Friday, March 29, 2013

Follow Your Head :: An Easy Tip for Maintaining Good Buoyancy and Swimming Position

Thanks to Natalie Gibb

When I was learning to drive a motorcycle, I had the tendency to jerk the bike's handlebars to the left or the right when maneuvering around a turn. I had trouble turning because I tried to separate the motion of the handlebars from the rest of my body. I didn't understand that a proper turn involves the driver's whole body. Not only should the driver turn the handlebars, he should lean into the turn and look where he is going. It sounds simplistic, but once I learned this rule the bike would effortlessly go wherever I looked. Now that I teach diving, I see many divers making the same mistake that I made learning to drive a motorcycle - they forget to follow their heads.

The basic idea is simple - if a diver looks up and kicks, he is going to go up. This makes sense because by looking up, a diver orients his body into a feet-down, head-up position. Even a slight fin motion will propel him towards the surface.

The most common situation in which a diver make this sort of error is when clearing his mask. During the open water course, a student diver is taught to look up while breathing out through his nose to empty his mask of water. When this skill is practiced in the pool, the diver is usually kneeling and unable to kick. However, when floating mid-water, it is not uncommon for a diver to unconsciously kick while clearing his mask, propelling himself upwards. An easy trick to avoid this mistake is to have the diver cross his legs at his ankles or knees before looking up, preventing inadvertent kicking.

Divers also tend to orient themselves vertically when observing turtles, sailfish, and other creatures that swim towards or along the surface. On many occasions, I have watched a diver discover a turtle near the ocean floor, kick along with it for a minute, and then tilt his head (and therefore his body) upwards to enjoy the view of the turtle surfacing. More often than not, this results in the diver slowly rising towards the surface with the turtle until I call his attention to the fact that he is beginning to ascend. Once a diver knows that looking up to watch a creature above him has the tendency to make him lose his position in the water, he can take actions to avoid the problem such as deflating his buoyancy compensator or crossing his ankles.

When ascending at the end of a dive, divers are trained to swim towards the surface in a head-up position. In this case, this is a positive habit because it helps a diver to move efficiently through the water and allows him to make small adjustments in his buoyancy using his fins. Once a diver reaches the safety stop depth, however, a vertical position can make maintaining a constant depth more difficult if the diver habitually makes small fin movements. Again, awareness of the fact that a diver in a head-up position will move upwards with almost any fin movement will help a diver in this situation to keep his level in the water. Carefully monitoring a reference (such as a depth gauge, dive computer, or ascent line) is usually the best way for a diver to train himself to maintain a constant depth during a safety stop, despite a vertical position.

Once a diver understands that his body will follow his head, he can use the fact to his advantage. Although most buoyancy adjustments should be made with a diver's buoyancy compensator and lungs, small adjustments can be easily made by swimming. If a diver finds himself moving slightly up every time he starts to kick, looking down while swimming will help him maintain his level in the water.

Look up, swim up. Look down, swim down. It is a simple concept, but one that is commonly over-looked by beginning divers!

Kathy Dowsett

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Invasive mussels threaten Shipwreck Alley

Known as Shipwreck Alley, Thunder Bay in northwest Lake Huron presents a forbidding scene for boaters and captains but a wonder for divers and marine archaeologists. Its chilly bottom is dotted with dozens of wrecks, from 19th-century schooners to passenger-carrying steamboats to steel-moving freighters that have fallen prey to the bay's unpredictable weather and dangerous shoals.

More than 50 of these historic hulks are protected by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which was created in 2000 and covers 448 square miles (1,160 square kilometers) off the northeast coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Though most are in relatively good shape, thanks to the wreck-friendly freshwater environment of Lake Huron, a new report released by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds the sunken ships might be threatened by a tiny menace: invasive mussels.

A few decades ago, zebra and quagga mussels were introduced to the Great Lakes, likely by ocean-going vessels from Europe dumping ballast water. Researchers believe the mollusks' quick domination of lake-bottoms in the region has contributed to the recent decline of some native species, such as the commercially valuable whitefish. (It's thought that the mussels, through competition, have depleted populations of the shrimplike Diporeia, which is an important part of the whitefish's diet.)

The mussels also stubbornly attach to hard surfaces such as boat hulls, engines, docks, buoys, pipelines and shipwrecks. Layers of mussels several inches thick could make it difficult for marine archaeologists to get accurate measurements and study a shipwreck, but brushing off the little creatures could tear off delicate sections of sunken wood, according to NOAA. Additionally, pieces of wrecks could break off on their own, under the weight of heavy mussel build-ups.

"The weight of mussels has been known to sink submerged buoys, and similar forces are surely at play on shipwreck sites," the report says.

It's not just the wooden pieces that are at risk. Previous research has found that mussel colonies on steel surfaces can introduce a complex community of bacteria that lowers pH levels (the lower the pH the more acidic a solution is) and speeds up the corrosion of iron fasteners and fittings on shipwrecks. [ See Photos of Shipwreck Alley's Sunken Treasures ]

"Since many of the wooden ships in the Thunder Bay sanctuary are primarily iron and steel fastened, the structural integrity of these resources could potentially be compromised," the report says.

To be sure, the report authors note that so far, the mussels do not yet appear to have seriously reduced the historical, archaeological or educational value of the wrecks, but the layers of invasive mussels obscure information about the sites and make scientific study more difficult. The mussels also may be causing long-lasting damage, but since shipwrecks by nature are in a state of deterioration, it's tough determine how much of that wear can be attributed to mussels.

NOAA is currently weighing an expansion of the sanctuary, which would make it stretch over 4,300 square miles (11,136 square km) and cover 92 known historic shipwrecks, with possibly 100 additional sites that have yet to be properly documented. The purpose of the sanctuary is to foster public awareness about the region's maritime heritage and help protect the sites from artifact looting and other negative human impacts through law enforcement and scientific research. Part of this research includes a mussel monitoring initiative in Thunder Bay, which was launched last year by researchers from NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Lab.

Thanks to Live Science and Megan Gannon

Kathy Dowsett

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Friends share stories of diving beneath the ice

Brad Grecula could not see anything in the pitch-black water. Very slowly, something came into focus before him.

Grecula was looking at the Hopkins/Minnetonka shipwreck, which was once part of a fleet of six streetcar boats that transported people around Lake Minnetonka in the early 1900s.

When her sister boats were being dismantled and sunk in 1925, Capt. George Hopkins purchased it, renamed it Minnetonka and operated it as an excursion boat until 1949. At that time, it was sunk near her sisters north of Big Island. The state recognizes it as an archeological site, according to Maritime Heritage Minnesota.

As an outline of the wreck appeared before him, Grecula was sure it was the Hopkins/Minnetonka. After all, he and his friends had a GPS location on the shipwreck as they drove through a dense fog over the frozen lake, but diving through pitch-black water can mess with your mind.

“Your imagination can run away from you when you’re down there,” Brian Dahl said.

Divers going so deep that sunlight does not reach them can attest to what Grecula and Dahl are saying. What makes their tales even more harrowing is the only way they can escape the water is through a small hole in a thick sheet of ice.

Ice diving can be a deadly recreational activity if you are not properly trained and do not take the safety precautions seriously.

MyFox Twin Cities reported a story two years ago of a pair of ice fishermen hooking a scuba diver. The story had some comical elements to it because the fishermen thought they caught a big one. The diver was unharmed and offered a couple of beers as a peace offering, the fishermen told Fox news.

Dahl of Andover, Grecula of East Bethel, Art Gullette of Andover, John Oliver of Isanti and Nate Putbrese of Cambridge know this diver and this story was no laughing matter because several safety measures were not followed, they later learned. Ice divers are a fairly tight-knit group in Minnesota because there are so few of them, Gullette said.

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors is the not the only diving certification organization, but is the largest by far, said PADI spokesperson Bridget Evans. Over the last five years, more than 1,700 PADI ice diver certifications were earned throughout the whole U.S. In 2012, only 11.3 percent of all PADI certifications earned were for ice diving.

Mitigating the dangers

There are many safety measures to check off before going on an ice dive. The obvious first step is to make sure the ice is thick enough on which to drive a vehicle. Once on the site, they usually have a chainsaw to cut a triangle hole in the ice. They can cut a square, but a triangle takes less effort to cut because it has one less side.

They must be attached to a rope so they have an easier time finding the ice hole. Another step that can be taken is to clear snow in the shape of an arrow. Sunlight will highlight the arrow and give divers a bearing.

The most ideal situation is to have one person diving and another person on the ice in their gear in case the diver has to be rescued. There should be at least one and preferably two tenders in case both are in the water.

Ice diving is such a challenge that Dahl said PADI recommends a person have at least 50 dives before they can be trained.

According to Dahl, one of the most important traits he picked up from ice diving is the ability to remain calm and problem solve in tense situations.

A saying that stuck with Oliver is, “technical diving is the only sport where you can kill yourself and have half-an-hour to think about it.”

Gullette said this can be true of any type of diving, but the more logistically challenging the dive, the more true this is. There is a large difference between recreational and technical diving, he said.

Scuba diving in a river is beyond the level of most ice divers because “the current can take you into no-man’s land where there is no exit hole,” Oliver said. A second exit hole is a must for river ice dives, Gullette said.

If anybody feels nervous, a dive is called off without question.

Each of them has a different standard for calling a dive, however. Gullette is probably the most cautious, while Putbrese is the risk taker, to the chagrin of Gullette.

“When Nate calls it, I check my pulse because I may already be dead,” Oliver said.

Dahl, Gullette, Oliver and Putbrese know what a search and rescue feels like from the other side because they used to be volunteers for the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office dive team.

Isanti County does not have the budget for all the equipment so much of it is the diver’s own gear, said Chief Deputy Bill Guenther of the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office. Two men with their own gear recently volunteered to be the county’s only two dive team members, he said.

Although they may give Gullette a hard time for being such a stickler for the rules, he is deeply respected.

“I’ve done a fair amount of training through other instructors, but Art is hands-down the most thorough,” Oliver said. “It’s not that he wants to keep you there for an extra two hours. He wants to make sure you’re absorbing what he’s trying to tell you. I’ve told him before, when my daughter gets certified, he’s the one that’s going to do it.”

Some wild tales

Gullette first tried ice diving in 1975 and he swore he would never do it again, but he decided to give it a try when he met Putbrese in 2004.

“Nate and I have an interesting relationship. I keep Nate alive. He keeps pushing my comfort zone and envelope and keeping it fun,” Gullette said.

While they gave Putbrese some grief, Dahl was quick to note that Putbrese is very experienced and “dive smart.”

Dahl met Gullette through work at the Minnesota Department of Corrections and started diving around 2005. Oliver started ice diving in 2008 or 2009 just a year or two after celebrating his 40th birthday.

The four of them soon connected with Grecula, who began diving shortly after he graduated from high school in 2008. “Shortly after high school in 2008? Why do we let him hang out with us?” Dahl said while they all chuckled.

Their schedules do not always allow the five of them time to get together when they are not diving, but when they got together for an interview at Gullette’s Andover home, there was a lot of reminiscing, laughs and some head shaking.

One story Gullette really wanted to tell was the first time that Oliver was the unexpected rope tender on the surface. Oliver was still new to ice diving, so Gullette was training him on rope tending. Gullette was diving and Putbrese was supervising him on the ice.

Gullette suddenly came up to the surface all excited, telling them he found a wreck and giving them the coordinates so they knew where he was going. When he was surveying the wrecked boat, he looked to his left to see Putbrese swimming up to him. It turns out that Oliver was tending them both, which really made Gullette mad at Putbrese.

Another interesting tale was about a fisherman throwing his wedding ring down his ice hole on Mille Lacs Lake. The Isanti County dive team happened to be training in the area and Putbrese volunteered to recover the ring and, of course, document it.

Putbrese taped his descent and recovery of the ring and posted it on YouTube. Search “Nate Putbrese” to find his YouTube channel and the video. When he sees the ring, you hear him gurgling “my precious” in homage to the character Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Then there are the stories of Putbrese pushing the envelope. One time Gullette got out of the truck and walked to shore with his cell phone in hand and watched as Putbrese gunned the truck across the ice.

Oliver said Putbrese has graduated from “rock, paper scissors” to flipping a coin to determine if they should walk or drive across the ice. He will often throw these coins in the water to make a sacrifice to “the lake gods” and to see how long the coins are visible.

Thanks to ABC Newspapers

Kathy Dowsett

Friday, March 8, 2013

What It's Like...To Dive as a Double Amputee

Army Chief Warrant Officer Scott Schroeder was wounded a year and a half ago during a patrol mission while serving in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. He sustained injuries from a roadside bomb that exploded under the vehicle he was riding in, the extent of which required that both legs be amputated above the knee and he lost much of the use of his right arm. Learning to approach life differently following such an injury takes courage and a lot of support. Groups like Task Force Dagger, a non-profit founded in 2009 to support injured Special Forces soldiers, provide opportunities for the whole family to heal. One of their projects brings together recovering soldiers and their families for a week of diving and recreation in Key West, Florida.

“I learned to dive in Egypt, in the Red Sea, back in 1988 on a recreational trip with the military, but I wouldn’t consider myself an avid diver. I’ve only been on maybe 12 dives since then, but I’ve always enjoyed the trips I did take. But even though I dived before, I had to reacquaint myself once I got to the pool. The Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West opened their doors and their pool to us while divers got certified or retrained. They were great to extend such a welcome to us. There was a learning curve to all this, refitting my gear, using my swim legs, even getting on and off the boat there was something to be learned. After everyone got comfortable in the water we headed out for the first open ocean dive.

The injuries to my right arm required me to rig the hoses a little differently, so I could reach everything with my left arm. I also had special sockets for my prosthetics made so I could attach a foot that would work with my fins. Using basic prosthetic technology, they created an articulating joint that I could lock into the toes pointed position necessary for swimming. The upside to this is that finning is really easy now. I thought I’d have difficulty but I was able to fin perfectly. You just have to adapt to what you can do. It’s all part of getting back out there. The part you don’t realize is just how bottom heavy humans are. Without my legs, I had a tendency to flip over in the water, like a fishing bobber. I had to learn to compensate by using my core muscles to hold my position. The effort was exhausting. Every time I dived it completely wiped me out. We were doing two-tank dives and even though I thought I would be an air hog, I was glad to find out I wasn’t, which made me feel great.

When I was injured, it wasn’t just me who was affected — my whole family was injured. My wife gave up her job to divide her time between home and hospital to be with me. I’m here at the hospital every day doing my rehab, learning to walk again, hoping to get home soon. My son, a junior in high school is back home in Tennessee for school, so he can graduate with his friends. The separation is difficult for all of us. By the time I’m done I will have been here at Walter Reed for almost two years, going through surgeries, learning to walk and regaining as much function in my right arm as I can.

When a soldier gets injured there are a lot of people who want to help. What they really need though is someone to reach out to the whole family. Task Force Dagger does a great job at that, by including all of us. The chance to dive again and take a break from this world of hospital and rehab was huge for us as a family and a real chance to heal together. We get to go somewhere and be normal for a while. For the first time since my injury, we are doing rehab together. Now I’m looking forward to the next trip and getting back in the water.”

Thanks to Allison Olcsvay and Scuba Diving

Kathy Dowsett

Monday, March 4, 2013

Diving background helps agent in travel business

Bryan Cunningham believes the scuba diving travel business is missing the dive boat when it comes to serving its customers.

After working as a scuba instructor, he is now a scuba travel specialist for Travelpath, a Burlington, Ontario-based travel agency.

With more than 10,000 dives to his credit, having run dive shops and instructed in the Caribbean for 12 years, as well as in the Middle East for six years, he brings a first-hand perspective to the job.

“I have personal contact with the owners of dive shops and I have most of them on Skype. That means I can ask for extra things,” he says, citing nitrox and larger tanks as examples. “I can ask the manager if he has this available. Although he may not have the big tanks he may have a sister operation that has them. They give better service to a travel agent than an individual. They stand to lose a lot more business if they let a travel agent down.”

The core principle of his business is customizing a dive vacation to the client’s needs and that of the diver’s family.

“Eighty per cent of people don’t want to dive for the whole holiday. Or, if the husband dives and wife doesn’t, I tailor it to what they want. You need to know what else is available. If a wife is an outdoors person, Belize has an outdoor jungle facility. If she likes shopping and casinos, then maybe Nassau is better. It depends on what the non-divers want to do.”

Bryan also books dives for cruise ship passengers, pointing out that they will pay 30 per cent more if they go through the cruise line. “We can book a dive for every (cruise ship) stop. You don’t have to worry about currency. The shops I work with are used to working with cruise ships.

For those planning on combining diving with a cruise vacation it is important to know the diving opportunities in the ports the ship will visit. Some aren’t good for diving, while others stop at all the good dive spots. Also, adds Bryan, you need to know the location of the port with respect to diving. For instance, sometimes the best diving is on the opposite side of an island from where the ship docks.

Some ports have better transportation service for cruise ships than others. In St. Lucia, says Bryan, a dive operator has a separate boat just to pick up divers travelling on cruise ships. Some have a separate bus for the same purpose.

Another problem Bryan says he can help divers avoid is choosing the wrong hotel. A hotel on an island that is distant from the port where the best diving is found could lead to a costly taxi ride every time they dive.

Choosing a dive site itself depends on the diver’s interests. That could range from diving ship wrecks, to coral reefs and marine life. Availability of the latter can vary with the time of year because some species, such as whale sharks, migrate.

In terms of coral reefs, divers may have their preferences. For instance, the hard corals of the Indian Ocean are more colourful, while the soft corals found in the waters of the Caribbean look blander. “Both are nice in their own way, but different,” says Bryan.

“I have dive destinations virtually anywhere you want to go. Tell me the type you want and I will find them. I have been to 32 Caribbean islands and haven’t seen half the Caribbean, but I’ve seen a lot more than any other travel agent.”

For more details, see this website:

Kathy Dowsett