Socorro

fish

A long time ago I saw an IMAX movie about diving in Mexico where the diver came face to face with a giant manta. It glided around him effortlessly – even though it was more than 20 feet across – and fearlessly. That experience lodged itself deeply in my subconscious and my life list plan and after a scouting trip to Cabo San Lucas, much planning and saving and waiting, we were off to the Revillagigedo Islands (better known as Socorro after the largest island) with Big Fish Expeditions this past March.

wave

We had packed and re-packed our bags, trying to find the balance between bringing everything we might need and keeping the bags under the weight limit, and we had practiced saying Revillagigedo over and over again but nothing could have prepared us for flying into Cabo on Spring break *and* St. Patrick’s day. “Plane’s late, we’re doing shots!” and “Has anyone seen my passport?” were both things we heard even before boarding (a guy vomiting off of a second floor balcony at our hotel was something we heard much later).

I despised Cabo the last time we were there but we were only in town for one day before setting off on the next leg of our journey – almost 400 km out to an island chain that we wouldn’t even be able to set foot on. Adventure time!

Sharks

As we approached the island, boobies and other sea birds started to appear and then humpback whales with their calves – teaching them how to breach and tail slap – and then a manta ray and then a silky shark. This is from the BOAT, mind you. Amazing animal sightings and we hadn’t even gotten wet yet.

We came for the giant mantas but after a couple of checkout dives at the Canyon (on San Benedicto) we headed over to Roca Partida – “Split Rock” aka Disneyland for Divers, aka Heaven Under Water – and over the next 2 days found whitetip reef sharks (with some obviously pregnant females) crammed onto the ledges carved out of the rock , Galapagos sharks, silvertip sharks, hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks, some tuna and THEN a whale shark (a couple of months earlier than expected for the area) and then finally, yes, there was a manta. There were also lots and lots of fish. Through it all we could the humpback whales singing their hearts out. Like I said, The Happiest Place on Earth (or at least Underwater).

Whale shark

The first manta we saw was flat black, like a Stealth Bomber, with silvery remoras stuck to the top side. Then a larger black and white one came in and checked us out but it was a bit like being in a three ring circus with the sharks and the whale shark and the mantas so it wasn’t until the next day at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) that we had our first proper encounter with them.

Dolphins

But first there were dolphins. I thought the crew was joking when he said the dolphins showed up at 8 AM sharp, like greeters at Walmart but when we arrived at the shark cleaning station, hanging onto rocks in the strong current, they suddenly appeared behind us, clicking and chirping. There were probably about 20 of them and unlike when we dove with them in Cabo Pulmo a few years ago, these guys came close and stuck around. Over the next few days we dove with dolphins 4 or 5 times and each time they were curious and unafraid, playing with each other and cruising around to see what we were all about. What an unexpected treat!

Giant manta

Like the dolphins, the mantas were also curious about us and came in close to check us out at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) and The Boiler on San Benedicto. The Boiler is a beautiful site even without any pelagic creatures in it but when the mantas started showing up they were between 12 – 20 feet across, gliding majestically and hovering near the divers in order to look at us. Several times I had my camera in front of me to take a photo and the manta would hang out until I had lowered it, recognizing that it wasn’t my eye. Incredible! And then they would swim through the bubbles, coming close enough that I was eye to eye with the remora fish stuck to their bellies more than once. The mantas come to the area for cleaning stations where Clarion Angel fish clean them of the parasites that they pick up (and the fish do such a good job of this that they nibbled at my hair a couple of times too!) but they largely ignored the fish in favour of bubbles and a sometimes the individuals would even follow us up to our safety stop and then to the surface. At one point, it seemed like a large female was trying to follow us out of the water – she had a wing out of the water as we climbed into the Zodiac and then continued to follow us. It’s pretty hard not to anthropomorphize that kind of behaviour and we were just in awe…grinning for days.

Manta ray

In between manta encounters we watched the sea birds play in the wind and humpback whales teaching their calves to breach (as well as other whale behaviour) in the bays around the boat. So cute as they tried to emulate their mothers and only sometimes got it right! At one point the wind was up and the swim grid of our boat was slapping the water pretty hard. In response, a humpback calf started slapping its tail against the water – a form of non-vocal communication in the whales – and did about 20 slaps before diving back into the water. We took the Zodiacs out a couple of times to free dive with whales and got to see a mother and a calf up close a couple of times. They are absolutely stunning creatures, and also staggeringly large – with one twitch of a tail they were out of sight almost instantly.

Dolphins

As the week went on, the dives kept getting better and better and the trip more and more unbelievable. I caught myself saying greedy things like, “it would be cool to see a hammerhead today since we haven’t seen one in a couple of days,” and then laughing into my regulator when my wish came true every time. Matt and I agreed several times that we were going to have to find a way to come back every year – until we realized that we had had an exceptionally good time of it and probably wouldn’t be so lucky on every trip.

But still, I can’t wait to go back. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. The crew was excellent, the food was amazing, ship was great, our group of new friends were just awesome, the animals were absolutely incredible…even the weather was perfect. A trip of a lifetime, to be sure. ¡Hasta luego, Socorro! See you again real soon.

Manta ray

Here are the rest of the photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157644447318893/

And here is the official trip report from Big Fish: http://bigfishexpeditions.com/Socorro_2014.html

Desert

 

Hawai’i: Maui and Kona

Flying

Hawaii was nice. How can Hawaii not be nice?! Unlike Kiev and Prague, this trip has been on the books for a while – it was Matt’s pick after we got back from the Bahamas last winter and he has especially been looking forward to going somewhere beachy and warm so a quick trip to paradise to get in some sunshine, downtime and great diving was just so nice.

Hawaii

It had been a long time since I was last in Hawaii last and probably a decade for the time before that, but my grandmother used to live in Makaha on Oahu part time and so we went what seemed like often when we were kids. I remember falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the ocean, crawling the beach to collect little knobs of coral and digging big pits (instead of castles) in the sand. When we were still too small to swim in the surf my my grandmother used to hold us and body surf us through the waves until our homemade swimsuits were full of sand. When we came inside, she would cut up fresh papaya for a snack and these things must have made an impact because I have never lost my love of the sea and fresh fruit.

Honoloa Beach

Matt had never been to Hawaii so we split the difference between Maui (which I thought he would like best) and Kona (where I wanted to go on the manta ray night dive) and that worked out well except that we both wanted to spend more time in both places. Ah well, next time.

Honokowai

MAUI

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lahaina less horribly touristy than I remembered (although we did have a couple of terrible meals there and why does every restaurant or retail shop in Hawaii seem to have a T-shirt for sale?) but we were still happy to be staying in quiet, tiny Honokowai, with a lush garden in front of our condo and the ocean working its endless magic steps away from our door. The first night after we got settled in to the condo we went and sat by the ocean until we lost all the light and could only hear the waves lapping at the seawall beneath our feet.

And then went to bed because we had a 4 AM wake up call to go and see the sunrise on Haleakala. Diving and flying gets complicated on an archipelago with 10,000 ft peaks so we decided to get the heights over with first thing and booked in our diving after that.

Haleakala

Thankfully we had the time change on our side because it actually didn’t seem that bad when we were stumbling around getting dressed. The summit is a polar region and we hadn’t packed accordingly so I just wore all the warm things I had; a t-shirt, my rash-guard, a paper-thin windbreaker…and flip flops. Matt had said so many times leading up to the trip that he just wanted to sit under a tree and read that I hadn’t even bothered to bring shoes or socks. That’ll be my lesson learned.

 

Haleakala

The last time I climbed Haleakala I made it about an hour’s hike into the valley before I was overcome by altitude sickness. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I was moving through toothpaste and my boyfriend was getting farther and farther away no matter how hard I tried to keep up. Finally I just sat down next to an alien-looking tree and cried. We eventually figured out what was going on but then we still had to climb all the way back up to the visitor’s centre. It wasn’t fun and I wasn’t anxious to repeat it so I made Matt go slowly and stop whenever there was a pullout which made the two hour trip drag. By the time we got the to summit, the morning light had illuminated the clouds and brought some definition into the crater. Several people had assembled, wearing whatever warm things they could collect from their rooms – beach towels and house robes were common – and I was not the only one with toes showing! What a motley crew we looked like to greet the rising sun!

Walterses

Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and in Hawaiian history, the summit was only accessible to priests. It’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred space. We were on top of the world, high above the clouds and the light reflecting off of them and into the moon-like crater was incredible. Through the occasional break we could see all the way to the sea and in the distance far below us the West Maui mountains that had seemed so large when we drove past that morning.

I’m not normally one for sunrises but when there is in fact something magical in watching the first ray of sunshine break into the day and even more so when a park ranger chants a mele oli” (chanted poem) in honour of it:

Haleakala sunrise mele oli

Dolphins

The next day we headed out to sea. After discussing with Lahaina Divers, we decided to do the Cathedrals – beautifully formed lava caves – off the coast of Lana’i and the hammerhead sharks dive off the coast of Moloka’i. Later we added a couple of dives on Maui to round it out but even before we got to our first dive site we were joined by a pod of 40-50 dolphins. They surrounded the boat when it slowed but as soon as the captain resumed speed they sped up excitedly to ride our bow waves then dropping back to leap through and do flips in the wake. I laughed out loud at the site of such pure and obvious joy – they are truly the puppies of the ocean.

Cathedral

The Cathedrals were as beautiful as I remembered and we got to see the rare albino black coral “chandelier” that hangs from the ceiling. It’s a testament to the dive shops in the area educating divers that it’s still intact…we saw much coral-kicking on this trip but at least the stony reef-building corals are a little heartier.

Fish

We were enjoying the chill diving so much that we decided to just stay on the boat for the afternoon dives too. That turned out to be an excellent idea because our last dive on at Mala Pier was one to remember!  It’s a collapsed pier so it has the air of a shipwreck with all the beams and boards piled on each other and provides some great swim-throughs for divers and/or hide-outs for turtles, sharks and schools of fish – we saw all of them as well as a squadron of spotted eagle rays.

Urchin

Perhaps because it’s a busy site also accessible from the shore, or perhaps because there were so many places to hide the creatures didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest. One giant turtle kept a baleful eye on me while he surfaced for a breath but a moment later I turned around to see him swimming by right behind me. And I hurriedly snapped a photo of the eagle rays on the first pass, expecting them to bolt but they cruised by so many times afterwards that I got tired of pointing them out. Even the sharks were chill.

Matt

It’s a stunning dive site and I look forward to diving it again some day – hopefully at night.

Walterses

The next day we headed out to Mokuho’oniki Rock off the coast of Molokai to dive with hammerhead sharks. This was a life-list item for me so I was really happy that we were in Hawaii on a date that the shop was going out. They considered it an advanced dive so Matt had some detailed questions about depths and current and etc. but it turned out to be me who needed to be nervous because getting there involved crossing the dreaded Pailolo channel – Hawaiian for “crazy water.” In the briefing the captain warned that meds might help any people prone to seasickness on normal trips but on this one we were pretty much “f——“. Yikes!

Hammerhead

I wouldn’t pass up a chance to dive with hammers even if I had to be dragged behind the boat so we signed up anyways and it turned out to be not too bad at all. The first site of these majestic creatures made it all worth while anyways and we were lucky enough to see three hammerheads and a Galapagos shark gliding through the blue water on each dive, with two of them swimming along together on the last one. It was just so beautiful to watch and I only wish that we were a little bit closer or that the photos had turned out a little better but I think Matt got some video as well. At any rate, life list item #64 completed!

Degan

One drawback  of all that sun and salt is that my hair had almost no red in it by the end of the trip (more like a pinky coral colour) so I love this photo that Matt got of me underwater where I look like some kind of tropical fish (also showing off the new octo tattoo in its natural element!).

Jeep

Maui is pretty spread out so we spent a fair amount of time in the Jeep driving around. On one of the days that we were going to Lahaina there was an accident and way too much traffic on the road so we decided to just take the long way around the West Maui mountains and see what we could see. We had an Adventure-Mobile, after all.

Honoloa Beach

As we drove north from Honokowai we came up to stunning Honolua Beach where there is good surfing and snorkeling / diving on alternating days. Then the road narrowed and as we got into some seriously lush countryside we passed several signs that warned we were on a one lane highway (as if that wasn’t obvious) and that we had left the official roadway behind. We learned later that this was also the point you weren’t supposed to take the rental cars past but it was great to see the rugged coastline and rural communities up there and it took a lot less time than driving to Hana.

Driving

KONA

Life list item #67 was to do the manta ray night dive in Kona and it seems a bit incredible to check two things off in one week but we only had two days on the big island – one to do the manta ray night dive and one to get the nitrogen out of our bloodstreams before flying – so that meant we weren’t able to summit Mauna Kea or see the lava fields on Mount Kilauea or do the pelagic magic night dive… so while I may have checked some things off the list,  I’ve also added a few to it as well.

manta ray

The build up to the manta dive terrified me. The boat was full of both divers and snorkelers and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on but they were all doing it exuberantly. When we got to the dive site we found that we were not the only ones, but apparently one of several such boats all decked out with lights and surfboards rigged with PVC pipes ready to see some manta rays. The idea was for all 70 – 90 people to be in the water all at about the same time. Matt saw the incredulity in my eyes and asked out right, “this is going to be worth it, right?.” The dive master assured us that it would be but a few minutes later when he asked who was on their first night dive I thought it was a joke because I could not imagine putting new night divers into that chaos.  And then we were in the water, trying to keep one eye out for manta rays and another on our guide.

The idea is that the divers stay low to the ground and shine their lights up while the snorkelers hang on to the surfboards and shine their lights down. Plankton is attracted to the light and then the rays come to feed on it. It all started when a hotel (now the Sheraton) was shining lights into the bay for their night swimmers and noticed that the rays were gathering. While the hotel was closed for renos the site moved to the current location where we were diving but they seem to travel up and down the coast – we went to the hotel for dinner later and saw a couple of manta rays from the patio!

We only saw one manta ray on our dive – Eli, the same juvenile that we had seen on our check-out dive – and I found out later that the record number of rays they’ve seen there is 44,with the norm being somewhere between 17 – 20.  So I consider ourselves just a tiny bit screwed on the manta ray front but by the same token it was such a spectacular dive with an octopus and several trumpet fish and eels hunting off our lights and I also consider myself very lucky to have been so close to the manta ray so frequently during the dive. Many people didn’t see him at all.

Degan Walters

On our last day in Hawaii we didn’t have a lot of options. We couldn’t dive or go above 2000 feet (so no horseback riding or ziplining or summiting volcanoes), we didn’t have a car (so no plantation tours) and we needed our gear to dry (so no snorkeling) so as a pretty awesome last resort we walked into town and hung out at the Kona Brewing Company for lunch. We had been in love with the Big Wave golden ale since the day we landed in Maui but I tried a couple of blond and wheat variations and Matt dug into the IPAs and we were both pretty happy about that.

dog camp (1)

Riley was at Camp Good Dog for the first time and it seems like she may have had as much fun as we did.

Here are all of the photos from our trip:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157637717057644/with/10897388444/

Let’s Save Sharks – Now

stop_shark_finning …Actually, it’s more like 100 million and could be as much as 273 million. That’s 11,417 sharks killed every hour, primarily for their fins – a fuck of a lot. It’s hard to imagine killing that many mosquitos every hour, never mind an apex predator / endangered species / animal that has survived for 400 million years (but there’s a handy infographic at the bottom of this post that will help a bit with visualization). We’ve been warned that if declines in marine species continue at the current rate, the world will run out of seafood by 2048. Susan Carey, author of ‘Devil’s Teeth‘, puts it another way:

“The aquatic environment is being altered radically before we’ve even begun to understand it, an insane game of brinksmanship with potentially catastrophic results. And even as $10 billion is allocated for interplanetary exploration, ocean conservationists – monitoring 71% of the earth – struggle for funding. Meanwhile commercial fishing remains a zero-sum game, habitats are being destroyed, species lost forever.”

This is obscene. I didn’t know whether to start with the facts or with a heart-felt plea but now that there are several statistics in play, here’s the plea: let’s save sharks NOW. We are killing them faster than they can reproduce and we are well past the point of a sustainable shark fishery. We have to get on this before there are no sharks – or fish! – left at all and while the issue of over-fishing and the collapse of regional fisheries is a big one (and well worth being informed about), sharks are close to my heart so I’m starting here.

Finning is a barbaric where the dorsal and pectoral fins of a live shark are cut off and the shark is tossed back into the ocean where it drowns. 90% of the meat is wasted. While shark meat is not uncommon in some cultures, most of the sharks being killed now are killed by being finned in order to maximize the ship’s haul with the most valuable parts. The fins are destined for shark fin soup, a centuries-old Chinese delicacy that used to be reserved for royalty but in more recent years the demand for shark fin soup has risen exponentially with the rising nouveau riche to a point where it is severely impacting the balance of the ocean.

Stop Shark Finning

Sharks grow very slowly and have a long gestation period, sometimes only birthing a couple of pups every few years, so they don’t stand a chance when they’re being killed off in such record numbers. Not surprisingly, many shark species have declined by more than 90% in the last 50 years and more than a third of all shark species (more than 500 in total) are facing extinction.

For a soup that apparently doesn’t even have a distinct taste, this is just not okay.

Sharks are important to healthy marine life because as the ocean’s apex predator, they keep the food chain in balance and the oceans healthy by preying on sick and weak animals, keeping the next lower level of fish stock in good shape. Without sharks, the lower carnivore classes would bloat and become disease-ridden, degrading the species and over time these species will die out and we’ll be left with only algae and jellies. Susan Carey writes in ‘Devil’s Teeth’ that, “Monkeying around with the balance of nature is the ultimate fool’s game. Strip away the top of the food chain and the bottom is likely to sprawl with opportunistic animals dominating and breeding unchecked. Worms, viruses, parasites and their ilk having a high old time. Oceans without sharks would be a pest-filled affair, and that’s only the most obvious side effect.”

shark

This is happening. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to go and see what there is to see under the sea but in the years that I’ve been diving, I’ve already noticed the decline and I spend far less time in shark-infested waters than other experts. One of the first times I saw a shark was in 2005 at the Blue Hole in Belize. And I didn’t just see one shark. As we descended to 130 feet we saw huge sharks all the way down and back up again (with a couple of huge groupers thrown in for good measure). They were interested in us divers as a curiosity, swimming past at a distance to get a better look (or smell) but posed no danger. I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I was grinning into my regulator but the dive master I was swimming beside me was going out of his mind, pointing to all the sharks and making the sign for “shark” and then “big fucking shark” over and over again. On the surface later, I learned that despite coming to this site regularly for work, he had never seen so many sharks. Neither had I, obviously, and sometimes I think that I’m not likely to again. This shark research program (that I hope to participate in) writes about Belize, “My team has deployed baited remote underwater videos (BrUVs)—underwater video traps to count sharks and other fish—on reefs where gillnets and fishing are allowed, and found that sharks are nearly absent on these reefs.” In the Bahamas we scoured reefs that, while healthy, were quiet. No sharks for days and when they did show up it was a handful of tiny ones. And this in a place that has banned shark fishing in favour of promoting shark tourism.

Why are we allowing this to happen? Is it only because we can’t see to the bottom that we assume the sea will keep providing, no matter how much we take out of it? Is it because sharks have an image problem and no one cares if they’re killed by the thousands? No one eats lions or gorillas any more. Worldwide awareness have helped to protect them enough that those species are stable. Whale populations have been able to bounce back from the brink of extinction now that most of the world has agreed to stop whaling. Sharks can be the new whales

There’s been some progress. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) have granted three hammerhead species, the porbeagle shark, the oceanic whitetip, and both types of manta rays protected status along with the basking shark, whale shark, and great white shark on Appendix II, which requires permits to export.

CITES plenary today accepted Committee recommendations to list five species of highly traded sharks under the CITES Appendices, along with those for the listing of both manta rays and one species of sawfish. Japan, backed by Gambia and India, unsuccessfully challenged the Committee decision to list the oceanic whitetip shark, while Grenada and China failed in an attempt to reopen debate on listing three hammerhead species. Colombia, Senegal, Mexico and others took the floor to defend Committee decisions to list sharks.

In addition to protecting those shark species, this plenary has generated a lot of increased awareness in sharks and shark conservation. There’s hope.

sharks

An interviewee in The End of the Line (a documentary about over-fishing) says, “Man is not going to change and the sea is going to be dead because man is crazy.” I don’t believe that. I can’t. I believe that people are generally good and that they’l make the right decisions if they’re informed. I believe that if enough people are informed the social pressure will change culture. I believe we have a chance, but we don’t have very much time.

 

What You Can Do

 

Sharks killed 12 people last year. We killed 100 million sharks – that’s 11,417 sharks killed every hour. Joe Chernov created this infographic to help visualize that number: Shark-Attack-Stop-Finning-Infographic