JANUARY 2011: My Surface Interval named one of the best scuba diving blogs

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wreck Divers Plunder Greek Heritage

What happened to ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but bubbles’?

It seems that some divers are prepared to ignore the old diving adage so that they can have a prized bit of ancient pottery on their mantelpiece.

According to the Guardian newspaper, modern day treasure hunters are looting the underwater heritage around the Greek islands since the lifting of a ban on coastal scuba-diving six years ago.

The Mediterranean sea, described by Paul Rose in his book 'Oceans', as the Cradle of Western Civilization, is one of the world’s most important seas when it comes to providing a window on our past.

On its banks it grew many of the great early civilisations and it was the Phoenicians who first developed the science of seafaring. Archaeologists believe it was the Mediterranean itself that allowed this rapid growth, as those intrepid enough plied the waves as both explorers and traders. Such communities became richer, culturally and economically.

As a result, archaeologists believe there are thousands of shipwrecks lying beneath the waves containing priceless treasures and evidence of man’s early life.

Unfortunately, it would appear that treasure hunters, encouraged by scuba-diving websites from America to Australia, are now plundering this archaeological and cultural heritage.

I don’t suppose it should come as a surprise, having read Shadow Divers and Deep Decent (Kevin F McMurray). Both recount tales of 'China Fever' among extreme divers pushing themselves to the limits as they scoured the wreck of the Andrea Doria for bits of crockery. Sadly some didn't live to have a plate or cup on their mantelpiece.

Surely us scuba divers have a responsibility to protect wrecks and archaeological discoveries in much the same way we delicately treat the coral reefs which provide much of our pleasure.

I can’t imagine many of us would stand by watching someone rip up a giant fan coral, so why should we sit back while others take amphoras, ingots and whatever other treasure they can lay their hands on?

Leave the recovery of artifacts to the experts

Maritime archaeologists from around the world regularly search around the Greek islands for ancient shipwrecks that they hope with shed another shaft of light onto our past. Perhaps we should leave the removal of artifacts to their expert hands.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Nonsense

Came across this on the Daily Mail website.

The video on YouTube purports to show a daredevil surfer baiting a Great White Shark to take him for a ride by towing his surfboard along. The video has swept around the world in recent weeks.

Real or hoax, I'll let you decide but it is silly.

New Scuba Diving Dry Suit

Sorting out my kit after the weekend's fun at Dosthill, I realised why my feet were so cold - a small leak in my trusty Oceanic HD400 dry suit had left my boots more than a little damp.

I can't complain thought, it's been a great suit for the money and is perfect for new divers faced with trying to get kitted up.

I've been thinking of changing it for a while and rather than spend money on repairing a suit that has lasted me five years, I've decided to upgrade.

But, with so many suits on the market, the decision on what suit to have next has left me more than a bit confused.

Everyone of the instructors I assist rave about their DUI dry suit. While I can't disagree with the sentiment over the Aston Martin of dry suits, they are a tad expensive and, being American made, the price has just gone up due to the falling value of Sterling (even us divers are not immune from the credit crunch).

My thoughts have switched to another Oceanic, this time the trilaminate Aerdura Black. With a choice of traditional back zip or front loader, Oceanic are now also offering the option of neoprene socks with rock boots above the standard boot.

It also looks cool all in black.

Someone described it as the "suit of choice" recently and I have to agree when looking at my budget. So next month I'll have to go for a fitting and let you know how it feels.

But if you have any other ideas, please let me know.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scuba diver dies at Stoney Cove

Just come across a piece of sad news.

While we were enjoying Dosthill over the weekend, staff at our next favourite inland site were dealing with a tragedy.

The Sunderland Echo reported that a rescue operation was launched at Stoney Cove after diver James Henry Askew got into difficulties and failed to resurface after a dive on Saturday.

The body of the 35-year-old, from Stockton, was found in about 35 metres of water. Stoney Cove boss Alan King was reported in the Echo as saying it was believed he had had a problem with his regulator and had possibly become separated from his buddy, although the events that led up to the tragedy will be accurately determined by the HSE and police investigation.

A stark reminder for us all, particularly in the winter months when the cold puts extra stress on our bodies and equipment, to ensure we check and double-check our gear before getting in the water.

We should also remember our training and always ensure proper buddy contact particularly in the cold when there is a risk of regulator free-flows (although, I must stress that we don't know whether that was an issue here).

Thoughts go out to Mr Askew's family and diving pals at what is an incredibly difficult time for them all.

Meanwhile, a police diver suffering with the bends had to be flown to the Wirral for hospital treatment after becoming ill while on a training exercise near Chepstow.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Regulator Free flow

What the weekend's cold water diving highlighted was the possibility of regulators going into free flow (where the second stage sticks open releasing a continuous stream of air), particularly during deep dives when the temperature of the water is at its coldest.

Thanks to Vinni at Aquasport International in Birmingham, below are a few easy steps to preventing free-flows and dealing with them should they happen.
  • Ensure your regulator is well maintained and serviced properly.
  • If you are using hose protectors, pull them down a little to expose the metal fittings at the first stage. These will act as a heat sink warming the air in the hose slightly before it reaches the second stage.
  • Keep your regulators in the passenger compartment of your car - not in the unheated boot - on the way to the dive site.
  • Ensure the inside of the regulator is kept dry, particularly between dives.
  • Don’t leave the air turned on for long periods of time between dives. Once you have checked the system after assembly, purge and switch off.
  • Avoid breathing into you second stage prior to buddy checks and avoid purging your regs.
  • Don’t leave equipment on the ground where it could be colder and damper than a few feet higher.

During the dive:

  • Set your ‘dial-a-breath’ resistance knob to it's least sensitive point where it requires most effort to crack it, and the venturi switch across the air flow.
  • Enter the water with you primary second stage in your mouth and the octopus mouthpiece down.
  • Try to avoid high impact entries, such as giant strides which put gear under strain.
  • Also avoid long surface swims which could leave you over-exerted and with a higher than normal breathing rate.
  • Keep your regulator in your mouth for the duration of the dive.
  • Try not to use the purge button at any point. If you have to use gently progressive pressure rather than one sharp stab
  • Avoid deep or strenuous dives which will push regulators to their limits.
  • Maintain proper buddy contact to ensure you are there for each other in the event of a problem.

If the worst does happen, stay calm and remember your training. We all trained to breath from a free flowing reg in our open water training and it is straight forward to ascend while doing so. You may find it stops at shallower depths.

You can also ascend on your buddy’s alternate. While doing so and if it is safe, get them to turn off your cylinder for a few moments and open the valve again slowly to see if the free-flow has subsided.

Thankfully, I've only ever had to bring one diver up from depth (20m) after a free-flow and the training kicked in perfectly. It's not as daunting as you might think.

First Scuba Diving Trip of the Year

After a few weeks off following Christmas and a busy few weeks at work, I finally got back into the water at the weekend.........and boy was it bracing.

The weekend I joined a couple of instructors running a PADI Advanced Open Water course at Dosthill Quarry, near Tamworth, in Staffs, UK.

Despite the cold waters, I had a cracking time.

AOW is a great course to help run - particularly when divers sign up for a January course, as you know they are going to be keen and excited with the underwater world.

Okay, the 5C temperature of the water had the potential to be a bit of a dampener but we all had a good time, with six dives over Saturday (dry suit, wreck and peak performance buoyancy adventure dives) and Sunday (deep, navigation and peak performance buoyancy adventure dives).

Sadly, the deep dive at 20m proved a bit of a challenge on Sunday after the bottom-dredgers in their twin sets and ponies had stomped over it.

Sometimes I wonder if its even worth giving them fins the way they walk over the silty bottom and I do wish they'd learn some buoyancy control to avoid turning the viz into pea soup for everyone else that follows.

Maybe they should have watched our students, who quickly grasped control of their buoyancy and fine-tuned it brilliantly over the weekend. Unlike my AOW course.

It might be in the distant past but it's still fresh in the mind. On my first dive (dry suit adventure dive) I remember seeing the back shelf at eight metres, then the surface......then the back shelf......then the surface.

Graphing my dive profile on my computer, it looked like a really toothy Jaws was about to jump out of the screen - but that's entry-level dry suit diving for you. Now I wouldn't be without one.

While the DM's job can be the busiest when it comes to logistics of the weekend (issuing kit, sorting out problems, getting people ready for the dive) it's also the most rewarding, particularly by the end of Sunday when the four smiling faces collected their certificates.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Best Places to go Diving?

After the brief US-bashing marine conservation post below, lets get back to scuba diving.
The Great Barrier reef job offer (I still might apply) outlined in a previous post got me thinking about my next foreign diving jolly and where to go.

My wife and I have trouped around the world to some fantastic places courtesy of high street travel companies. But, fancying somewhere different this year, I wondered whether there were any great undiscovered dive spots left? To be honest, I'd settle for somewhere off the beaten track and away from the Red Sea destinations that us UK divers favour.

The book Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die gave me a few ideas. Honduras for the whale shark watching, or how about Hawaii for north Pacific diving?
Then there was the Mergui Archipeligo off Myanmar (Burma to the rest of us). That is pretty new and only a few boats from north Thailand head that way. But would it be right to dive there knowing the political situation in a country run by a military junta?
The dive centre I do some work for has already organised a liveaboard trip doing the northern wrecks in the Red Sea which is a fantastic destination, so that is still on the cards.

Time for some research. I'll let you know what I find but your recommendations would be most welcome.


Strange place, the Land of the Free.
Particularly when it comes to marine conservation.
Hooray for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who, according to the Anchorage Daily News, want to put a hold on any industrial fishing in the US portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas before skippers have a chance to rip through the area and risk damaging fish stocks now the changing ice caps might open up the Arctic.
But big Boos to the US Navy for risking the dwindling population of right whales with a new sub-busting system of sonar beacons they want to place off the coast of Florida, as reported on the Florida Today website.
Environmentalists fear the device could damage the mammals' ability to navigate, increasing the risk of beaching and death as they migrate and calve along Florida's east coast. The US Navy is adamant the system and training ground is important to head off a sub attack.
I didn't realise the US Government's War on Terror was so worried about Bin Laden sneaking up in a sub. But hey, it could happen. Remember Steven Spielberg's cautionary tale 1941.
The most worrying aspect is the comments from some readers obviously accepting to collateral damage. To summarise, it's okay that the whales might die, as long as Al Qaida can't sneak in to Florida in a sub.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best Job In The World? Probably

If Carlsberg did job offers...................................this could be yours.

During these days of doom and gloom you can trust the Australians to give us some cheer with a job offer to end all job offers - a (Aust) $150,000 six month contract based on a Great Barrier Reef island.

Tourism Queensland has launched a search for someone to be a a six-month caretaker on the tropical Hamilton Island.
The paradise island boasts year-round sunshine, sandy beaches, warm lagoons and sea life galore. Chores apparently include feeding the turtles, watching whales, oh and collecting the post. Damn, that's taxing!

The successful candidate will also have to go scuba diving, snorkelling and hiking and enjoy at least 25 nearby island resorts. Thrown in is a luxury three-bedroom home and transportation to and from the island.

Acting Premier Paul Lucas said the campaign was part of the State Government's push to drive international tourism during some of the toughest international tourism climates every experienced.

He said: "The successful applicant will live on Hamilton Island for six months and travel to other Islands of the Great Barrier Reef and report back on their adventures to a global audience via weekly blogs, photo diaries, video updates.

"They'll also have to talk to media from time to time about what they're doing so they can't be too shy and they'll have to love the sea, the sun, the outdoors.

"The fact that they will be paid to explore the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef, swim, snorkel and generally live the Queensland lifestyle makes this undoubtedly the best job in the world."

Not surprisingly, the offer had already attracted 200,000 potential whales-watching, turtle-feeding postmen - crashing the website. Closing date in February 22. Good luck!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Green Force Torch

Below is my review of the Green Force AA12 trorch with Tristar Plus LED Dimmable head that I first posted on the Dive Magazine website in a bid to win a canvas Great White Shark print taken by Maria Munn of ocean Visions.
Apologies for the length but I've chucked everything in for you.


Strengths:As tough as Chuck Norris, ruggedly stylish as Steve McQueen, flexible as Olga Korbett and as bright as the nerdy kid at school who always put their hand up when the teacher asked a question

Weaknesses:Not cheap. Clumsy divers risk flood it when switching it off and the different brightness settings require the reflexes of…someone with very good reflexes.

Writing a review on a dive torch always seemed somewhat pointless to me. You get into the water, turn it on and point the shiny end at the thing you want to see. If the lamp is any good said thing will exude a wonderful spectrum of colour. Simple. Straightforward. Job done.

But that was before I agonised for two months over whether to part with more than £350 notes for the Belgium-made Green Force AA12 Tristar Plus and struggled to find a truly warts-and-all independent perspective.

So what do you get for your money?Green Force torches are the Land Rover of dive lights, expensive but ruggedly stylish. The company’s selling point is that the system is completely modular. You buy a battery pack and marry it up with a light head of your choice, be it halogen, LED or HID. Then simply interchange and upgrade parts as you wish, or turn it from a hand torch to a cylinder-mounted umbilical, without having to splash out on the basics again.

My mid-priced pack came with an AA12 battery, Tristar Plus dimmable LED head, mains charger, charging pin, carry cases and towel, a package vastly cheaper than the sum of its parts.The unit works by screwing the head fully into the battery (or umbilical) until the connections meet.

Three O-rings provide protection from flooding and a half twist either way is enough to switch the light on or off. But here is my first quibble. While you have no switches to worry about leaking, a lot of hard-earned cash is being entrusted to three O-rings, and a diver’s grasp of half-a-turn. I fear some could flood their unit if not careful, or narked (yes, it happens to us all) by unscrewing it too far at depth. To avoid that I switched mine on just before hitting the water and left it on.The three o-rings require regular checks and battery is a bit high-maintenance. But that should keep many divers like me happy on the wet weekday nights when we long to be in the water.

Once assembled, the black-ridged battery cylinder and the greeny-gold aluminium light head resembled an underwater lightsaber (ok, I’m a child of the 70s) and I hit the water like some diving Jedi. Rather than buy the handle, I fixed a split ring and dog-clip to a hole in the battery casing (designed for the handle fixing) and hung it from a D-ring on the shoulder of my BCD. That allowed me to hold the torch comfortably without having to extend my arm in front of me and gave me peace of mind knowing that, should I let go, it would dangle from my jacket rather than vanish to the depths.

The Tristar Plus has three bright and unbreakable LEDs which deliver 30 watts but require very little power, giving 150 minutes of burn time with the AA12 battery. I easily got two 60 minute dives out of mine with no problems. but if that’s not enough, fit the head to the Flexi IV battery and get 960 minutes burn time. Oh, the beauty of a modular system.

The colour temperature of the LEDs is closer to natural daylight than halogen bulbs and helps replace colours normally lost to the blue (not as well as the costly HID heads do but I can always upgrade later). The 20-degree beam also produces a nice cool and evenly diffused light.

Diving the James Eagan Layne on a particularly bad day, it certainly helped slice through the murk and on a night dive, it illuminated so much reef I thought the sun had come up early. I didn't miss much on that dive. The dimmable LED head has three brightness settings, a strobe and an SOS.

And here is my second quibble. To switch between them you first have to turn the light on, then turn it off after less than five seconds, and then back on again. To go from maximum brightness to SOS you have to repeat the process four times. A bit of a fiddle and a faff and, 20m down, we all know five seconds becomes 15 in no time. It is a feature I can see few divers making full use of.

So, if after reading 750 odd words on a tube with a shiny end you're still asking if you should buy one, my answer is an unequivocal ‘Yes. For the Force is strong in this one.’

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Scuba Diving Equipment Advice #1

After attending a scuba equipment seminar last night I thought I would pass on my advice for new divers when it comes to buying their own gear.

My first bit of advice is get kitted up as quickly as your wallet will allow - those with their own gear dive more. FACT. If you are learning it means you want to dive - and as much as possible - so get started with some kit.

So in the first of an occasional series, here's what to look for when buying a mask.

Find one that fits - place the mask lightly against your face and inhale slightly through the nose. The mask should sit on you face. Have someone peer into the mask to check the inner edge of the frame/skirt sits nicely against the face running either side of the face to the cheekbones. If it sticks out over the eyes, it's too small so try another.

Simple. But that is the easy bit. The trials and tribulations are now which one you pick from the plethora on the shelves of you dive store.

Go low volume - these are masks that sit the lenses closer to your eyes. This offers greater field of vision and are easier the clear when flooded. 'No-frame' designs reduce weight and provides one of the largest fields-of-view

see Tusa website

Lenses - should be made of tempered glass. Single-lens masks provide a broad, uninterrupted view but twin-lens masks have become increasingly popular because they typically have a lower internal volume.
They also allow for corrective lenses to be added for those with sight problems.
The size of the lens will affect the field of vision. Some masks now (like the Oceanic Neo 2, Tusa Visulator or Scubapro Spectra) have oversized lenses to increase the field of vision. Others such as the Oceanic Ion 3 and 4, Tusa Splendive IV or Scubapro Crystalvu have side windows to offer greater panoramic view for greater peripheral views.
Look for lenses such as Atomic's Ultraclear. Some lenses come with a green tint to them (place the mask over a piece of white paper to see) which is the result of iron impurities in low quality float or window type glass. This can distort colours underwater.
Some Atomic masks also come with anti-reflective coating which reduces the amount of light (between four and 12 per cent) reflected back by the lens surface to give a clearer, crisper view.

Skirting - Go for liquid or crystal silicone. It's softer and more durable and won't go rigid in cold water. Feathered edges where the skirt gradually thins out as it approaches the edge of the mask offer superior fit because they make contact more flexible. A double skirt offers an inner skirt around the inside of the mask which sits on the face, providing an extra seal and more comfortable fit.

see Tusa website

When it comes to colour, yes black looks cool but it may reduce light coming into the mask and give the impression of a restricted view, whereas a clear skirt will allow more light in and not have that problem.

Straps and buckles - make sure they have adjustable/swivel buckles to get a proper and comfortable fit. A neoprene slapstrap is also a good idea as it makes donning and doffing mask easier, sits more comfortably on your head and those with long hair won't get it snagged in the strap. Oceanic masks are now coming ready fitted with their own Neoprene Comfort Strap included.

Purge valves - some masks (Oceanic Ion 2, Scubapro Crystalvu Purge) come with a one way valve at the base of the nose pocket to make clearing easier without having to break the seal of the mask. As mask clearing without the valve isn't much more difficult the debate is still open about its use.

Once you've selected your mask, you might want to think about the matching snorkel, de-fog solution to help it stay clear and a mask bag for protection.

Hope that helps, happy shopping!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Scuba Diving St Lucia

If you're thinking about a dive trip to St Lucia, these are my top tips after a week underwater there in December.

Best time to go - December through to May is the dry season. We went in December and had a great time with only a few rain showers that mainly came down first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The island is covered in lush rainforest so you can't complain about a bit of rain

Where to dive - Anywhere in the south of the island is the best. There are dive sites up north but my first experience was diving Pigeon Island (or Pigeon s£*t as my log book noted) - a drift with five metres viz and one dead fish.
The next day we couldn't find a site clear enough or calm enough to warrant getting wet. Looking out to the horizon from the Rendezvous hotel near Castries you could see a line separating dirty water and poor viz with the clearer stuff.
However, anywhere south from Anse Cochon and Anse Le Raye to Superman's Flight at the base of the Pitons in the south was fine, with fantastic viz and abundant marine life.
The north maybe better in the summer months.

Best dive sites - Superman's Flight at the base of the majestic Petit Piton and Lesleen M wreck were the two that stuck in my mind.
The pitons are the signature landmark of the island. Having flown around them and gazed up at them, it was great to dive beneath them as you followed the pinnacles plunging down into the deep ocean. The reef was covered in plenty of colourful soft coral and there was a lot of profusion of small fish and it was worth looking up from +20m deep to see the mountain tower above you and break the surface. One of my favourite all time dives.
There is often a current on this site (but not when we were there) and the guides talk of whale shark and humpback whale being observed passing by. No such luck for us!
The165-foot freighter Lesleen M, near Anse Cochon area, was sunk in October 1986 as an artificial reef. It is covered with hard and soft corals and provides an ideal habitat for many juvenile fish such as Queen and French angel fish.
The wreck sits on an even keel on the sand meaning orientation is easy. It is about 12 metres to the top deck, and 20 metres at the deepest point so you should have plenty of time to explore the wreck from top to bottom.

What's to see - The reefs were teeming with life but it was lots of little stuff. There was nothing very big in the way of marine life here, only the only solitary turtle all week (over the Lesleen M wreck), one barracuda and a school of batfish.
Some reefs were packed with so many juvenile fish it looked like an aquatic nursery, and more trumpetfish than I have ever seen in one go (still couldn't get a decent pic though). Plenty of crabs, lobsters and shrimp and the black and white fish endemic to the region (which I forgot to the name of). Also octopus out hunting in the day and the below flamingo tongue. There was also plenty of vibrant coral.
Viz - on the southern dives 10-15metres. Up north, I've had better in Dosthill (if you've dived the quarry in the summer, you'll know what I mean. If not drop me a line and I'll post a pic).

Biggest gripe - dive centre insisted dives only lasted 40 minutes no matter how much air you had. As nothing was very deep you could easily squeeze another 20 minutes out of the tank.

What suit to take - Water temperature was 27-28C so 3mm was fine.

Where to stay - As south as possible if you want cheap and easy access to the best sites. We stayed near Castries and paid $75 dollars for two dives in the south but it meant a 30-45 minute boat ride each way. The resort did free local dives but from what we saw, it wasn't worth it. Maybe later in the season it is. That said, the centre staff from Rendezvous resort were fantastic fun and a good laugh to be around. The boat was fast, some days there were five or six on board, other days it was a little cramped, but it all made for fun trips. I would happily recommend them.
Miscellaneous diving info - We boarded from the beach so be prepared to get a little wet and have any valuables protected from the water. A couple of times, because of the surf, we we picked up from the harbour so wet suit boots were needed to protect feet.
Guidebook - Couldn't find a decent one.

Worth going - Yes, the diving is good but the island itself is an absolutely beautiful paradise to be. There is plenty to do on land as well, including mountain biking and hiking the rainforest.

Coral reefs under threat

New Year New Gloom with research in Science journal indicating that coral on the Great Barrier Reef is growing at its slowest rate for at least 400 years.
The hidden threat to corals comes from global warming which is increasing acidification of the seas and stunting their growth.
Researchers used x-rays to measure the annual growth rings and discovered that while growth between 1900 and 1970 increased, it has now started to decline rapidly from 1.43 centimetres per year a decade ago to 1.24 centimetres per year.
Prof Glenn De'ath, who carried out the research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, believes that the increased acidification of the sea due to the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is the main culprit.
With CO2 levels expected to double in the next 50 years, he believes the changes in the biodiversity are "imminent".
The Canberra Times said that if we are not careful, the reef could be gone in the next 40 years.