Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arctic diving training 'a bit of a mind mess'

Diving into the darkness under one metre of ice is a lesson in panic.

One out of 10 experienced divers get to the Canadian North and can’t hack it. They come back to the surface, take off their mask and say never again, said Sgt. Scott Campbell, who is supervising the Canadian Forces dive team.

“You can imagine, it’s a bit of a mind mess,” he said, standing near the two-metre hole cut with chainsaws through the ice of Long Lake near Yellowknife.

“These guys are used to diving in open water. If there’s an emergency, you can shoot to the surface. Under the ice, it’s the prime condition for claustrophobia.”

Both army and navy divers are here this month as part of Arctic Ram, a northern training exercise lead by Edmonton-based army troops. The army divers are all engineers who defused roadside bombs in the arid desert of Afghanistan. Now that the Canadians’ combat role in that war has ended, the engineers are upgrading their diving skills in the north, where their most likely task is recovering vehicles, rifles or any person that falls through the ice.

Master Cpl. Tyler Thom and navy diver Leading Seaman Sebastien Guay got a thumbs down from a dive supervisor and slipped under the water Wednesday morning to practice.

The lake is four metres deep and the bottom is full of silt that clouds the water as the divers skim over. All they can hear is their own breathing through a line that smells like rubber and connects them to the surface. Occasionally, their ears pick up muffled commands coming through the surface radio.

Guay runs an emergency drill underwater. He slips off his mask and breathing equipment and recoils against the flood of cold water up his nose. When he gets his backup tank connected, he returns to the surface to readjust.

The shock of the cold water is the biggest adjustment, Campbell said. “Your body just wants to stop breathing and shut down,” he said. “We prepare for that in case we have to do it in an emergency.”

“We try to train as realistically as possible,” said Master Seaman Keith Bruce, also supervising the dive. “It allows the individual to react like it’s second nature. Sort of like firefighters; if they get caught on fire they drop and roll.”

Guay submerges again, and the two divers set out, swimming face up and bodies horizontal along the ice to find the emergency holes.

Looking up, they can see the brightened lines of a pinwheel shovelled clear of snow beforehand, the 200-metre circle and spokes centring on the main dive hole to help orient the divers to the above-world.

To find the exit holes, they divers simply find the circle and follow the bright lines until they get to the hole.

Clear of snow that blocks the light, the water is bright, said Thom after the dive. “You can see people walking across the ice and in some places (where the ice is clear), you can see almost right to the sky.”

During this dive, Guay and Thom stay on a fixed compressed air line to the surface. If that line were to be severed, the divers would switch to breathing with the emergency air tanks on their backs. They are then trained to grab an ice screw clipped to their gear, and screw it into the bottom of the ice to hold themselves in place. The air would last them an hour or so as a backup diver searches for them through their trail of bubbles.

The army divers are all specialized members of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, all in top physical condition and able to handle stressful tasks with a methodical approach. The navy troops are clearance divers, trained to dive to 300 metres and capable of fixing ships at anchor without putting them in dry dock.

In the north, if a diver is feeling claustrophobic or stressed, they are trained to stop swimming and put both hands on the bottom of the ice, Campbell said.

“Close your eyes. Count to your number. Collect your thoughts,” he said. “Think about your safety (measures) in place and trust your buddy.”

Similar advice applies to anyone who struggles with panic and anxiety, he added.

“It’s about exposure,” Campbell said. “Learn in an controlled environment and have a good coach beside you.

“Know your plan, practice your plan and stay calm.”

Thanks to the Edmonton Journal

Picture is of Leading seaman Sebastien Guay with Fleet Diving Unit Pacific

Kathy Dowsett

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ian's Mission

When Ian James Brown donned scuba gear to dive off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico, in December, his life had come full circle.

He had been an advanced rescue diver until a motorcycle crash in 2002 left him paralyzed from the chest down. While he had been used to helping other divers, Cozumel was his first open-water dive since the accident.

``It went great,” says Ian, who is from New Jersey. ``The whole experience was phenomenal. I was so confident underwater again that I was able to help others (including a quadriplegic). It was a nice experience. I had come back full circle and was able to provide help.”

The trip was run by Diveheart, an organization devoted to boosting the confidence and independence of people with disabilities by introducing them to scuba diving.

For Ian, Diveheart’s mission meshed well with his own outlook on life. A 1st Lieutenant in the United States Air Force at the time of his accident, he knew he had two choices: Feel sorry for himself, or take control of his life and live it to the fullest, despite his injury. Without hesitation, he chose the latter.

``A lot of people have trouble adjusting. They have difficulty in re-identifying themselves,” he says. `They spent their life in one direction with one goal and all of a sudden that avenue is closed to them. Many go through a period of limbo. For me that was a short-lived time frame.”

Scuba was just one of his interests. He had also been a skydiver and was training as a pilot in the United States Air Force until that avenue was terminated by his debilitating injury.

Undaunted, Ian is moving on and will enrol in medical school this fall. He hopes to work with children with disabilities, including spinal cord problems, brain injury and diseases, as well birth defects. The specialty is known as pediatric neurology.

``I definitely want to go into medicine,” says Ian, whose original plan had been to try to get into aerospace physiology and work with pilots.

Ian is part of a group that is pioneering in the use of an ``exoskeleton suit” called the ReWalk that enables paraplegics to walk.

The exoskeleton suit has a sensor on the left side of ribs that measures the angle of the person wearing it. When he or she leans forward it triggers a step. The person is also fitted with a watch-like device that changes the mode of the suit. Modes include sitting, standing, walking and ascending or descending stairs.

Ian says the device has been highly successful, with several people now walking in it. Its proponents hope to get people independent within the time frame of one month. It is already approved for use in a clinical setting. The next step is to seek approval for use at home and to certify helpers.

With or without the exoskeleton, Ian has been proactive in his approach to life. Among his post-accident experiences is stock car racing, thanks to an organization known as Accessible Racing that has installed a push-pull hand control system in cars for disabled veterans.

For Ian, who celebrates his 35th birthday in March, scuba diving has been a passion. But his long-awaited resumption of open water diving brought an additional bonus beyond the underwater experience itself.

``I was completely pain free. One of the most debilitating things is the pain. For me, the options were pain medications or (endure) pain. It (diving) took all of the pressure and pain off my back. It was euphoric. It took me a while to process what I was feeling, the lack of pain, the liberating feeling.”

The euphoria did not end there. ``It took a little time (after returning to dry land) before the pain came back.”

Kathy Dowsett

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ice Diving on Shipwrecks with an Airboat - St. Lawrence River, Ontario, Canada

Discovery Channels Daily Planet show aired on March 12, 2009 - showcasing Arctic Kingdom's ice diving on shipwrecks from an airboat in the St. Lawrence River, 1000 Islands region. The region is a shipwreck scuba divers mecca, but because of open water and ice, traditional boats and snowmobiles cannot access the shipwrecks and see them with 100' visibility. Arctic Kingdom's airboat can move over ice and water providing a safe vehicle to access hundreds of shipwrecks and dive on them when water visibility is at it's best.

Kathy Dowsett

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pieces of Eight

The legendary pirate coins known as “pieces-of-eight” were actually silver “dollars” made by native American craftsmen in Mexico, Peru, Colombia and other countries in Central and South America, who had been enslaved by the Spaniards. The coins were produced for approximately 300 years.

“Dollar” was simply the English spelling of the same size “Thaler” coins produced in the Spanish controlled Netherlands. The letters “Th” being pronounced as a “D.”)

Until 1732, when heavy screw coin presses were introduced in Mexico City, all New World coins were individually cast or hand cut and stamped. The most famous coins were the irregular “cobs”, cut from a thin bar of silver, that had been heated red hot and hammered flat. Most cobs were stamped with the cross of the Catholic church on the reverse side and the coat of arms of Spain on the obverse side. “8” was simply the coin’s denomination in “reals” and sometimes appeared on the obverse side along with the date. Other denominations of cobs included 1/2’s, 1’s, 2’s and 4’s. (Note: although it is technically incorrect, even the smaller sizes are frequently referred to as “pieces of eight.”)

Gold coins came in the same denominations but were called escudos. The Spanish “eight escudo” was also known as a doubloon.

Because few of the people manufacturing them could read, they sometimes got the dies mixed up and stamped the wrong denomination on the metal blank. (My wife wears a 4 that is stamped with the design for an 8.) The important thing was that the stamp marks attested to the purity of the silver, and the fact that taxes had been paid to both the church and the royal family.

A single silver dollar or “piece-of-eight” was considered acceptable pay for two week’s labor in the 17th century.

Store owners kept jeweler’s scales handy to prevent being cheated by “clip artists” or “chiselers” who fraudulently clipped or chiseled the corners or edges of the coins.

Despite stories to the contrary, pieces-of-eight were not routinely cut up by merchants to make change, although some were recut by local governments, jewelers, or at private or official mints to meet the local needs for more smaller denomination coins. Such coins are frequently stamped with an additional tax mark or assayer’s mark.

The manufacture of coins with screw presses, allowed for perfectly round dollars to be made with “reeded” or inscribed edges. Such edging made tampering obvious and store owners no longer needed to weigh coins.

Despite the fact that, for most of the colonial era, there was no legal trade between Spain and Great Britain, British colonists used more Spanish dollars than pounds sterling. Their only source for the Spanish coins was through pirates and smugglers, who actually brought their ill-gotten booty into ports like Charleston, South Carolina, and advertised it for sale in the newspapers.

At one point, just one piece-of-eight on an American ship was considered sufficient proof by the Spaniards that the Americans were pirates or smugglers and the Spanish “Guardacosta” would confiscate the whole ship (just as the U.S. Coast Guard now practices zero tolerance, confiscating million dollar yachts found with even one “joint” aboard.)

When the “thirteen colonies” broke away from England, the United States adopted the Spanish dollar (“piece-of-eight”) as its standard monetary unit. For convenience, the United States divided its dollar into 100 parts rather than eight. The amount of silver in the new “American” dollar, half dollar and quarter dollar coins was meant to put them on par with the Spanish 8, 4, and 2 “real” pieces.

Sometimes single galleons carried as many as 2,000,000 individual coins with a total weight of over 60 tons. Even though Spanish galleons were typically well armed, when they were heavily laden with gold and silver, they were a tempting target for pirates and privateers.

During the early 1800’s Spain’s rule in the Americas came to a bloody end as revolutions tore through Central and South America. The treasure fleets, which had been sailing annually for almost 300 years came to a screeching halt. With no more silver galleons to pirate, there was soon a shortage of small coinage in the United States and some banks printed paper money in denominations of 12 1/2 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents to replace it.

Holes were frequently drilled in pieces-of-eight so they could be sewn into the lining of clothing for smuggling or as protection against theft and tax collectors.

Pieces-of-eight continued to be accepted as legal tender in the United States until about the start of the American Civil War (Late War of Northern Aggression).

Even Today, many old timers still refer to a quarter of a dollar as “2 bits”, and until fairly recently stock prices were quoted in eighths, quarters, halves and dollars on the New York Stock Exchange.

In high school we all chanted “2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar, all for our team, stand up and holler”. Even when Federal law was changed, and the old coins were no longer legal tender, they were still highly valued.

Because of their unique appearance (no two cobs were ever exactly alike), and the high purity of the silver in them, people frequently gave them to friends and family members as friendship, wedding, and graduation gifts. As such, they were treasured and eventually became thought as “good luck pieces”. As long as you had one, you would never be broke.

The value of these handsome hand made coins has sky-rocketed. A dollar sized, silver, piece-of-eight from a famous wreck like Mel Fisher’s Atocha in “number one grade” condition can bring well over a thousand dollars. Many of the gold doubloons now go for tens of thousands of dollars. One unique silver piece of eight recovered from a wreck in the Bahamas was actually appraised at over one million dollars.

Pieces-of-eight have been found on virtually all of the beaches of the Americas. In most cases, these coins are washing ashore from nearby shipwrecks. I live in the Carolinas and it is my belief that millions of dollars in pieces-of-eight will one day be found on a Spanish galleon in the shallow coastal waters of North or South Carolina.

Next time you watch a re-run of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, listen to Long John Silver’s parrot squawk “pieces-of-eight, pieces-of-eight”. And when you go to bed, dream, dream of adventure and treasure.

1992, 2010 by Edward Lee Spence (this is an update of a 1992 article by Spence)

Picture courtesy of Lee Spence

Kathy Dowsett

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Sea Urchin

Sea UrchinsSea Urchins (Photo credit: airforcefe)

Sea urchins are some of the world’s most ubiquitous marine animals, as indeed, they can be found in nearly all corners of the planet’s oceans, as long as its main food source, algae, is present. Sea urchins are also known to prey on other invertebrates, like mussels, sponges, brittle stars, and sea cucumbers, the last two of which are from the same phylum as the sea urchin: Echinodermata. This group also includes starfish and sand dollars, and echinodermate is a Greek term that means “spiny skin.” All echinoderms share the characteristic of bi-lateral symmetry in their body composition, which becomes a five-fold symmetry as they mature.

Because its preferred source of nutrition is algae, it does have a place in a well-balanced ecosystem. However, left unchecked by predators, sea urchins can have a devastating effect on an ecosystem by obliterating macroalgae and the species that also depend on this food source to survive. Scientists call this phenomenon an “urchin barren”. Since they prefer to live in relatively shallow coastal waters, the presence of crabs, sea otters, eels, large starfish, and sea birds can help keep populations from exploding. Sea urchins are also quite popular among sushi enthusiasts, where the “roe” is collected for consumption.

Although they may seem to be rooted in one spot, sea urchins are anything but sessile. They move around by way of hundreds of tiny tube feet, just like a starfish or a sand dollar. Since their mouth is located on the underside, they spend much of their time foraging along the ocean floor, consuming algae, decaying organic matter, and other little bits of food. You may see urchins on the sea floor in colonies at times, and there is a very important reason for this. When sea urchins spawn, it takes place externally, in the water column. The male will first release its sperm, followed by a release of eggs by the female, and fertilization occurs when the eggs and sperm make contact. The more males and females there are in one consolidated area, the better chance there is to produce more embryos.

The origins of the sea urchin date back to about 450 million years ago, and have ever since been adapting to changing environments and conditions over eons to maintain their place in evolutionary history. For a creature that has no true brain, we have to take our hats off to the amazing capability for survival that the lowly sea urchin displays.

Thanks to AquaViews

Kathy Dowsett

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Michigan Mysteries-Bridgebuilder X

Kathy Firestone was a young girl when her father, Sterling Nickerson Jr., disappeared in Lake Michigan along with his boat, the BRIDGEBUILDER X. The following is an excerpt from Kathy Firestone’s book “The Fox Islands, North and South”:

“When the Mackinac Bridge was completed, Sterling Nickerson, Jr., went to St. Ignace to inspect one of the tugs that had been used for bridge construction. In 1958 the steel-hulled, 65-foot Bridgebuilder X was bought by the Nickerson Company. It was reconstructed at Burke’s coal dock in Suttons Bay and at the Sears dock in Greilickville and put into operation, making it possible to haul a day’s sawmill output in one load.

About once a week Sterling, Jr., hauled a gross of 53 tons of hardwood to the J.W. Wells Company and the M and M Box Company in Wisconsin.

The lumber business was going well for the Nickersons, but on December 15, 1959, a shadow fell on their good fortune. About ten in the morning, Sterling Nickerson, Jr., and a relative, Glen Roop, left Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, aboard the Bridgebuilder X.; and when they didn’t show up at South Fox Island, a search was begun by the Coast Guard and pilots in private planes. Though the search was continued for several days and was joined by people walking the mainland shores, no trace of the boat was ever found. A day after the disappearance, an oil slick was sighted about 15 miles southwest of South Fox Island but was quickly dispersed by the waves, preventing further investigation. Roop’s body washed ashore in Wisconsin the following summer.

There had been 11-foot waves several hours after the Bridgebuilder had pulled out into the Big Lake, but Nickerson had battled worse than that before. Earlier in the season, during heavy fog, the Bridgebuilder had scraped bottom. She was repaired at the Roen Shipyard in Sturgeon Bay and was sailing back into operation from there the day the vessel repairmen had questioned Nickerson about whether the boat had enough ballast. He replied that he had plenty of heavy chain back in Northport and could place that inside the explanation for the boat’s disappearance seemed to be that the ballast was needed sooner, when the sudden, heavy seas hit.

In “A Child of the Sea”, Elizabeth Whitney Williams tells of the loss of her husband and others, expressing the grief which she felt – a grief with which the Nickersons and others who had lost loved ones on the seas could identify. “the bodies were never recovered, and only those who have passed through the same know what a sorrow it is to lose your loved one by drowning and not be able to recover the remains. It is a sorrow that never ends through life.” The loss of Nickerson and Roop on the Bridgebuilder X left two widows and nine fatherless children.

Ironically, while the search was going on got the missing Bridgebuilder, government documents where in the mail on their way to the lumber company, certifying that the name of the vessel was officially changed from Bridgebuilder X to Nickerson.”

Kathy Firestone is passionate about finding her father, Sterling Nickerson Jr., and bringing him home for burial with his family. Please keep her, and the Nickerson family, in your thoughts and prayers concerning this. While the odds of locating a missing vessel as small as the Bridgebuilder X in Lake Michigan are very slim, improving technology will eventually make finding the boat and her captain more likely.

Thanks to Ross Richardson and Michigan Mysteries

Kathy Dowsett

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mystery photo reveals story of sponge-diving movie star

Portrait of sponge diver John M. GonatosPortrait of sponge diver John M. Gonatos (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

The debonair diver strikes a Hollywood pose in his patched canvas wetsuit, hands resting on either knee, head cocked, with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

For 52 years he was known simply as "the Sponge Diver" in a black-and-white photograph published in National Geographic magazine.

Then in April, Evelyn Gonatos Lange saw the portrait published in the Tribune alongside a story about the state archives putting its old Florida photographs online.

"Nice picture," Gonatos commented at the Flickr Web site. "It's my Dad!!! JOHN M. GONATOS."

Cousins in Tarpon Springs called her sister in Tallahassee: "That's your dad, that's your dad!"

Even former neighbors recognized the charismatic jack-of-all-trades. Within the week, the Florida State Library and Archives would set the record straight. The diver officially has a name now. And he has a story.

"He's the one that really put Tarpon Springs on the map," said daughter Denise Gonatos Smith.

John Michael Gonatos was a tireless supporter of the local Greek community, but he dreamed of becoming a movie star. With an Errol Flynn likeness, he easily snagged bit parts in five feature films and forged a lifelong friendship with director Elia Kazan that all but guaranteed more work.

But when Hollywood beckoned once more, Gonatos chose family over fame. A devoted husband and father of three, he already had the role of a lifetime.

'The Golden Greek'

"Family always came first," recalled Denise Gonatos Smith, a 66-year-old teacher and artist living in Tallahassee.

Her father's love affair with film began in 1939 when he used a 16-millimeter Bolex to shoot the documentary "Story of the Sponge."

The 20-minute color movie shows the harvest of sponges from the Gulf of Mexico and features Gonatos, then 26, and his father, a portly Greek immigrant and captain of the boat Evdokia.

Gonatos even filmed divers underwater searching the murky sponge banks.

"He was a pioneer in the movie industry," said Gonatos' son, Michael, referring to the underwater scenes.

Ever-resourceful, John Gonatos took his camera to an uncle who made a metal cover for it. When he needed an aerial scene, he climbed the Tarpon Springs water tower. Once the film was complete, he wrote a script and sent it to a professional narrator in New York.

The movie became a regular feature for tourists, who paid 50 cents to watch it at the family's Olympic Shop on Dodecanese Boulevard.

Gonatos was just as much an attraction. In his youth, he had been a standout high school athlete and nationally recognized boxer known as "The Golden Greek" because of his fair skin, blue eyes and light auburn hair.

"He was extremely handsome," said 62-year-old niece Maria Fellios of Clearwater Beach. "The girls used to swoon over him."

Even after he married Virginia, the love of his life, and the woman who could keep him grounded as he pursued his passions.

His movie-star looks and dramatic flair when speaking or telling stories attracted directors, who saw in the young town celebrity an opportunity. Gonatos was a thrill-seeker who commanded an audience.

At 32, he took a part in the 1948 film "16 Fathoms Deep," the first major Hollywood movie made in Tarpon Springs. It starred Lon Chaney, Lloyd Bridges and Eric Feldary. Gonatos played himself.

The movie chronicled the escapades of Tarpon Springs sponge divers. Not a huge stretch for Gonatos, but it would become his biggest role and whet his appetite for more.

It also allowed the budding actor to befriend Bridges, who reportedly took diving lessons from Gonatos in preparation for the television series "Sea Hunt," filmed in Silver Springs and other Florida locales.

A taste of the high life

"16 Fathoms Deep" garnered lukewarm reviews; The New York Times applauded the exciting underwater sequences — many featuring the unknown Gonatos — but panned the producers' attempts at humor.

Still, Tarpon Springs caught the eye of director Elia Kazan, a man proud of his own Greek heritage. He visited and, there along the sponge docks, met the gallant Gonatos. The two became lifelong friends.

Kazan cast Gonatos in two films, including one of the director's best known, "A Streetcar Named Desire." The 1951 movie featured Marlon Brando in his second screen appearance and Vivien Leigh of "Gone With the Wind."

Gonatos piled his family into the old black Buick and headed west for a summer of filming. Until he got paid, money would be tight. So he filled the trunk with sponges, which the family sold at filling stations along the way to help pay for motels and food.

He spent longs days on the set; afterward, the whole family attended swanky Hollywood parties, rubbing elbows with the likes of Brando and Leigh.

"I shook hands with her," gushed Denise, who was 9.

When her dad played an extra in Kazan's "Viva Zapata!" a 1952 film starring Brando, all five Gonatoses and two grandparents made the trek. They rented a Spanish-style home at Hollywood and Vine.

"Life was adventurous," said son Michael, a 70-year-old dental technician living in Tallahassee. "Never dull."

He remembers driving through the desert on that trip when his dad spied a sign for a nearby dude ranch.

"My father always wanted to be a cowboy," recalled Michael, who was about 12 at the time. "We went to check it out. I remember my mother was worried we would get robbed."

Summer came to an end and school had begun when the Gonatoses headed home. It would be the family's last trip to Hollywood. The children were getting older and Los Angeles's influences were far different from those of their small Greek hometown. John and Virginia decided it would be best for the girls and their son to finish growing up surrounded by family and heritage.

Gonatos scored two more roles, both in movies being filmed in Florida.

He played a "conch," a Key West sponge diver, in "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef," sharing the set with Robert Wagner, Terry Moore and Gilbert Roland. And he sold fishing tackle to Elvis Presley in what would be Gonatos' last film, "Follow That Dream," in 1962.

Film lives again

Some 20 years later, he relegated the documentary that started it all to the garage with the other flotsam of those glory days and turned his passion toward local politics. A devastating fungus had nearly wiped out the sponge industry, and Gonatos joined others in the fight to preserve the historical docks and other reminders of the community's unique history.

He remained a local celebrity throughout his life, autographing calling cards that promoted the "Story of the Sponge" and sported a color illustration of his younger self in diving gear, puffing away on a cigarette. Sometimes he seemed frustrated by missed opportunity in Hollywood; other times, thankful.

"I think he really would've been somebody in film," his niece said. "But he had three wonderful children and a wonderful life."

The building erected by Gonatos' father still stands across from what remains of the docks, which are concrete now and hold far more tourists than sponges. The old gift shop is a bakery.

John Gonatos died Aug. 9, 2000, three weeks after Virginia.

Not long after, Denise Gonatos Smith came across "Story of the Sponge" melting in the garage. She had it restored and transferred to DVD, and today, people once again pay to watch it.

"My dad taught us to never give up," she said. "He always had a dream."

Researchers Stephanie Pincus and Buddy Jaudon contributed to this report.

Kathy Dowsett
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