Sunday, December 27, 2009

Belize Trip Day 3 - August 3, 2009 - Underwater Math and The Deep Blue Sea

I had decided that while I was going to be in an environment where I would be diving up to five times a day, I might as well use the opportunity to get certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver, which would allow me to dive recreationally to a depth of 130 feet.

The course consisted of five specialty courses. One of them was the
Deep Diver course. As part of the course, I had to do a math problem on the boat. It was an addition problem involving adding two numbers that were in the hundreds of thousands. Aaron, one of the divemasters and crew members of the boat, timed me while I added the numbers. One of the other members of our group, Jeff, who was the father of Josh, was also taking the Advanced Open Water class and would also be participating in the deep dive. Aaron told us that on our deep dive, we would descend to 100 feet and then he would give us diving slates with a similar addition problem written on them. He would then time us again as we did the math. The point of it all was to test our abilities at deep depth. Aaron informed us that some people took longer to solve the problems underwater while others were able to do it even faster.

As so much time has passed, my memory is hazy as to what dive this was, but I think it might have been the second dive of the day at Half Moon Caye Wall. Aaron, Jeff, and I did our giant strides into the water, swam to the reef wall, and then descended to about 100 feet. Aaron handed Jeff and I the diving slates with the math problems. With the pencils provided to us, Jeff and I each took turns adding the numbers Aaron had written on the slates while Aaron timed us. After we had finished, we made our way back to the Sundancer II. Later on, Aaron came up to me and informed me that I had did my math problem faster at 100 feet than I did on the boat. Given that math was never my strongest subject, I joked that I should spend more time at deep depth.

Later in the day, we had moved to a new dive site called Uno Coco. I had decided to skip the first of the three dives there. For the late afternoon dive, I told one of our group, Tara, that I would accompany her on the dive. Tara was a nice, pretty lady about my age who worked as an elementary school teacher. Though she was a certified diver, it had been some time since she had last dived and she lacked confidence in herself. Her anxiety about diving was further exacerbated by the fact she had problems on previous dives with her mask flooding. I remember on one of the dives, I had swam up alongside her and saw her struggling to clear her mask. I could see that she was starting to panic and I reached out to try to calm her down when suddenly she started to make a rapid ascent to the surface. I know that she had did the same thing on a previous dive, and the rest of us were worried that she would end up spending the rest of the trip on the boat without going in the water again. Larry suggested to her that her problem might be that she had her mask on too tightly. If I recall, she did not have further problems after that.

Anyway, back to the dive in question. I told Tara that I would go in first and meet her at the hang bar. I did my giant stride into the water, gave the "OK" signal by placing my hand on top of my head, gave a wave to Tara, then started my descent. And then, like my first dive on the previous day, I found myself surfacing again. So, I started over, giving a long, steady exhale and began my descent. As I finally started sinking lower, I looked ahead of me so that I could begin swimming towards the hang bar, when to my utter shock and surprise, I saw no sign of the Sundancer II at all. Even worse, I looked down, and instead of seeing coral reefs and sand, I saw nothing but blue. Somehow, I had ended up way past the reef wall.

As I did with my first dive, I decided the best thing to do was to surface and look for the Sundancer II. Breaking the surface, I looked ahead and saw her far off in the distance. I was utterly baffled, as it seemed like only a few seconds had passed between when I had left the boat and when I had started to descend. I found myself all alone above the deep blue sea, and no one had any idea where I was. Now, being as this is an atheist themed blog, I have to find some way of getting an atheist angle into this story.

I felt a wave of fear come over me. But I didn't turn into the cliched atheist in a foxhole begging god to save me. As inexperienced as I was, I had my training. While the Sundancer II was further away from me than it was when I had to be rescued from my first dive, this time it was the beginning of the dive and I still had nearly a full tank of air at my disposal. I took a compass reading, descended to about 15 feet, and then started swimming as rapidly as I could in the direction of the boat. I was worried not only about me, but about Tara as well. She was expecting to find me waiting for her at the hang bar and I did not want her thinking I had ditched her.

After a few minutes had passed by, I started to see white patches below me and felt a tremendous sense of relief as I realized I had passed back over the reef wall again. A few seconds later I could see the bubbles emitted by other divers below me and knew I was back in the right neighborhood. Then I found the Sundancer II and made my way to the hang bar. The bar was empty, and I figured that Tara must have gotten tired of waiting for me and went back on the boat. Nevertheless, I decided to remain on the hang bar in the event that she would show up again. Meanwhile, since I would be participating in the night dive at this same site later on, I started to look around at the coral formations below me for recognizable features to help me on the night dive. I then found myself watching a school of Horse-eye Jacks that had taken shelter underneath the boat. They stayed in formation and matched their movement to the boat as it swung from side to side. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another diver had joined me on the hang bar. It was Tara.

Since I still had ample air left in my tank, I decided to do a little exploring. I signaled to Tara that I was going down to the coral formation below. There was a cul-de-sac with the entrance marked by a barrel sponge that I had taken notice of while I was waiting on the hang bar. I passed through the entrance and swam to the end. Then I turned around and settled down, resting my knees on the sand, calmly surveying the scene about me. I was going to keep an eye out for this spot on the night dive, because I knew that the Sundancer II would be passing over it.

Having had my fill of freelancing, I returned to the hang bar for my safety stop and then surfaced to board the boat. Once on board, I explained to Tara what had happened to me and apologized for not being where she expected me to be. She was quite understanding.

After dinner, I joined Marnie, Jeff and several other divers for the night dive. In terms of marine life, the dive was not as successful as the previous night's dive. Pretty much all I saw were more sturgeons and tarpons gliding by, completely unfazed by our presence. At one point during the dive, I was about ten feet above the rest of the divers. One of my hands must have came to my chest, because I realized that I had forgotten to fasten the clips on my bcd. Nonchalantly, I went about clipping them. Unfortunately, in doing so, I accidentally lost my grip on the disposable underwater camera I had bought at Seascapes. Helplessly, I watched as it floated rapidly up to the surface. I felt bad, because there are probably fewer people in the world who hate littering as much as I do. But it would be my last mistake of the trip.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Belize Trip Day 2: August 2, 2009 - Cluster[bleep] In The Water

But before I get into that, a few words are in order for the reader who has never been on a liveaboard before.

As I wrote in my previous post, after breakfast each morning, the day's diving activities would begin with the dive briefing. On the Sundancer II, each of the crew members who was a dive master, namely, Captain James, First Mate Marnie, Aaron and John, would take turns describing a dive site. The dive master would draw, with varying degrees of artistic ability, a rough map of the dive site on an erasable marker board as seen in the picture above. He or she would inform us of the kinds of marine life we could expect to see, the terrain, and the depths, among other things. An important piece of information that was shared with us in the first dive briefing that would apply to nearly all our dives was that as a consequence of the ship being tethered to a mooring block, the ship would swing back and forth in a wide arc, so if the ship wasn't where we expected it to be on our return, we should wait a few minutes and eventually it would swing back to us. The other important thing that they stressed at every dive briefing was that we should try to come back from each dive with no less than 500 psi of air left in our tanks.

The picture above is the dive platform at the back of the Sundancer II. The ladders, which are retracted in the picture, are lowered when the divers are in the water and are used by the divers to climb back aboard after first taking off their fins and handing them to one of the crew members. You can see tethered behind the ship a small boat for use in the event that a diver needed to be rescued. Hint: In a story, this is what is called foreshadowing.

Each of us had our own dive station, where we would keep our buoyancy control device (bcd) strapped to the air tank. Below was storage space for our fins, mask and other gear. After each dive, our tanks would be refilled in place. Below is the port side of the dive deck. The rest of the passengers had their stations on the starboard side.

Okay, and now that that's out of the way, on to the day's events.
Our first dive was at a site called Long Caye Ridge. Before my trip to Belize, I expected, based on my lack of experience, that my first day's diving would see a lot of mistakes on my part. And sure enough, I did not fail to live up (or down) to my expectations.

Marnie, the first mate, was the dive master for this dive, and it was my intention to join her and the other passengers that were accompanying her. Below the dive deck, about 15 feet down, was the ship's hang bar, where the divers would congregate after doing their giant stride into the water and submerging.

After I had donned by gear, John, one of the divemasters on the ship, asked me how many pounds of weights I needed. I had consulted my dive log for the open water dives I had done in Fort Lauderdale the previous year and it said I used eighteen pounds. When I told John this, he was absolutely astounded and told me that was too much. He sized me up with his eyes and declared that ten pounds should be enough. "Well, he's the expert," I thought to myself and I accepted his assessment.

Having put the weights into my bcd (as I have a weight integrated bcd), I walked to the dive platform, put on my fins, and when I had the all clear, did my giant stride into the water. Holding the inflation hose up in my left hand and pressing the release button and exhaling out of my regulator, I expected to begin my descent. But as the seconds went by, I failed to submerge. "Dammit, I knew it!" I said to myself, upset that I did not insist to John that I be given 18 pounds. I swam back to the boat and told Aaron that I had trouble submerging and asked to have my weights boosted to 18 pounds. I pulled out the weight packets from my bcd and handed them to him so that he could put more weight blocks into them. Once this was done, I swam a few feet away from the boat and then proceeded to submerge. As I did so, I looked down towards the hang bar and saw to my consternation that there was no one there. Marnie's group had already left.

I started swimming around, looking for the other divers. I first came across Ira and Leo the octogenarian. As I approached Leo, he paused and I had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. I ascended to go over him, and then breathed a sigh of relief that I avoided hitting him, and then felt what seemed like a tug on my right fin. I looked back and saw that I accidentally clipped him. "Way to go asshole!" I berated myself. I continued on ahead of Leo and Ira to see if I could find Sam, but I failed to locate him. A short while later, I encountered a couple of other divers who were not part of the Seascapes group. It was a man from Iowa and his college age daughter. I started to look around the coral formations and actually take in the scenery for once. The next thing I knew, the Iowans were gone. I looked at my air tank and saw that my air supply was about 1000 psi. I figured I had better start heading back to the Sundancer II. After trying to retrace my path, I realized that I really had no clue where I was going, so I decided that my best bet was to surface to get a visual on the ship and then start swimming towards it.

When I surfaced, I found the Sundancer II, but was disappointed to see how far it was. I submerged a few feet and started to swim in the direction of the ship, keeping a nervous eye on my air gauge. When I got to around 500 psi, I surfaced again and saw I was still a good distance from the ship, about several hundred yards. Weighing my options, and knowing my limitations as an inexperienced diver and not wanting to run the risk of using up all my air, I decided to swallow my pride and signal for help. I had a safety sausage clipped to my bcd, but I didn't want to deploy that yet, so I blew the whistle until I could see that Aaron, who was on the dive platform, heard it and could see me waving my arms. I watched as they drew in the rescue boat towards the dive platform, and then Aaron stepped in, started the motor, and made his way towards me. After he helped me on board, I apologized profusely for being such a burden. On the way back, we picked up two more divers, Rose and Renee, who were also not part of the Seascapes group. While they were not in distress, they decided to accept Aaron's offer for a ride back, as they had surfaced about a hundred yards from the ship.

The second dive of the morning was also at Long Caye Ridge. While the dive itself was largely uneventful, my return to the ship did not go so well. When I got to the ladder, Captain James was manning the dive platform. I took off my fins and handed them to him, but in doing so, I stupidly let go of the ladder and the current started pushing me away. I tried kicking my legs, but without the fins I could make no headway. James tossed me a line and I used it to make my way back to the ladder. I climbed up, feeling exhausted and eager to get my gear off. Problem was, I mistakenly thought that I was supposed to leave my gear on the dive platform. I unclipped my bcd with the tank still strapped to it and set it down on the platform and started stumbling towards the dive deck. I heard James call to me sharply and when I looked back, he reprimanded me (and rightfully so) for leaving my gear. I apologized and scurried back to retrieve my bcd and tank. Another mistake made and another lesson learned.

After the second dive, we had lunch and Captain James piloted the ship to the next dive site at Lighthouse Reef called Cathedral. The day's remaining three dives, including the night dive, would be at this site. On the third dive, I went along with Sam, who had a camera and spent his dives looking for interesting things to photograph. This is probably also a good time to mention that none of my posts about this trip will have underwater pictures taken by me as I did not have an underwater camera. I had made the decision that due to my inexperience as a diver, it would be better, as well as safer, if I focused on trying to improve my diving skills. Furthermore, I had also signed up to take the Advanced Open Water course during the trip, and would have to take a number of dives under the supervision of the ship's divemasters.

The third dive presented a problem for me that I would have to address as the trip progressed. I was still struggling with streamlining my body and kicking properly with my fins, which resulted in my using my air supply too fast. I saw that my air was getting low and signaled to Sam. He acknowledged and signaled to me that we would first ascend to 15 feet for the 3 minute safety stop. However, I found myself continuing to ascend until I reached the service, the alarm on my dive computer going off warning me that I was ascending too fast. But I just couldn't stop myself. I reached the surface and looked down. I knew that Sam still had to do his safety stop (which by the way is for avoiding decompression sickness that can result from too rapid an ascent) and so I waited for him to finish, whereupon he led me back to the ship. I felt bad that I cut short Sam's dive, but he was cool about it.

The fourth dive went extremely well. I had no problems submerging and I started to feel more confident in the water. It was the first dive where I felt I could finally start enjoying myself, though I still had problems with using my air up too fast. I ended up heading back to the ship on my own. Though I still could not see the Sundancer II, I knew it was close by because I could hear the hum of its generator underwater. As I swam towards the direction of the sound, the next thing I knew, from seemingly out of nowhere, the Sundancer II's hull was practically right up against my right side, and then it was up against my side. Remember the swinging arc I mentioned I earlier? I held out my hand to touch the hull as I continued making my way to the ladder. When I reached the ladder, happy with myself for having a successful dive, I looked at my air gauge and saw that it read 300 psi. Oh well, I thought to myself, I hadn't achieved perfection yet.

After an excellent dinner cooked by the Sundancer II's amazing chef, Jerry, it was time for the first night dive of the trip. Now, as scary as the idea of diving underwater at night might sound, it is important to understand that when you are diving off of a large ship like the Sundancer II, you are not diving into pitch blackness. The bottom of the ship is lit up like a sports arena, and unless you carelessly wander too far, it is impossible to miss it underwater. Furthermore, each diver is equipped with a flashlight, so the area immediately around you is illuminated well enough.

Nevertheless, diving at night can be quite an eerie experience. As the strobes of my flashlight pierced the dark waters, silvery sturgeons would glisten as they slowly swam by, their eyes white from reflecting the light. The one part of the night dives that were a bit scary for me was being at the edge of a reef wall that dropped down hundreds of feet that the beam of my flashlight could not penetrate. I could not help but think that somewhere down there were leviathans dwelling in the darkness that were best left undisturbed.

During the night dive at Cathedral that night, I had the pleasure of shining my light on a turtle swimming by before anyone else in the group saw it. The turtle then turned left towards us and settled down on the reef just a little bit in front of us. We swam towards it and then it suddenly darted away from us and settled down about 20 feet away. We also saw a group of about five or six small squid in a tightly packed formation. It was a fascinating experience and I finally had my first problem free dive of the trip.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

If You Want To Find Osama bin Laden, Stop Looking For Him

Did you ever find yourself frustrated trying to find something you lost somewhere in your house, and then a short while after you gave up looking for it, you suddenly stumble upon the thing you spent so much time looking for? It's happened to me often enough that I now make it a personal policy that if I can't find what I am looking for after five or ten minutes, I make a conscious decision to stop searching.

I'm starting to feel that way about Osama bin Laden. It has been over eight years since 9/11, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently admitted that we haven't had any meaningful intelligence as to bin Laden's whereabouts for years.

What's so important about finding him? From the same article from the BBC Online:

Testifying to US Congress, Gen Stanley McChrystal said Bin Laden had become an "iconic figure".

"I don't think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he's captured or killed," said Gen McChrystal of Bin Laden.

"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose survival emboldens al-Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," he said.

The general said that killing or capturing Bin Laden would not spell the end of al-Qaeda but that the movement could not be eradicated while Bin Laden remained at large

But is bin Laden really still an iconic figure? I could be wrong, but I get the impression that for Islamic militants, he is more like a faded rock star who hasn't had a hit song in years and is coasting on his past glories. After all, what has bin Laden done lately that he can remotely take credit for?

As someone who was in NYC when the Twin Towers fell and who lost a high school classmate on 9/11, I would like to see bin Laden brought to justice as much as anybody. But I think it is a mistake to personalize our anti-terror efforts with regard to bin Laden. If he had been bagged at say Tora Bora in December of 2001, that would have been a major coup. But now, given that he is apparently just a figurehead who does not seem to exercise any meaningful control over al Qaeda, capturing or killing him at this point would be anti-climactic.

It would certainly not have much impact on the situation in Afghanistan. In his blog post "Osama Bin Where?", Imran Khan of Aljazeera acknowledges that "[bin Laden] represents a totem for international jihadis everywhere." However, Khan adds:

"But will killing or capturing him make a difference to the crisis that Pakistan and Afghanistan face?

Not really. It's not al-Qaeda that is creating the biggest problem for both countries, it's the Taliban. In Afghanistan the Taliban are, according to some, moving away from supporting Al Qaeda, instead setting themselves up as a Pashtun fighting force.

If Osama is captured or killed, the Taliban will still be a force to be reckoned with. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will become secure. But if you are the US government right now and you need something that suggests your new AfPak strategy is working, then Bin Laden's head on a platter is looking like a good idea right about now.

Sadly, say many in Pakistan, Bin Laden's head will not make a difference for long term peace in the region

I think we need to publicly play down Bin Laden's importance and instead focus on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One way of doing that is to gradually reduce the reward for information that aids in the capture and conviction of Osama bin Laden. As of now, as it has been for quite some time, the reward sum on bin Laden's page on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List has been $25 million dollars. That figure should be reduced by one million dollars every year. For one, it will send the message to anyone who might be contemplating dropping a dime on him that they better hurry up, because the reward will only get smaller with each passing year. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, it might provoke bin Laden into making more public pronouncements or feeling safe enough to be less careful in his movements that he will give himself away.

By the way, I got a chuckle out of bin Laden's FBI page where it reads "Occupation: Unknown." I guess terrorist leader doesn't qualify as an occupation.

I have a feeling that some people reading this will disagree with me vehemently, which I can understand. But from my reading of history, there are enemy armies or organizations that fall apart when their leaders are killed (just imagine how different the Civil War would have turned out had Robert E. Lee been killed by a stray bullet in late 1862) whereas other organizations or movements are not dependent on a single dynamic leader and can carry on in the absence of that leader. From what I have read of the commentary from anti-terror experts, al Qaeda falls in the latter category. I also believe, and have for some time, that the battle against Islamic terrorism will ultimately not be won or lost by the United States military, but by Muslims themselves.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Belize Trip - August 1, 2009: We're Not Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Yes, I'm long overdue with posting about my scuba diving trip to Belize last August. And since I can't really think of anything else to write about lately, I might as well write about my big adventure.

The day got off to a real early start, as I drove to Seascapes in Syosset around 5:30 a.m. where those of us going on the trip were meeting for the bus ride that was chartered to take us to Newark Airport in New Jersey for the flight to Belize City. Apart from Larry, the owner of Seascapes, I did not know any of the other people going on the trip, which was fine, as it turned out quite of few of them did not know each other either.

On the drive to Newark, I chatted with some of my fellow travelers. We were a diverse group in terms of age range, from a couple of guys in their early twenties, Josh and Sam, to an octogenarian named Leo. Sam was a funny guy and turned out to be my roommate on the Sundancer II, the boat featured in the picture above.

The flight to Belize, which I believe arrived around noon local time, was a lot faster than I expected, about two and a half hours. The airport at Belize was not very big, around the size of Islip Airport on Long Island for those who are familiar with it. A couple of representatives from Peter Hughes picked us up at the airport and brought us to the Radisson Fort George in Belize City, which is right by the docks where the Sundancer II was moored. We couldn't board the boat until 3 p.m., because the crew was still tidying the ship up. This is normal, as the previous passengers disembarked earlier that morning. The wait at the Radisson though was the worst part of the trip, as that is where we truly began to feel the heat as we sat by the outdoor bar near the pool. Strangely, the music played over the speakers, rather than being Caribbean music, was from a station playing Eighties hard rock.

Finally, at 3 p.m., one of the crew members came over and told us we could begin boarding. In the passenger galley, a list was posted telling us which rooms we were in. Sam and I got the room on the port side that was closest to the dive deck. Not having been on a liveaboard boat before, I was pleasantly surprised at how spacious everything was.

Above is the bed I slept on with ample storage space below. We also had overhead cabinets that do not appear in this picture. And of course, we had a nice view from our cabin window.

In the early evening, we assembled in the dining and lounge room, where we were officially introduced to the captain and crew of the Sundancer II. The captain of the ship was a tall, strapping Englishman named James Cooke, who acknowledged in his opening remarks that unlike the famous 18th century English navigator, his last name ended with an "e". Captain Cooke and his First Mate, Marnie, described the daily routine that would prevail on the ship for the next five days. Each morning, after breakfast, we would have a briefing of the morning's diving site. For the first three days on the water, there would be five scheduled dives. The first at 8:30, the second at 10:30, the third at 2:00 p.m, the fourth at 4 p.m., and a night dive at 8 p.m., though I could be off a bit on the exact times, as some four months have elapsed. The morning dives would be at one dive site, and the afternoon and night dives would be at a second dive site. On the fourth day, we would dive the famous Blue Hole in the morning, make an excursion in the late morning to visit a bird sanctuary at Half Moon Caye, and then do two afternoon dives and a night dive. The last full day of diving, Thursday, would feature four dives, including a dusk dive, followed by two morning dives on Friday, with an option for a land excursion on Friday afternoon.

Captain Cooke informed us that the ship would be making its way towards the first dive site during the night and that the water might get choppy. I found out the hard way, as I woke up in the middle of the night to take a piss, and I was getting bounced around so hard that I didn't think I could keep my urine stream in the toilet, so I ended up peeing in the shower stall. Sorry, I just had to share that with you.

Tune in for my next post on Day 2, where the diving adventure really begins.