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September 11, 2007

Deeply chilled on St Lucia

In this Caribbean paradise, it's still a shock to recognise that today is the haunted "9/11", the day when everybody remembers exactly where they were when that first, deeply shocking footage of suicidal aeroplanes ploughing into the Twin Towers was broadcast repeatedly, almost obsessively. We are still finding out all that it means.

For me, it was the day before my first visit to South America, specifically to Peru to hike three Inca Trails in 10 days. So being deprived of cameras and film at Edinburgh airport seemed a major setback (we publish very visual books which need 70+ photos each). EDI wasn't allowing ANY hand baggage, not even one camera. Two weeks later, after needless worry about X-ray fogged film, I was delighted to find that I had plenty of good shots for our Explore the Inca Trail. Six years on, I am (escapist, perhaps) relieved to be away from television, newspapers and anniversary reminiscences. Like the images of floral tributes, I'm not sure that all that stuff helps us to learn, to regroup and to move on.

Before leaving Scotland, I mentioned to a friend the forthcoming diving on St Lucia , and got a weird "Jetta, don't you ever just chill?" kind of reaction. But I've never known such depths of relaxation as when diving. Today's dive featured a large, friendly turtle, maybe one-metre across, on the wreck of the very photogenic Lesleen M at 21 metres depth (and the water so warm I don't need a wet suit). I'm diving with Island Divers, who combine sea-level relaxation with deep-water professionalism: highly recommended. Can there be anything more deeply chilled-out than swimming with a turtle, stroking a turtle, not even trying to keep up with a turtle?

On arrival in St Lucia, my watch battery packed up. Soon after, I noticed that my travel alarm battery had also succumbed. I already knew that my dive computer battery was sinking too low to be viable (so I borrowed a depth gauge from Island Divers). At home, all this time-uncertainty would have driven me demented, but in St Lucia it simply didn't matter. And the village resort Ti Kaye was just wonderful: once you've stayed there, you'll never want to take a shower indoors again!

October 9, 2008

South Africa and Mozambique

Today we are off on a mystery trip. It's only a mystery to husband Keir, who officially doesn't know where we're going. I booked it a few months ago: no mystery for me! Sadly, the combination of anti-malarials, time of year and flight times must have given away the fact that we are going to southern Africa. It remains to emerge whether he has guessed the Mozambique bit (Benguerra Island). Since both my experiences of diving earlier this year have been muted, at best, he has probably guessed I'm keen to go somewhere coastal as well. The books I'll give him at Heathrow will certainly tell all: one on the Kruger and the other on Mozambique, where he can relax and bird-spot and I shall dive (weather permitting).

I've got a name for the pre-departure tailspin that precedes any holiday, but I never seem to get any better at managing or preventing it. In just over an hour we are off, and I had barely time to write this. Although I wrapped up the massive task of page-making our forthcoming Everest book yesterday, that meant leaving packing until today. And this morning I couldn't find my favourite camera, the excellent Panasonic Lumix with an 18x zoom. OK, I'll fess up to having other cameras (2 other digitals and I won't admit how many film-based) but this is THE safari camera. And until I found it, I couldn't start charging its batteries, which takes simply hours ... hence I'm sitting in my office waiting for the light to go off: ridiculous! Actually the combination of dive kit, underwater housing (for the other digicam) and so forth makes for a surprising number of batteries, chargers, adaptors et al, not to mention the wonderful obsolete dive computers.

Time to go now (EDI then LHR then Johannesburg), this entry filed just after mid-day but I'll schedule it ahead (for once) so Keir can't read it before we go.

October 18, 2008

A dugong while diving

Wednesday was my first day of diving here at Marlin Lodge, and it was sensational. Within the first five minutes, I found myself staring at this weird-looking mammal:

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The fact there were a couple of sharks nearby was strictly a side-show. Dugongs are a threatened species, so rare that divemaster Paul had never seen one on a dive before despite 10 years of diving almost daily in these waters. There's a total of about 40 animals in this part of the Indian Ocean, and it's the icon of their Marine National Park. If I hadn't seen manatees in Florida before, I would have thought I was hallucinating. I found out about the dugong only after I saw it.

Dugongs (and manatees) are also known as sea cows, perhaps because they graze on underwater grasses, but (unlike the manatee's) the dugong's tail is fluked like a whale's. Sea cows are related to elephants, and reputed to be the origin of the myth of the mermaid. The photo above is courtesy of National Geographic. For once, I was glad I wasn't carrying a camera, as it left me free to enjoy the magic of the sighting.

It was the first of many dives I made on Two-mile Reef, although yesterday we went further afield to Cabo San Sebastian and dived to 29 metres in crystal-clear water. The journey there through the "washing machine" was a real white-knuckle ride, the motor-boat slamming hard through huge, confused seas. It was such a tranquil contrast then to drop below all that surface noise and share the cool, deep seascape with turtles, devil rays and potato bass. However, the bumpy journey was also rewarded with sightings of humpback whale and lots of dolphins, which was a considerably bonus on top of the diving. Above all, the diving was enhanced by divemaster Paul's relaxed, but highly professional style, which led to safe but enjoyable diving for everybody.

February 22, 2010

From New Providence Island

The Bahamas have seemed very exotic to me ever since my elder sister Lindsay returned from there as a bronzed, beautiful 18 year old (nearly half a century ago). Knowing that the diving is supposed to be good, I was delighted when Keir suggested a holiday here, and we had a delightful direct flight with BA on Saturday. Thanks to timely online checkin, we had two exit row seats with more legroom than Business Class, and after only 3 movies (Amelia Earhart, An education and Golden 39) we were in Nassau with only a short transfer to the resort.

Sandals is at Cable Beach, near Nassau on New Providence Island. It's an amazing mixture: the down side is the naff pseudo-classical statues and some cringe-worthy (but optional) entertainment, but there is also the stunning natural beauty of its beaches and private island. We also like the simplicity of all-inclusive: if you've finished eating, you need not hang around for the bill, there's no need to carry valuables and no reason not to have another drink.

Anyway, the diving is included! Fortunately I visited the dive shop on arrival and got a place on yesterday's shark dive, an event that runs only if enough experienced divers sign up for it. We were encircled by dozens of Caribbean reef sharks (harmless if treated with respect, but wild animals all the same) and had magical moments watching them at very close quarters. I'll try to update this with a photo: it being my first dive I wasn't carrying my own camera, but Ricardo, the dive photographer, was in action. The water is cold enough that I went into Nassau on the bus today and bought my first wet suit, which should make a big difference for the rest of the week. It was only $10 more expensive than the rental, and can be re-used on my next dive trip in cooler waters. Some women would rather have a mink coat, but I am delighted with this extremely comfortable garment.

February 24, 2010

The lionfish, the wreck and the wardrobe

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Today was my birthday and it's hard to imagine a better start. OK, there was no wardrobe, but there was a wreck and I did find a lionfish. On today's dives I felt really relaxed, truly in my element. (If there is reincarnation I'd like to come back as an otter or dolphin, please.) Thanks to Ricardo Mesa, the talented resort dive photographer, I have my first-ever recognisable photos of myself diving.

I spotted a lionfish lurking on the wreck, and am here pointing it out to my buddy Sean, who hadn't seen one before. They are elegant, extravagant and delicate-looking and deliver a near-lethal sting if you provoke them, so this was close enough:

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We just hung around watching it in fascination. If you are into headgear such as fascinators, could this species be a source of inspiration?

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Finally, also thanks to Ricardo, here's my parting shot from the wreck, which was called the Steel Forest, and lies in about 21m/65ft of water:

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After a peaceful afternoon, we went for a Japanese meal (delicious, cooked and served with theatrical flair by a young Bahamian). Afterwards I got a wonderfully thoughtful present from Keir, who had cunningly concealed it (heaven knows how, my luggage is bursting with dive gear but his seems to contain minimal clothing plus several hardback books of up to 1000 pages each). What a lovely day I've had!

March 1, 2010

An adventurous dive with sharks

On Sunday, my Sandals dives were cancelled because of high winds. However at 11.20 I found out that the Stuart Cove shark-feeding dive would run in the afternoon, leaving at 12 noon. So I scrambled to retrieve dive gear and do the paperwork (two separate liability release forms), then joined the group which had only 7 divers in total, plus a shark feeder (Ingrid) and an underwater videographer (Janine). (I wondered how difficult, in the long-ago days of TV's “What’s my line?” the miming of either of those occupations would have been?)

After a preliminary wreck dive, Ingrid gave us a shark briefing as well as some safety advice. (Dive briefings can sometimes be casual affairs, but on this one, every diver was listening as if his/her life depended on it.) Caribbean reef sharks live for up to 40 years, if lucky enough not to be killed by humans, but aren’t sexually mature until they are about 10-15 years. The death of each mature shark represents the loss also of future shark generations.

National Geographic says that 40 million sharks are killed each year, largely because shark's fin soup is highly valued, especially in China. Finning is a brutal practice in which fisherman cut off the fins and throw back the hapless shark to bleed slowly to death in the ocean. Considering sharks have been around for over 400 million years, it seems shocking that human greed is threatening to make them extinct over a few decades: see Shark Allies.

I had been slightly concerned about the ethics of shark feeding, in case the tourist attraction created a dependency culture. Much to my relief it turns out that the bait supplied by these daily feeds amounts to a light snack that doesn't affect their need to hunt and feed. Sharks are the vultures of the ocean, seeking dead and diseased flesh (carrion) and thus keeping the oceans clean. Jaws movies and general superstition have given them an unfairly bad name.

Live divers are not their preferred food, but they may test if something is edible by biting (which could lead to an accidentally sticky end of your dive if you get in their way). Anyway, these are wild animals and powerful swimmers, and when excited by food their thrashing about creates strong turbulence, so you need to stay alert. If what they bite is unyielding, their teeth are sacrificial: apparently each shark may grow and discard over 20,000 teeth in its lifetime.

I was pleased to see that Ingrid and Janine both put on chain mail protection (there was no cage, just a small bait box). We, the other divers, had only subtle protection: the sharks are supposed to be attracted to the fish bait and the person dishing it out, rather than to us. We were briefed to keep still and follow instructions, at all costs avoiding any thrashing about of arms or legs. Experienced divers try to make minimal movement to conserve air anyway, but we had added incentive on the shark feed. This image shows the lovely Ingrid in her chain mail with excitable sharks milling about her bait; you can just make out some divers kneeling or lying prone in the sand behind her:

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Technically, our dive was very simple: we added extra weight to guarantee negative buoyancy and kneeled or lay in a circle watching Ingrid and sharks at the centre. We remained almost motionless for 50 minutes, which sounds a long time but believe me there was not a dull moment. This was, by a long way, the most exciting, engaging and interesting dive I have ever done. Being so close to these acrobatic fish was totally absorbing, rather than frightening, akin to an extreme form of aquatic modern dance.

You can see the dive boat at upper right of this picture, and I am the diver small at lower left. The second image below gives a better sense of how close they came, though the shark image isn't as good:

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We were warned that the sharks might knock out our regulator or mask and firmly told not to touch the sharks – but nobody told the sharks not to bump into us. The constant circling, the sharks' extreme closeness and the small group size meant that photography could hardly fail. I even took some decent shots myself, though I freely admit that the images here were all taken by Janine of Stuart Cove. In the one below, I'd just taken out my air regulator to make the photo recognisable, BTW: I don't think I'd have felt as calm if a shark had knocked it out!

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April 9, 2011

Jamaica, diving and dolphins

We got back from Jamaica on Wednesday, after ten days of deeply relaxing holiday at the small resort of Ochos Rios on the north of the island. There's good diving along this coast, including a great wreck drive (the Katherine, a World War 2 minesweeper) leading to caverns with narrow swim-throughs and wonderful fish life. And being Sandals, the diving is included in the all-inclusive, which seems almost too good to be true. It seemed a great luxury to have breakfast served on our enormous balcony before going for my first dive:

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We enjoyed some fine sunsets and evening strolls:

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Keir mostly spent his time reading heavy non-fiction tomes, but went out on a couple of excursions. To my surprise, he agreed to visit nearby Dolphin Cove, where you can touch and swim with these lovely, intelligent mammals. Since Keir hasn't ventured into water outside a bathroom in 15 years, to my enormous delight not only did he swim, but he also enjoyed the experience. Here is the Jamaican dolphin with her Cuban friend giving him a tow through the water:

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And here's a view of the dolphin kiss: yep, it's commercial with shades of circus but the animals are well cared for, trained by reward and extremely engaging. We loved it!

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May 23, 2015

Grenada diving: wrecks, reefs and a flooded camera

We are enjoying a precious week in Grenada: Keir is chilling, thinking and reading, whereas I am chilling, diving and reading. Sandals takes care of the eating and drinking, as well as running a good dive operation. Some rocky shores, strong currents and big waves ensure that there are plenty of wrecks to visit and also makes the boat diving somewhat challenging, especially regaining the boat from the water.

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Above is the view from our room, across its balcony and into the Caribbean where I swam on Tuesday within minutes of arrival. It was meant to be a test shot, having just put my Canon S90 into its housing before taking it for its first underwater outing next day. This was to a wreck called the Veronica L which sank in St George's Harbour and was towed to the Boss Reef. Sadly my housing flooded on the descent, but I took a few pictures anyway. On return, I was astonished to find that although the camera was dead, the images have survived. I hasten to post these images from the wreck before the SD card also dies!

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The diver at upper left of the last image maybe conveys the size of the deck machinery in foreground? Although I feel contrite about this being the second camera I have drowned in less than 3 months, I have traced the problem back to a single strand of fine hair (a grain of sand would have done equal damage). Since the housing still seems to work even at depth, as does the wide-angle lens, I am simply going to buy another S90 off eBay, and waste no time on remorse. Salt water under pressure and delicate electronics just don't mix, and the O-ring is at best fragile protection. And without a camera, there are no distractions on the dive, and sadly no more photos to blog with.

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