Whale Shark!

Whenever the dive boat goes out, we keep an eye on the open ocean looking for signs of whale sharks. Whale sharks eat teeny tiny shrimp called krill. As they chase them to the surface, the tiny fish follow since they also eat krill. The bigger tuna chase after the tiny fish and everything splashing around on the surface attracts the frigate birds who try to swoop down and catch the krill and fish as they’re chased up. When there are frigate birds circling and tuna jumping, we can be fairly well assured there’s a whale shark in the vicinity.

Yesterday we came up from our first morning dive and saw 6 dive boats north of us, all stationary in the same small area with a cloud of birds circling above them. One of the dive boats left the group with a girl in a bikini standing in the bow making two motions over and over again as they drove past us: arms spread wide and then a hand on her forehead like a fin. Arms wide, hand like a fin, arms wide, hand like a fin.

Big Shark. Big Shark. Big Shark.

Da Bull took one look at her, grinned and said “whale shark.” Oh man, there’s nothing like those two words to get a whole boatload of people totally excited. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough gas to get out that far and also get back to the shop so we opted to go back to the shop, gas up the boat and go back. Once at the shop, everyone scrambled off the boat, threw their wet gear in a heap, grabbed a snorkel and ran back to the boat.

Our boat captain drove like a madman but despite his fast and furious driving skills, we saw the dive boats leaving as we headed back. We held out hope that the shark would still be there but even the birds were dispersing. We circled around, watched the birds flock together and followed them from place to place until 5 minutes later we saw more tuna jumping. Our captain gunned it, we headed for the tuna and then saw a big black fin pop up and go back down. He stopped the boat, we all jumped overboard but we were 3 seconds too late because only two people in the group saw a giant shadow of the shark as it descended into the deep.

By this point we had to get back to the shop to set up for the next dive. So, we piled back in the boat and headed back to the shop chattering about whale sharks and whether it counted as a sighting to have only seen a fin.

The 11:30 dive only had 2 people signed up and I got on it just in case the shark was still out there. Da Bull chose a dive site close to the shark sighting and 4 of us went out. We had a lovely chill dive until the very end during our safety stop when we heard our boat motor gunning above us. Our captain pulled a donut over our bubbles, put a tank in the water and smacked it and Da Bull looked at me, smiled around his regulator, stretched his arms out wide and then put his hand on his forehead like a fin.

Big Shark.

The second our 3 minutes were up we broke the surface and our captain said “Shark. Hurry.” We jumped in the boat and saw giant splashes of tuna on the horizon. As he slowed down the boat, right in the middle of the splashing fish, Cindy looked off the side of the boat, shrieked and pointed about 10 feet away “Right there! Right there!”

Just under the surface of the water was a giant black shadow. I slipped off the side of the boat, put my face in the water and the most massive thing I’ve ever seen in the water slid right towards me. Easily 30 feet, almost 3x the length of our boat, his body was black with yellow spots and I couldn’t have put my arms around even half of his head. He slowly, quietly swam towards me with his giant head and mouth stretched into a smile, then about 5 feet away he dipped down underneath me and I turned and watched as he sailed right away from us.

I looked at Da Bull and we shot through the surface as he shook both fists in the air “Yes!!! That was Awesome!!” I couldn’t even catch my breath I was so stunned and awed. I’ve never seen anything so quiet or so massive in the water in my whole life. Cindy shrieked, Elizabeth’s eyes were massive as she said “He smiled right at me and I thought, if he opens his mouth I’m going right in it!”

We came back to the shop and I wrote my facebook status:
Kaitlyn Barrett is WHALE SHARK! WHALE SHARK! WHALE SHARK!!!

Awesome. Amazing. Chevere. Never seen anything like it.

Dive Master Swim and Stamina Testing

Much like the Open Water certification, dive master trainees have to prove a certain level of physical fitness to proceed with DMT training. These skills involve a 400meter swim, an 800meter snorkel, a 15-minute float, a 100meter tired diver tow and an equipment exchange. There are a possible 5 points given for each skill – based on competency or time, depending on the skill – and DMT candidates have to have a collected 15 points to pass.

The 800m-snorkel part of the test is much like diving since it involves fins and a mask. We started with this part of the test and even though I was in an ocean bay and had to occasionally avoid getting hit by a boat, I did well and completed it in just over 16 minutes, scoring a 4 out of 5. For all you curious DMTs out there, I’ll pass on the advice I received: My instructor recommended that I pace myself for the first 600 meters and then go for broke on the last 200 and she also reminded me that snorkels don’t completely clear exhaled air so I should occasionally purge hard to release any stale CO2 and to get maximum oxygen input. I’d say this snorkel was hard but it was nothing compared to the swimming.

I haven’t done any swimming since college. Diving is not swimming. At all. Diving is propelling yourself slowly through water using your legs while wearing buoyant devices. This is not swimming. And even though I knew I’d have to pass a swim test, I still didn’t do any swimming practice.

To all future DMTs, I suggest you practice swimming. Swimming’s hard. Even for 400 meters. And it’s especially hard if you’ll have to do it, like we did, in the open ocean. 400 meters is only about a quarter of a mile and it’s half the distance of the snorkel but it took me 12.5 minutes to complete it.

800 meters snorkeling in just over 16 minutes and 40 meters swimming in 12.5 minutes? This makes no sense but it does prove that I’m a bad swimmer and it got me a 2 out of 5. I was pretty angry with myself and my lack of swimming preparedness but rather than immediately repeat the test, I decided to get through the rest of the skills and assess my score. Either way, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to practice swimming since I hate doing badly at important things.

The 15-minute floating/treading water was a breeze (scored a 5) but I found the tired diver tow to be harder than it seems. There are two methods of towing a tired diver: swimming alongside them holding onto their tank valve and pulling them with you or propping their fins on your shoulders and pushing them ahead of you. After some discussion with my instructors, I wanted to try swimming alongside the diver and pulling them because it sounded like it would go faster.

WRONG. It took me 3.5 minutes to go 100 meters. Pulling someone dressed in full scuba gear by holding onto their tank valve is very hard to do because your body is alongside theirs. Your fins run into them, your one pulling arm gets tired and you want to switch sides, which wastes time, and it’s inefficient because your head is out of the water and increases drag. It’s just not good. It’s a fine towing method if you aren’t on a time constraint, the diver isn’t in distress and you want to stay in communication with them but it’s a terrible method if they’re unconscious, not breathing or you’re being timed.

So, I took a short break and repeated the test using the pushing method and knocked a full minute off my time. 2.5 minutes to push someone 1oo meters vs. 3.5 minutes to pull them 100 meters. That’s a dramatic difference and gave me a 4 out of 5, which was a total of 15 points so it didn’t actually matter what my score was on the equipment exchange because I’d pass either way.

The equipment exchange was the scariest test in the whole bunch so I’ll save it for tomorrow. It deserves it’s own post.

100 dives today

I’ve seen a lot of Open Water students come through the shop in the past few weeks and watched them fumble around with their gear, put their regulators on the tanks upside down, barrel up and down through the water, inflating their BCDs to bursting and then plummeting onto the sand. At the end of the dive, they pull out their little logbooks, open to the first page and document everything, asking about depths and times and what the name of the dive site was again. I’m sure they look around the shop at those of us working here and wonder how long it takes to get to the point where they could set up a tank in their sleep, dive for longer than 30 minutes and stay neutrally buoyant without crashing into something.

I still remember my very first dive 4 years ago up in the Pacific Northwest. The water was 46F degrees, I wore a dry suit, my fingers were practically frozen despite my gloves and the water was so cloudy that we couldn’t see further than 5 feet in any direction. I pulled out my old logbook and looked at that first dive and for the description I’d written “Crappy visibility. Overweighted.” That pretty much says it all. I didn’t get into exclamations points until my third dive (buoyancy!) and I didn’t dive in warm water until my 10th dive when I dove Seal Island in San Carlos, Mexico. I vividly remember those early Mexico dives because I saw my very first wild seahorse and I got to dive with sea lions zooming around me like golden bullets. I’ve never gone back to cold water.

I did my 100th dive today. The Caribbean sea was flat, the sun was shining, the water was the deepest blue with visibility for days and I can now hover at any depth without effort. My dive skills are a far cry from my beginning open water days but I can look back and see that journey from there to here. What I can’t remember, even though it only ended a few weeks ago, is what it felt like to be a fun diver.

Back in the day when I was a fun diver (lo those 3 weeks ago), I never ever worried about anything except myself. I rarely set up my own gear, I kept an eye on my diving buddies but I didn’t pay them a lot of mind and if pressed I couldn’t tell you how many other people were in my diving groups. I just didn’t pay any attention. I remember my divemasters from various dives, I remember sights and animals and wrecks and cool caverns but I took very little personal responsibility for my diving and I was lucky enough to have uncomplicated diving experiences where nothing serious happened.

I’ll never get to dive like that again. If there’s one thing that’s changed in these weeks of DMT training, it’s the way that I approach diving. Every time I get in the water, I’m thinking about the group I’m diving with, how they dive and where they might need help. I’m thinking about my technical skills, my air consumption, my buoyancy and where we’re going (more or less in that order). I’m trying to learn dive sites and marine life in case I ever have to lead dives in these places or answer questions. I’m trying to figure out how a DM manages to put together a dive profile that suits the site and the abilities of the group, figures out where they’re going and how to get back to the boat, lets all of that go enough to look around and find cool stuff and marine life that the diving customers might otherwise miss and does it all within an hour or so without GPS or talking (two things I can’t generally can’t survive without when I’m on the surface).

It’s a lot of stuff to learn but mostly, I’m adjusting my mindset. I’ve let go of the idea that it’s just me, in the water, doing my own thing and letting someone else handle everything else. Now I’m training to be that person that handles everything else. From here on out, whether I work in the dive industry or not, I’ll never just be a fun diver. I’ll always be paying attention and that means I’ll always be somewhat responsible. It changes everything.

Could your DM actually rescue you?

I think the rescue certification is the most important one a DM can master. In my limited experience diving with DMs in several different countries I can say with certainty that there are some to whom I’d happily entrust my life and others I wouldn’t trust to get my cat out of a tree. I’d prefer to dive with the former because let’s face it, anyone can find fish and no one needs a DM to do a safety stop. Ideally fun divers get a DM that knows the local area and the local wildlife, someone informed and fun and adventurous but at the end of the day if there’s someone in trouble or missing, they best hope their DM knows what to do.

I took the rescue certification pretty seriously and spent several hours absorbing information from the book reviews and videos before we even got into the water. The Seal and I also had a conversation about how Good Samaritan laws don’t exist in Honduras (or Asia) so rescuers are advised to do everything they can until medical personnel show up and then they should leave the scene and keep their names out of paperwork. It sucks but this could prevent a rescuer’s good intentions from blowing back on them if things go south. We also talked about the practicalities of rescue diving on this island and how our procedures might differ slightly from the book and how best to make my open water scenarios as realistic as possible. I emphasized that it would do me no good to practice the rescue scenarios in the book if they weren’t practical to our diving. They might help at a future point but right now, I want to know what to do while I’m here if (GOD FORBID) something were to happen.

The book had a lot of information to absorb and it was much easier (and more fun) to get in the water and actually put some stuff to the test. I did confined water work with the Seal and Goldilocks, who tagged along to be my missing and distressed diver. The first dive was underwater problem solving so they came up with as many ridiculous scenarios as possible, which was like diving with a couple of puppies. I looked over twice and the Seal was head first in the turtle grass, once with his equipment totally off, and once with his mask on backwards.  Golidlocks had disconnected hoses, her weight belt and several different clips so I spent about 20 minutes putting them both back together before Goldilocks disappeared to be a missing diver.

Finding someone underwater is scary work, even when it’s practice and you know they aren’t really dead. The search patterns involve a lot of things to keep track of all at once (compass turns, fin cycles, etc.) overlaid with the urgency of minutes passing and the potential effects on a missing diver. I can see how rescuers need to take care of themselves first because it’s easy to freak out.

We went out in the boat for open water skills and before I could get my gear on, Goldilocks went overboard and I had to rescue her. I was so annoyed because she even warned me that she’d been unprepared for her skill test and had two people jump overboard while she was half dressed and I was STILL unprepared when she jumped overboard and I was only half dressed. That’s what I get for not listening. She got pretty bruised up from getting hauled into the boat (which I think an actual unconscious diver might not mind so much if they end up breathing at the end of it) and it was a good lesson for me about leverage. Even little people like Goldilocks are hard to maneuver up a boat ladder in choppy seas when they’re dead weight.

I then “rescued” a dive bag as a missing diver after the Seal gave me a few hints from my pointed questions (“I think he never went deeper than 40ft and I’m pretty sure he said something about liking crevasses…”). Goldilocks and I split that one up, she counted fin cycles and I managed the compass, which made the whole process much faster and it only took about 12 minutes of my allotted half hour.

Overall, the water skills were easier to put into practice than to read about in the classroom. A lot of it is common sense but all of it requires knowledge of the local laws and procedures. I think my big lessons of this course are to stay in good shape, ask a lot of questions, know how to operate the oxygen equipment and hope I never never never have to put any of this into practice.

EFR and Rescue Diver Certifications

I actually don’t start my DMT yet.

I came to the island with my AOW (advanced open water) certification and needed to get my rescue diver and Emergency First Responder certifications before I could be considered for DMT. Fortunately, this is a common scenario and I think at least half of DMs show up for their DMT and need to get several certifications before they can even begin their training. The advantage is being able to train and work in the same shop and under the same instructors for several weeks at a stretch. The disadvantage is not getting any variety in instruction because you’re working with all the same instructors and also not getting time between certs and instead blazing straight through.

Because I’ll be out here on the island for 5 months and I have loads of time to get my through my DMT, doing everything with the same shop is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. But not everyone has that same kind of time flexibility and in that case I’d recommend (if possible) getting a rescue diver cert and then diving for a while in as many different places as possible before going on to a DMT. Not only does this make you a more technically adept and flexible diver, because you’re used to diving in all kinds of conditions, but it also gives you the advantage of working with several different shops. All shops are different, countries have different standards and expectations and attitudes towards local ecology so divers with a lot of travel experience have a more expansive view of the dive industry than ones who dive primarily in one country or with one shop. I haven’t done a lot of diving but I have been diving in multiple countries so I know how much things can differ place to place.

As to the EFR course, I would highly recommend that all you future DMTs get a CPR certification so you don’t have to endure the EFR course. The EFR video is silly and outdated with a crazy obsession with “barriers” like latex gloves and pocket masks, it’s expensive compared to a CPR course, there’s nothing in it that relates directly to diving and any medical place that offers CPR courses will have better practice equipment (dummies and what all) than most dive shops.

Despite the hassle, my EFR was one easy day compared to Rescue, which was several days, the first of which was LONG and spent mostly reading, watching videos and taking exams. The last part of the first day I did some confined water skills with the Seal (a quiet mild mannered British man with decades of diving and instructing experience and hidden personal depths…). He tested me on self-rescue stuff like tired diver tows, mask removal, gear exchange, buddy breathing etc.

Our gear exchange was a hot mess. The Seal took his gear off with no trouble, of course, but as soon as I took my fins off they floated away. The Seal surfaced and chased down my fins while I held onto his gear. Then he came back down and I started to take my gear off when the Seal’s mouthpiece fell apart. He tried using his alternate but it wasn’t working properly so he took it apart under water to check the diaphragm but something still wasn’t right. He tried removing the alternate and switching mouthpieces underwater, which still didn’t fix it but worked enough to get him through. Watching him calmly problem-solve a malfunctioning mouthpiece underwater was instructive in itself and probably eclipsed whatever I might have learned from gear switching.

We did some buddy breathing switching back and forth on my regulator, which freaked me out. I have a ways to go before I can take my reg out and just hang out under water. Every time the Seal handed it back to me I’d put it in my mouth and take a giant gulp of air. Swallowed a lot of sea water…

On the surface, the Seal gently (subtlety) made a comment about how a calm attitude is the main DM skill to acquire. Learn to not freak out. Assume that there’s some solution and fix the problem because freaking out solves nothing.

Got it. Still need a lot of work on that.

Next post will be Rescue Diver Day 2: less reading and more diving. Always a good scenario.

For DMTs, the first day is a test

First days are scary. There’s no predicting who you’ll meet, what they’ll want, how you’ll get along or what will be expected.

My lesson #1: When you’re new, everything’s a test.

Everything.

I chose The Dive Shop on the basis of a friend’s recommendation and I’m coming in cold. I don’t know anyone, I haven’t dove with them before, they don’t know me and it could be the best or the worst 5 months of my life. There’s no telling.

I’m sure my day included multiple tests of which I was unaware. If I were an experienced diver watching a new DMT come into the shop, I can only imagine the things I’d be assessing. But I passed the first test, which was “Do you want to do the first dive or do you want go around the shop and learn the ropes?” For a person who lives to dive, this is an easy choice. For a person (me) who likes to know everything about everything so they can always make informed choices and rarely make mistakes and they know all the variables before they jump into something new, this is a hard choice. My instincts said ‘hang back, learn the ropes and go in slowly’. Instead I chose to dive.

The right choice is dive and my advice to future DMTs like me is: Always dive if you’re given the choice. The academics and the shop and the getting comfortable will all be there later. When you get a chance to dive, do it. Not only will it make you a better diver but it also gets you respect with the people you work with. Who wants to work with someone who doesn’t choose to dive when they can?

My first dive was a “fun dive” with a fellow DMT who is a month into her training. Let’s call her Goldilocks. She’s not yet at the point of leading dives so this was a training dive where she had to give staff members a briefing and then take them on a dive where they made as many mistakes and bad judgment calls as they could safely make in hopes that she would catch them. They dropped their weight belts on the sand, disconnected air hoses from their BCDs, separated and made her chase them, wandered off and gave her conflicting information about their air supply. It was the best first dive for me because I got to see what I’m going up against and also had all the pressure taken off of me because everyone was focused on her.

Winner!

Goldilocks did a great job, chased everyone down, fixed equipment underwater, got buddies together and never lost her cool. She also led the second dive, which included Da Bull, a big DM who arguably has the most experience in the shop and is the most fun person to dive with because he’ll show you all the exotic tiny things and weird out of the way places you might miss otherwise. About half way in to the dive he noticed that my mask kept fogging up (a chronic problem for me no matter what mask I use) and he picked up a piece of dead sea sponge and motioned that I should use it to clean my mask.

I thought, “oh, perfect. I’ll do it on the boat.” I started to put it in my BCD pocket when Da Bull shook his head and pointed at me. He meant, do it now.

It wasn’t really a request so I took a deep breath, squeezed my eyes shut and took my mask off underwater, which I’d never done before. There was an instant disorientation because I couldn’t see and had to remember to only breathe out of my nose, had to clean my mask by feel and had to maintain some buoyancy and keep from shooting to the surface or crashing into the ground. I did well for a few seconds until I started thinking about it and then I breathed in through my nose and freaked out. Just a little. It took me about 2 seconds to get my mask back on and clear it and then I was fine.

My mask stayed clear for the rest of the dive (that’s your ocean tip of the day: dead sea sponge on the inside of your mask) and Da Bull grinned around his regulator and spread his hands out like “see what you were missing??”

When Goldilocks found the boat for the second dive of the day, there was a small celebration on the surface to which another DM said “When I first started DMing, I would think “f*ck the dive, I found the boat!”

Navigation underwater is hard. I know exactly what she meant.

So you want to be a Divemaster

I’m starting my DMT on Monday. Even though I’ve been diving for the past 4 years, I’m not at all certain what this training will entail, which makes it quite the grand adventure. My general observations inform me that divemasters are trained to know all the cool locations and wildlife, to keep tourists from taking starfish home and they answer questions like “will we see sharks?” and “what’s wrong with this hose thingy and can you fix it?” They also have to haul equipment around, be nice to customers and keep overenthusiastic divers from bashing into coral. They’re ocean park rangers, if you will.

I decided to do my DMT in Roatan, which is a small island in the middle of the Caribbean off the coast of Honduras. It’s got one paved road, lots of beach bars and I was last here in 2009 when I spent 2 weeks diving. After subsequent diving in Thailand, Australia, the Med, the Galapagos, the Florida keys and Mexico, I still remember Roatan diving as some of the best I’ve ever done.  Let’s see if it holds up to my memories.

I’m probably not alone in my assessment, however, because the island is renowned for diving and divemaster programs. It’s continually overrun with divemaster interns who like to dive all day and party all night as well as a constant stream of diving tourists who each want to see something amazing and can’t be relied upon to follow directions. Basically this means that for the next 5 months I’ll be trapped on a small island with a steady crew of expats and young miscreants learning to wrangle unruly groups of clueless tourists who all want to do their own thing and instead should be pointed in a single direction.

I. Can’t. Wait.

I arrived on Roatan at noonish yesterday from a direct flight out of Houston. We coasted down to the runway right by the water, just like I remembered. There’s nothing like flying through solid blue and not being able to distinguish between the sky from the water until you see the color change to sea green water right around the island.

The customs situation was also the hot mess I remembered. Last time it was 2 lines and one agent. Everyone waited patiently like proper Americans, thinking (probably) that since there were two lines eventually there would be two agents, right? Um… not so much. We only got one agent so one line moved along and the other line just stood there.

I’ll say this for travelers, they’ll stand in any line for any amount of time if there appears to be something happening at the head of the line. But when nothing happens for somewhere around 5 minutes, the natives get restless. And start grumbling to their neighbors. And making remarks about the star bellied sneeches in the first line that SHOULD be letting the second line cut in since apparently that’s the system around here…

This time was Same-Same but different with 4 lines and 2 agents but a similar mix of aggressive people leaping forward to get through the line and overly polite people waiting to be invited forward by the completely passive and uninvolved customs agents who couldn’t have cared less. Finally the woman behind me said “Is there some kind of… system?” and I said “well, the system appears to be ‘leap into the gap and at some point everyone will get through the line.’ ” She laughed.

Eventually I got through the customs line and then had to run the gauntlet of getting my luggage. The Roatan luggage carousel is uniquely designed with a sharp curve so every other piece of luggage falls off the belt and lands in the empty middle of the carousel circle where no “unofficial personnel” is supposed to go. After 5 suitcases fell off the belt and piled up and no “official person” took notice, a traveler stepped into the DMZ and retrieved all the luggage, handing it off to grateful passengers while the security personnel looked on.

25 minutes later, the same 20 suitcases had all revolved at least 10 times and one frantic woman yelled, “Is that all the luggage??” I looked at the 50 people crowded around the carousel and thought “Seriously lady? I know this is the Island but even the worst airline in the world doesn’t lose luggage for 50 people in one flight. Where do you need to be that you’re in such a rush? An hour from now the drinks will still be there, the ocean will still be there and the sun will definitely still be there. Chill out.”

And welcome to the Island.