Monday, June 18, 2012

A Mermaid's Tale

How to become a mermaid (in 10 easy steps!): 

1. Assess the tail:

2. Condition legs:

Note: although it helps to be in good shape, conditioning here refers to actual conditioner that goes in your hair... it's needed to allow the tail to slide on more easily.

3. Shimmy your way into the tail:

4. Struggle / do abs for a few minutes (while getting laughed at of course):

Note: do not get discouraged during this step... being a mermaid is not natural for humans and takes a lot of practice (which I do not yet have). Perhaps I should have asked the 3 professional mermaids for more tips...

5. Figure out how to get in the water with feet strapped together.

6. JUMP!

7. Dive

8. Don't lose your tail!

9. Find mermaid (or merman) friends 

10. Take the camera for a swim

You are now a mermaid!!

I suppose the first step should be something more along the lines of "show up for work." It's week 3 on the job and David and I were getting some underwater shots for The Daily, a news app for ipads and (very recently) iphones. We were filming in a part of Rainbow Springs State Park where people are not allowed to swim - this was supposed to keep clueless or curious people from swimming through our shots. The mermaids and mermen spent the morning doing topside interviews and spent the afternoon in the water with us. David had the big camera and was free-diving while I dove with nitrox nearby and took some video with the GoPro. It was not only my favorite Monday of all time but also one of my favorite days EVER. It was beautiful how the mermaids swam effortlessly through the water and turned the already magical spring into a fairytale. It was more amazing than I ever imagined in my craziest dreams. When we were done with the shot list, the producer from The Daily was trying on a fin and I couldn't resist... ultimate dream come true :)

All of these pictures are frame grabs from the GoPro camera which The Daily may end up using in their little news video focused on Eric (the awesome guy who designs the fins) and his professional mermaids. He actually designed and crafted a tail for Lady Gaga!! I'll post the link to the video when they finish in a week or two.

Despite the fact that it doesn't relate to mermaids, this video sums up my new philosophy on life. And it directly applies to today... the happiest Monday ever!! 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Under Pressure

102 miles offshore and negatively buoyant at 130 feet, we stood as the 5th, 6th, and 7th people to visit this underwater site in 10,000 years. I paused for a second to take in the alien landscape then quickly got back to work.

Andy and two other archaeologists dove here in 2009, and David, Dee, Andy, and I returned this past week to do some prep work for the upcoming NOAA research cruise. Basically our goal was to use a 15lb slide hammer to bang 4 stakes into the ground at 130' at the T-shaped intersection of two rivers. One of the rivers is the historic Suwannee River before extreme sea level rise caused this site to go from a prairie to 130' underwater, 100+ miles off the coast of present-day Florida. The T-shaped (rather than Y-shaped) intersection of the rivers is one of 3 found so far in Florida and signifies a different type of underlying rock called chert. Since chert was the material of choice for making tools, it is a promising site for finding artifacts, most likely from the Clovis people who lived there over 10,000 years ago. 

At this point I have completely lost track of time, but today when I realized it's already Friday, I did not think 'TGIF'. Actually, I found myself wishing it was Tuesday again when the adventure began…

Day 1. 

387 Feet.

Unfortunately 387 feet is not how deep we dove. I have neither the skill nor certifications required to do so... yet. Fortunately, it is the length of “Fisherman’s Paradise”, the 4-star floating hotel where we stayed. So let me just preface this by saying that this week was certainly not real life.

The trip started on Tuesday morning at David and Dee's house where we set up and loaded all of our gear. In this picture, I had just finished analyzing all of the tanks. They had between 27 and 28% oxygen as compared to the 20.9% in air. Basically this gave us longer bottom times and shorter surface intervals, because we were exposed to less nitrogen in our breathing gas.
We left the house at 2 and made it to the dock in St. Pete just after 4. Here we were loading all of our gear and getting ready to head out to Fisherman's Paradise.  
The 15 mile ride out to the boat was beautiful and reminded me how much I miss the ocean. The air was humid and salty and the breeze was hot. In the no wake zone of the winding channel we saw dolphins and a mock pirate party ship. After we left the inner channel and hit the ocean, we spent the boat ride with our hair down and going crazy in the wind as we bounced over the waves.

Our first up-close view of Fisherman's Paradise :) It's 387 feet long and has a 90 foot beam! 
We came around the back of the ship to dock at their mini marina. It is a foreign ship... technically we were in Bolivia all week!
 As we docked, we were greeted by a very friendly and welcoming crew who helped us with our bags and then showed us the amazing ship.

Our rooms were off this hallway on the main deck. Not exactly what I have come to expect for living arrangements, but I could certainly get used to it...
Pool bar! Not open quite yet but still awesome. Good thing the boat can desalinate its own water.
After a little explore onboard, we couldn't resist jumping in the water. Back at the little marina, there were massive schools of baitfish and there was talk of a huge Goliath grouper on the anchor line, so we grabbed our masks and fins and went for a swim.

Looking up at David at the edge of a school of bait fish. Sometimes when you looked up, all you could see were fish. All of a sudden, something would spook them and it appeared as if the whole sky was falling or moving. We spent a while playing with the schools and being engulfed in thousands of fish. I kept half expecting them to form an arrow or a crab or some other crazy shape just like they do for Dory in Finding Nemo. 
We made our way through the bait fish at the stern towards the bow and the mysterious Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara). At the surface, I could barely make out the outline of something big, so I held my breath dove down. As I approached about 20 or 25 feet, the Goliath took shape! Unfortunately he was shy and didn't let me get any closer than this after briefly swimming towards me. He doesn't look that big in this picture, but each of the anchor chain links actually weighs 100 lbs!!
One of the massive schools of baitfish (most likely some type of sardines) engulfed the anchor chain as the sun began to set.

After a long snorkel with bar jacks (Caranx ruber), sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus), barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), and a little sneaky cocoa dameslfish (Stegastes variabilis) that was too quick to let me get a picture, we showered and headed upstairs for dinner while we watched the beautiful sunset over the ocean. After dark we called an early bed time so that we could rest up for our big diving day...

Day 2.

All for 18 minutes.

By the time my 530 a.m. alarm went off, I was out of the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in and in my swimsuit. I was ready for what most people do not consider a normal day of work.

After a quick breakfast and necessary dose of caffeine, we headed down to the 36-foot catamaran motorboat. Equipped with 300 gallons of fuel and all of our gear and tanks, we pushed off by 7:15, headed for the Middlegrounds.

We pushed off the dock at 7:15 with a beautiful sunrise in the background.
 If you enjoy roller coasters, the ride out to Thor’s Elbow is fun. Although I do love roller coasters, they tend to last for less than 2 minutes, so the 4 hour journey covering 77 miles of wide-open ocean had about 3:58 minutes of too much bouncing and pounding through the waves. Any potential butterflies in my stomach were immediately shaken and squashed, and we quickly learned why we were about to be 4 of 6 people to visit the site in 10,000 years.

After many attempts to get comfortable, I ended up finding a squishy seat in the middle of the boat and chatting with our nice captain Che. I then attempted to read my DiversAlert magazine but it was moving around so much that I couldn't seem to make out any words. Instead,  I spend the better part of an hour staring out at nothing but blue water and watching our only visitors – flying fish! They would pop up right next to the boat and keep up with us for a few seconds then plummet right back into the water. It must hurt if they land wrong at 20 knots, although I'm sure they have it perfected. 

9 minutes.

What can you do in 9 minutes? As a sailor, I’m inclined to say 3 rolling dinghy starts. You could also run a little over a mile (or 2 if you’re really fast) or drive about 9 miles on the highway. There’s a lot you can do in 9 minutes, and for us that’s all the time we had.

At 130’ breathing 27% oxygen (as compared to the 20.9% in air), 9 minutes is the no decompression limit (NDL), the maximum time you can spend at depth without going into decompression diving. This is a limit we are required to stay within for scientific diving. Had we been breathing air at this depth, we would have been able to stay down for only about 5 minutes. So breathing 27% instead of 21% oxygen allows us to have about 4 more minutes of precious bottom time. 

Finally jumping in the water just before noon (after our
4-hour journey!).
The science, math, and theory behind diving is something that is beginning to fascinate me. It's something that Harry first introduced me to in my beginning Nitrox class and I am learning more and more from David. Only now am I beginning to gain a true appreciation for what my computer is doing and what is happening in my body while diving. There are so many complexities but also a large amount of safety built into the formulas; there are also a number of different algorithms and formulas to choose from. But back to the story... 

We began our first descent at 11:50 after sending the stakes and slide hammer down the anchor line. At about 60-70’ we hit the thermocline and there was a 6-8 degree decrease in temperature and also a change in visibility. At the surface, the water was a crystal clear blue, but nearer the sandy bottom the visibility dropped to about 15-20 feet (or less when we’re stirring up the bottom). Fighting the effects of nitrogen narcosis (often called being 'narced'... similar to being drunk underwater at depth), we accomplished our task of getting the stakes unwrapped and 2 stakes banged into the ground with the slide hammer. All of our tasks were accomplished under pressure... literally 5 times atmospheric pressure!

As we made our slow ascent, I watched our bubbles make their way towards the sunshine but knew I could not follow. It’s weird looking up and seeing the surface but knowing that you cannot go up right away. This is ironic because it makes deep diving in the ocean much like being in a cave or cavern which have physical overhead environments. But in the ocean there might as well be a brick wall above your head and below your feet - in fact, there are two depths called the 'ceiling' and the 'floor'. If you ascend above the ceiling, you are at risk of getting "the bends". Below the floor, you will not offgas nitrogen because you are too deep - the optimum zone is between the ceiling and floor and your computer tells you (using arrows... or beeps if you're going too fast) where this optimum zone is located. We also discussed this in pre-dive safety talks just in case a computer failed during the dive. Essentially you are in a box even though you are in wide-open ocean, the sides of the box being the space around the anchor line, which we used to descend. There isn't much else to hold on to if you get far away from the boat! 

In the picture above, David is checking on our oxygen bottle during our surface interval. At the end of each dive, we did a 1-minute deep stop at 60 feet and a 3 minute stop at 15-20 feet breathing 62% oxygen. It is added comfort when you come up and see the upside-down blue oxygen bottle hanging at the safety stop with 3 regulators – it looked like a spider or big sea creature. We breathed the oxygen as a safety precaution to decrease our exposure to nitrogen.

During our 2.5 hour surface interval, we snorkeled with filefish in the sargassum - still in the process of figuring out if I found a new species! Little jacks that looked like mini amberjacks, sheepshead, and bar jacks swam around the boat too. A school of brilliant blue marlins and a few moreys gave us hope for some tiger sharks but we were only lucky enough to see 1 barracuda on the 2nd descent.

For a while we thought that we had discovered a new species of filefish but upon further examination, it appears to be a   juvenile Monacanthus hispidus or plane-head filefish. Their camouflage is amazing... the fish in this picture is in the upper middle part of the sargassum. In some clumps there were about 10 fish, many about half the size of the one shown here. This picture is a frame grab from David's GoPro camera.
Trying out David's awesome freediving fins :) This picture is also by David.
Dive 2 was quick and efficient, using only 6 minutes of bottom time. Andy and I descended first, finished banging in one of the stakes, then tied a line to the stake, swam a distance, and pounded and tied the new stake. David and Dee descended just as we were ready to go up and did the same with one other stake after we passed them the slide hammer. Andy and I began our slow ascent, did our 2 safety stops and took another hit of oxygen and ended with a dive time of 20 minutes. David and Dee surfaced shortly after and we were ready for the journey back - mission accomplished!!

Me and Captain Che getting ready for our journey back to Fisherman's Paradise after a great day of diving, this time going with the wind and waves. Photo by David. 
We started our trip back at 4:15, going with the wind and waves this time. This allowed us to average about 28 kts instead of 20 kts and cut an hour off the originally 4-hour trip.
Cruising along at 28 knots and reading my dive computer manual. Had to figure out a few abbreviations and make some notes about the day... I was apparently so into it (and spaced out from the long day) that I didn't even realize David was taking pictures! 
Day 3.

A dive off Bolivia.

Before leaving the next day, we decided to do a dive off the ship (and technically a dive off of Bolivia) into the Gulf of Mexico. Andy's ultimate goal was to check out a tangled fish trap on the anchor and mine was to practice launching a lift bag.

We jumped off the stern of Fisherman's Paradise and hit the bottom at 50 feet. David passed me the lift bag and I am practicing deploying it here. I am about to attach my inflator hose to the bag and grab the reel (which is hanging from the lift bag in my hand) to let it shoot up to the surface and keep away fishing boats. Photo by David.
I found a sand dollar!! This ended up being the first of hundreds that dotted the sandy bottom along with crabs in conch shells and starfish. They were all alive and at least the size of the palm of my hand. Photo by David.
Dinner plate sized starfish on the bottom; this is nearby the sand dollar I'm looking at in the picture above but much much bigger :)
Andy being consumed by a massive school of baitfish under Fisherman's Paradise.
The body shape of the Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) closely resembles that of a shark... I was really excited for a minute!
But I wasn't disappointed that the Cobia weren't sharks for long! Found this little nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) resting by the anchor. They are very shy and he was spooked right away when we all swam over.
After about an hour long dive, we came back aboard and hit the showers before starting our voyage home. It was sad to leave floating paradise but certainly necessary to come back to cell and internet reception and perhaps inform worried parents where I had been for the week. 

We even took a trip back in time while above water! This awesome party pirate ship replica was headed out to sea as we were headed in to St. Pete. The people on board looked like they were having a blast... most likely drinking rum like pirates.

Pigs?! What is a pig doing at the end of this story?! I asked the same question when Andy was loading up a little crate full of hay into the back of David's truck on Tuesday... a bit of a stark contrast between the crate and our dive gear. We had a little country adventure off the highway on our drive back to Gainesville to pick up a little piglet for Andy and Kathleen to breed. Seeing the country pig farm with 70+ pigs was unlike anything I'd ever seen in the north. The piglet was an absolutely adorable little black squealing bundle of joy, but I had to include the photo above because he's pink and looks like Babe. And was very interested in getting his snout near my camera. Thankfully their pig is going to be a pet and won't be killed for meat :)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

3 Devils

They say "the devil is in the details," but in Florida the devil is in the springs. I like to think that each of the springs is a bit of heaven on earth but Ginnie Spring's Little Devil, Devil's Eye, and Devil's Ear don't seem to give the same impression. Neither does "Devil's Den" down in Williston (Devil's Den and Diving with the Devil).

Anyway, the devil was certainly in the weather on Saturday when we set out to dive at Ginnie. Planning on a night dive in the cavern, we left at 1:30 to enjoy a dive or 2 before dark and maybe float the river. But the onset of the rainy season and some storms changed our plans a bit that afternoon. As we turned right at the big Ginnie Springs sign, the skies opened up, but we didn't let it turn us around... a bit of rain only makes the diving more fun. Thankfully it also made the Saturday crowds a lot smaller than usual, although there were still some diehard campers and day-trippers running around in swim suits and balancing tubes in jacked-up pickup trucks blasting country music. While balancing a beer in the other hand, of course. But this just adds to the atmosphere and entertainment.

This is a google earth view of our first three Devil spring system dives. Little Devil is at the orange arrow, Devil's Eye is at the purple arrow, and Devil's Ear is at the yellow arrow where the run meets the Santa Fe River.
This is the representation of the 3 devils as seen on the Ginnie Spring website...  basically a close-up cartoon view of the google earth image above.
This is the first thing I saw when I got in the water. It's just to the right of the stairs that are only feet from Little Devil. Despite the length of the roots, it doesn't seem like the water could get any lower without some serious consequences. 
Looking up from the bottom of Little Devil (~30 feet), before the rain started. Little Devil is a thin crack running only as long as you can see in this picture. It's not much of a dive but does make for a cool picture or two of snorkelers swimming overhead. 
Next stop after Little Devil: Devil's Eye. This is the view looking back towards the eye from the farthest point back you can go in the cavern without reaching complete darkness. The park does not allow you to bring lights into either of these sites unless you are cave certified - this prevents open water divers from ending up in places where they could get in trouble. The cave entrance is about 15 or 20 feet behind me in this picture. 
Usually springs seem quite species poor compared to coral reefs. Sunfish, turtles, eels, and bass are common, but I had never come across a crayfish before! This is a Spring Crayfish (Procambarus speculifer) that Kate found at the entrance to the Devil's Ear cave.
1, 2, 3, JUMP! Even though Austin is just floating over the surface of Devil's Ear, it appears that he is about to jump off a cliff. Silhouette views from the bottom are still one of my favorite shots and the rain at the surface adds a whole new dimension to the flying swimmer. 
More raindrops at the Devil's Ear cave buoy. The yellowish-brown color in the bottom right of the photo is where the tannic river meets the spring run. At this point, it was around 4:30 and we were done playing in the high flow of the rushing spring water. I had my hood on and could hear some low grumbles but was far to intent on taking pictures to think twice about what was actually happening. As soon as I surfaced, the rest of the crew waved me towards shore and we made a run from the thunder that was quickly approaching.
But soon after the thunder started, it slowly became more distant and there was a break in the rain. Austin and Jennie headed home while Kate, Will, and I geared up for a dive in the main Ginnie cavern. We were originally planning on doing a galaxy dive with glow sticks, but we decided to jump in earlier while the weather was still ok. There were so many clouds that it was basically a night dive anyway. This is the main basin, and the entrance to the cavern is the dark area on the far right.
Keep out! These bars are welded over the cave entrance in the main Ginnie cavern. The cavern is open to open water divers, so the park does all in its power to keep people out of trouble... unfortunately it took an accident or two before these bars literally held people back.  One of my favorite things to do in the cavern is kick with all my might to swim up and hold onto the bars then let go, close my eyes, and let the strong flow push me back towards the middle of the large room. 
There is one spot in the back left corner of the cavern where you can swim up from below and pop your head up in a circular rock. The only way to get out is to go back down the chimney-like swimthrough because all around you it's a tight squeeze. In the picture above, there is only about a foot between the ceiling and the sand. The pools on the cavern roof are trapped air bubbles that have no path to the surface.
The american eel (Auguilla rostrata) is one of the only forms of wildlife you will find in the cavern - this one was all the way at the bottom in about 65 feet of water. They have an amazing life cycle, originating in the Sargasso Sea (read more here: 
Pending thunderstorms underwater? As we swam out of the cavern and towards the stairs,  sand at the surface took on the appearance of a big thunderhead. Runoff from all of the rain that day caused sand from the banks to rush into the spring and spread out, suspended at the surface and waiting to get trapped in our gear.
Not bad for a rainy Saturday afternoon... I was happy after 3 dives and 238 pictures. More pictures are here (in the same album "Gills" with photos from Madison Blue and Troy Springs).