was a show that ran on NBC television from 1964 to 1967. I remember seeing the show for the first time in colour and was amazed by the underwater photography. Good family morals, and a happy ending made for great entertainment and my love of dolphins to this day. Who wouldn't as a kid want to live in the Florida Keys with water outside their door and a pet dolphin!!!

Other diving/water related movies:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sea Hunt!!!!

I was a great fan of Sea Hunt, the television show which aired from 1958 to 1961 and stared Lloyd Bridges. This was called "skin diving". It peaked an interest in diving lessons for people who watched the show. There were no BCDS or gauges used --- just tank, mask, regulator, fins and dive watch. Your diving watch was your "life-line"on a dive. On the left hand side of the tank, poking out was a lever called a "j valve", long since obsolete. Once you ran out of air ( better keep an eye on your watch!!!) you would reach back and open the valve. There was 300 psi left in the tank, which would be enough to get you to the surface. Imagine the surprise, and panic of a diver if the switch had already been pulled!!!!

With todays equipment, training from a professional scuba instructor and following the diving rules, scuba is a a safe and enjoyable sport, and opens up a whole new world of fun!!!! Enjoy the video!!!!

Mighty St Clair River

Water, Water everywhere. Water was always a part of my life from swimming in the St Clair River and Lake Huron, to swimming laps for many years in a pool. Always thought of taking up diving---one excuse or the other, then my Father drowned in Vero Beach, Florida in 1990. He was a good swimmer, but the rip-tides got the better of him. After that diving went out of my mind. One day while getting my hair cut from a Padi Master Teacher Diver, she suggested I take up diving. I thought about it, since at the time kinda between jobs and was looking for something to do besides cleaning the house!!!I thought this should be easy!!! Ha Ha. I watched the video, studied my book and in I got. Had some troubles with buoyancy, the mask leaked etc etc, but kept going.However my open water dive was a bomb!!!! Panic set in, mask leaked, BCD not a proper fit, all sorts of problems.Went home from trip in Ohio (Gilboa) and thought not for me. My instructor called me and persuaded me to try again. So this time, off to the St Clair River I go with fellow divers, right below the bridge, where the current is swift.Just before I jumped in I saw am image of my Father, like a guardian angel over me, and this time I knew it would all work out---it did, and I passed my Open Water Dive.I turned my passion into a business. I created a website, named after my Father. He was my guardian angel that day, and for that I am thankful, and my website is dedicated to him.

Kathy Dowsett