Hello from Bali!

Hello from Bali! I’ll be here for 40 days, and 30 of those days are going to be spent becoming a divemaster, and diving as much as I possibly can! Hopefully I’ll be able to go back to cold water diving after this…I suspect it’ll take a bit of prodding from my dive buddies from back home!

I’ve finally realized a dream that I’ve been nursing since I started diving…I took the plunge into tropical waters! Burdened with a mere 3mm wetsuit (and even then I felt pretty toasty) and a tiny fraction of the weight I would have needed if I were diving in my drysuit I went for two fun dives in Sanur with Bali Scuba. This was my first time diving in the tropics, and only my third time ever diving in a wetsuit (to give some perspective…I’ve got 111 lifetime dives after the two I did today).

Yesterday saw me taking the plunge at the dive site called Tulamben. It’s a two hour drive from where I’m staying in Sanur (for some quick perspective on distances, it’s on the opposite end of the island from where I’m staying; the island is quite small for a location with such amazing stuff!), and even the drive was amazing! We drove through a mountainous area with incredibly picturesque rice paddies, and we were lucky enough to spot a troupe of monkeys on the way back!

Obviously though, the real gem was the diving. Tulamben has three main sites. The first is a large shipwreck; the USS Liberty, which saw action in the first and second world wars. Now the ship is home to an absolute plethora of marine life! The highlight of that dive for me was the pygmy sea horse, which was artfully spotted by the instructor and dive master candidate supervising the open water students that I tagged along with.

Can you spot the pygmy seahorse? It’s roughly in the center of the photo.

The second site is called the coral garden, and it contains…you guessed it…coral. It also has the always-charismatic clownfish (the starring character from the Disney movie Finding Nemo).

Found him!

As for the third site, it’s a wall that drops straight down from a point about 200 m from where the Liberty is. That site will have to wait for another day though, as we only had time for two dives.

One thing that has really impressed me in the short time that I’ve been here is the diversity of fish species. There are so many different fish! This is pretty new for me…there are incredible fish in the Pacific Northwest, and we have very impressive diversity in our invertebrate species, but we can’t hold a candle to the fish diversity I’ve seen in the last two days! At the risk of sounding like a huge geek, I can’t wait to start identifying all the new species I’m seeing! Luckily, I’ve got a lot of local knowledge to draw on at Bali Scuba.

Species identification (fish and invertebrate ID) is a tricky skill, but that warm glow of satisfaction after picking out a particularly tricky fish is always a pretty nice reward! If you’re looking to get into species ID, I have a few suggestions for you. This list is not at all exhaustive, and you may find that there are other techniques that will help you ID some of the critters you see underwater, but these are the techniques that work for me. If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them!

1)      Invest in some ID books: this may seem like a total no-brainer…but notice I say ‘buy the book’ instead of ‘google it’. The reason for this is one that I’m sure we’re all familiar with…the internet is a powerful tool but anyone can put information out there without getting it properly fact-checked first. I’ve encountered many incorrectly labelled photos of underwater critters during my own internet searches, but formal ID books are typically fact-checked for accuracy. That’s not to say there won’t be an occasional error…but you’re more likely to get an accurate ID from a book than the internet, in my opinion. I suggest shelling out a few extra dollars and getting one with pretty colour pictures that are supplemented by an artist’s rendering of what the ‘ideal’ member of the species should look like. Though underwater photographers are super talented it’s rare they can capture a picture of a moving beastie that clearly demonstrates all of its identifying features.

2)      If possible, try and get a picture. This obviously means either investing in your own camera gear (Ikelite is one of several companies that supply underwater housings for a variety of camera models), or enticing an underwater photographer to come diving with you. Some species have very minor differences between them (i.e. 3 stripes vs. 4 stripes, a band across the eye vs. a ring, vertical vs. horizontal stripes). Even if you get a good long look at a species at depth, when you’re looking through your ID books on the surface it could be hard to figure out exactly which beastie you were looking at unless you have a photograph to refer back to.

3)      Talk to someone who knows the area. The most common way to do that is to get a dive master from a local shop to take you on a ‘Discover Local SCUBA’ tour. Even though the dive master you get might not be an expert, he or she likely knows the names of the popular beasties in the area, and even if he/she can’t tell you the exact name of a certain fish, they’ll likely know someone nearby who can.

4)      Take a REEF (or other) identification course. These courses are specialized for certain areas, and once you finish the course you’ll not only have better ID skills, but you’ll also be able to contribute to local scientific databases, which will help inform marine biologists about the population trends in a given area…I can’t stress enough how valuable that sort of data is!

5)      My final suggestion has evolved from advice from my birding friends…look for the GISS: General Impression Size and Shape. Is the beastie in a group or on its own? Does it have prominent fins? Spines? A big mouth? Is it the size of your hand, your forearm, or your body? Is it round? Or fusiform (like a tuna)?

Well that’s all from me for this week…This weekend I’m going to get started on some of the ‘formal’ learning required for my DM course, but it’s already looking good for me to be able to get back into the water early next week!

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Back in the Water!

Now that I’m back (at least temporarily) in the Vancouver area, I absolutely had to get back in the water, and what better place to do it than at Whytecliff Park!

Whytecliff park on a summer day

Whytecliff park is a very well-known dive site in the greater Vancouver area. In fact, if you’ve learned how to dive in this area, chances are you did at least one of your first open water dives here. It’s very accessible, and it has a wide range of different dive options; you can keep it nice and shallow in the bay, or you can challenge yourself with a tech dive by going to the right and following the wall down to a depth of your choosing. If you’re a critter diver (like me!) there are some excellent opportunities to see some really neat species down at the plumose anemone (Metridium spp.) garden at about 50 feet on the right hand side of the bay, just down from the day marker.

One thing I really noticed during my dives on Tuesday was just how many rockfish (Sebastes spp.) there were; most of them were hanging out at the garden, but we spotted a couple on our descent through the bay as well! I love seeing this kind of fish (especially in such numbers, and some of them were quite large!) not just because they have some beautiful markings, but also because they’ve been hit hard by over fishing, and it’s good to see that the different species are still hanging in there!

Rockfish were over fished for a variety of reasons, but the two of the three main reasons were that they are absolutely delicious, and they can be a fairly predictable fish, which makes them easier to catch. As the name suggests, they like to hang out near piles of rock. So, if you want to catch one, just zoom out to a rocky reef and drop your line.

The third main reason these guys were over fished has to do with their life history. They’re typically a very long-lived fish (scientists have demonstrated that some of the larger species will live to be nearly 200 years old!), and unlike humans, female rockfish become much more reproductive as they get older. The individuals that make the biggest reproductive contributions to the overall populations are typically old, fat females with a well-established territory over a rocky reef…exactly the type of fish that your average fisherperson is keen to catch.

So why are there so many rockfish at Whytecliff? Aside from the fact that it has excellent underwater geography (a rocky reef with some good currents to bring in all kinds of tasty rockfish food), Whytecliff park is also a marine reserve: there is no fishing allowed within park boundaries. Although marine reserves are not always the best conservation tools, they are potentially a very good method of looking after a species like rockfish (long-lived, fairly stationary) because they provide a shelter where fish can grow into those big fat females I mentioned earlier, and therefore have tons of babies that (hopefully!) spread out and populate other areas with less protection.

It will still take some years before we can known for sure if places like Whytecliff park are having a positive effect on overall rockfish populations, but when you’re trying to preserve such long-lived species, it’s very important that we take the long view, and give the populations the time they need to recover. In the meantime, I plan on visiting Whytecliff a LOT more in the future…but it’s going to have to wait until December, because I’m about to head to Bali for 40 days!

That’s right! This Saturday I take off for sun, sand, and SCUBA! I’ll be doing a divemaster internship with Bali SCUBA, and I’ll be blogging about it as I work my way through the course. So stay-tuned for jealousy-inducing stories (and hopefully pictures! I bought my first ever underwater camera for the trip) in the coming weeks!

The Next Big Adventure

Well I’ve been MIA for awhile…but I have a very good excuse!

For the last two years I’ve been working on a master’s degree in biology…and this Friday it all comes to a head! That’s right…I’m going to be defending my thesis and (hopefully!) finishing up graduate school.

But something else equally as exciting has been in the works…two weeks after I defend, I’ll be on a plane to the beautiful island of Bali to do a 30 day divemaster internship!

I’ll be doing this internship with the folks at Bali Scuba; a dive buddy of mine from my Scientific Diving Course did his training with them several years ago, and he absolutely raved about the experience. I’ve always found that personal recommendations are the absolute best way to find out where to dive and who to dive with, so it wasn’t a hard decision!

As excited as I am, I have a lot of stuff to take care of before I go…picking the dive shop might have been the easiest part! For one thing, there are a number of vaccinations I have to get before I go, and some of them have to be done weeks in advance. Since this is a diving holiday, I want to make absolutely certain that my health is taken care of. It may not be the most physically demanding sport out there, but every time I hit the water I don’t want to have to worry about anything other than the dive.

One other very important thing I’ll have to take care of is health insurance. As a Canadian, I’ll freely admit that this is a topic that I’ve not had to worry about for a good part of my life, but not when it comes to diving! For one thing, I discovered that in British Columbia (my home province) I’m not fully covered in the event of a severe diving injury. As all divers know, a severe decompression injury can send you into a decompression chamber for several hours, possibly even for several different treatments. But in BC you’re only covered for so many ‘chamber rides’ every year (I believe the number is two). Now granted, these sorts of injuries are uncommon if you practice safe diving procedures, but accidents do occasionally happen, and I’d rather not have just one more issue to worry about if an accident happens to me.

If you’re diving with any sort of regularity (or diving AT ALL on vacation in another country) I strongly suggest that you take out SCUBA-specific insurance from the good folks over at the Divers Alert Network (DAN). They provide divers with all kinds of important medical information, and when you buy a membership you’re supporting much-needed research into diving medicine. Furthermore, you’ll get a subscription to their magazine when you join. They also offer trip insurance and gear insurance in addition to their SCUBA-specific medical insurance.

Well, that’s it for me for this week. Wish me luck for Friday! I’ll be back next week chatting more about how I’ll be preparing for my trip to Bali, and hopefully soon I’ll be able to get some refresher dives in!