The Importance of Being Buoyant

Another week in paradise has come and gone! I still feel so incredibly lucky to be able to take this time and do my divemaster certification here in Bali.

This last week I’ve been diving in the ocean a lot less…after all, there’s a whole pile of skills that have to be done in the pool! Fortunately Bali Scuba has a pool right on site, so that makes things lots easier. I’ve also had a number of knowledge reviews to work through…I’m sure all the PADI certified divers remember those lovely tasks from their open water courses. A necessary evil…can’t do the fun stuff without putting in some legwork first!

There is something that I’ve really been starting to notice out here that I want to talk about with this blog post. During this internship I’ve been going diving with a lot of novice divers again (back in Canada I’ve mostly been diving with people that have been diving regularly for years). It’s incredibly rewarding to see so many people getting excited about the underwater world and learning to dive and know that I’m helping them achieve their goal of learning to dive. Unfortunately, I’ve also been noticing that in a lot of the sites frequented by novice divers there’s also an awful lot of broken coral and sponges.

Sadly, errant fin kicks can do a lot of damage to sedentary animals

Although the damage to this coral is a relatively small area, it represents years of growth.

At first I wondered if this was a result of boat anchors being carelessly dropped on the reefs, but the more I’ve watched the divers at these sites the more I’m realizing that a good chunk of the damage I’ve seen is very likely due to divers with poor buoyancy control either accidently crashing into the coral during an uncontrolled descent, or inadvertently kicking the coral with their fins as they swim past. The scale of the damage would support this theory as well; most of the broken corals or sponges I’ve spotted have been damaged by something much smaller than a boat anchor, and the damage also appears to be localized to a small fin-sized area.

There’s a very important fact to keep in mind here: although this damage looks very small to animals of our size, breaking off a chunk of coral only 30 cm (one foot) long represents years of growth for slow-growing animals like corals or sponges. Essentially for coral reefs this sort of damage can be the classic ‘death by a thousand small cuts’ a lot faster than we might think, simply because the animals don’t grow quickly enough to compensate for the damage.

Let me make a quick point before I continue; I’m not ripping on new divers. I was a new diver once too (obviously) and I know that my buoyancy control was very poor for quite awhile. I’ve also seen quite a number of divers that look like they’ve been in the sport for awhile (you can often judge by the condition of a diver’s gear whether or not they rent or have invested time and money into acquiring their own equipment) that have very clearly not placed enough emphasis on learning how to control their buoyancy. In my opinion, the issue is not necessarily poor buoyancy control, but dive operators that are under pressure by their clients to go look at the “really good sites” that typically have a lot of sensitive animals in them. The end result is that divers that are not especially good at maintaining their buoyancy end up perilously close to these very sensitive animals.

So what to do about it? Yet again, there’s a few relatively straightforward (though sadly, not very simple) ways that divers can have a positive influence on this problem.

The first one is very basic: if your buoyancy control is poor, put the effort in to make it better. I know this is much easier said than done…it took me a long time to get my buoyancy control to the point where I was happy with it and could move easily through the water with minimal effort. The three big things that helped me get better were regular diving (i.e. practice), taking classes that taught better buoyancy techniques, and seeing video of me diving.

Propper buoyancy control takes time and practice; but it’s well worth the effort! Try and keep your body parallel to the ground, with your legs straight out behind you and your head oriented straight ahead of you.

Obviously not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been; regular diving is tricky if you don’t live near a dive site, and diving is not exactly a cheap hobby. But frankly practice really is the best way to get better at something. Diving as often as you can means that you don’t forget about new ‘tricks’ you came up with to improve your buoyancy control. If you dive one day and realize that if you hold yourself just so underwater your buoyancy improves, you may not be able to remember exactly how that was if your next dive is over a year down the road.

For those of you that are vacation divers, taking a course that focuses on good buoyancy control may be a much easier option than regular practice. I understand not wanting to take up vacation time to do a course, but remember that in colder climates or even in inland areas there’s usually a dive shop not too far away; what’s stopping you from doing your course there? Even if you don’t want to do dives in a quarry or in cold water, there’s no harm in learning the skills you need there to enjoy yourself when you’re diving on vacation.

PADI offers a Peak Performance Buoyancy specialty course, and there are other organizations that offer similar courses (though PADI is certainly the mostly commonly used training organization for recreational divers). The only other program that I’ve had experience with is an organization known as Unified Team Diving (UTD) based out of the United States; the course I took was called ‘Essentials of Recreational Diving’ and it had a lot about proper buoyancy and propulsion techniques.

One big benefit of the course I took with UTD was that they had a diver with a video camera following behind us taking video of all of the students on the dive. I found this incredibly useful because it let me see exactly what it was that I was doing during the dive and know exactly when some minor adjustment I made would have a good or a bad impact on my buoyancy control. Based on how much I benefited from watching that video, I would encourage every diver to use video of themselves as a training tool whenever possible.

The second way that divers can contribute to solving this broken coral problem is to recognize if they have poor buoyancy and dive accordingly. For example, if you know that your buoyancy control is a little weak, and that you’ll be diving over a sensitive bottom, consider diving so that you’re at least 2 meters above the substrate. Obviously this means that you could miss some of the fine detail or small critters running around on the bottom, but it’s a small price to pay if it means that you’re helping to protect sensitive reef habitat. In the same vein, if you’re diving a wall or shipwreck don’t get too close to the sides, and above all avoid touching any part of the wall or wreck unless you are faced with a possible emergency (i.e. uncontrolled ascent).

Another possibility is for a diver to ask the dive center what dive sites they would recommend for someone with poor buoyancy control. Dive shops will be more than happy to realize that they have a customer who has the reef’s best interest in mind and will tailor their programs accordingly.

Ultimately, it is every diver’s individual responsibility to dive according to their own abilities, and keep the environment in which they are diving in mind when they make decisions regarding where they will dive. In my opinion, it is also the responsibility of dive shops to avoid areas with sensitive animals like coral and sponges if they know that they are leading divers with poor buoyancy control. Though it may seem a bit draconian to suggest that divers that “aren’t good enough” can’t go to certain sites, it is important to remember that excessive damage to sensitive animals is not only bad for the animals…it’s bad for other divers and local tour operators as well. If too much damage is done to a popular dive site, the very thing that makes it popular will eventually be gone, and then we all lose out.

Well, I hope this post gave you some good food for thought about your diving practices. If you have any suggestions of other methods to improve your buoyancy or reduce incidental damage to corals and sponges from issues like those I’ve discussed here, I’d love to hear from you!

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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!