Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 2010 pt 7; Mysterious Feather Stars

In all my years of snorkeling I don’t recall ever noticing a feather star. I’m sure I must have seen them—they simply didn’t register during the limited observations I must have had of them from above. That changed on my very first dive; suddenly, feather stars became the prime undersea object of my attention. It’s as if they appeared to me out of thin air; or thin water if you will.

My first time down doing scuba, there at Coral Cove, I remember seeing feather stars everywhere, covering just about everything. Only honestly, I actually assumed they were some type of tropical sea plant. They certainly resemble a plant, a very remarkable varicolored leafy one. How could anything that resembles the epitome of a plant actually be an animal? Thus, I never suspected in the slightest that they were part of the animal kingdom.

Soon however, I began to have my suspicions that my initial presumption that the feathery looking things were not actually in the plant kingdom after all. From afar, I happened to see one floating next to a large coral formation, only it wasn’t just suspended there in the water; no, it appeared to be purposefully moving it’s feathery appendages. At that point it actually resembled some kind of animal to me, albeit a weirdly monstrous one. I mean, imagine if you will suddenly seeing a marigold hopping across the yard. See what I mean? It would be a really cool thing to see, but it would also certainly freak you out.

‘Hey, plants don’t do that!’

I was too far away from it to be sure, but it sure looked that way to me, like a swimming plant. It was right side up, as if in control of its position and place in the water, its arms moving rhythmically and persistently.

In the months ahead my observations of these sometimes floating (or swimming) life forms continued over the course of further dives. It wasn’t long before I learned to avoid touching them with any part of my body. During my first series of training dives I still assumed that they were a form of plant life, a prickly sticky one. Don and I oftentimes would stop to hover in place, and during the pause we’d unavoidably brush up against them; at which point one or more would opportunistically attach themselves to our arms or legs, sometimes to both. Next thing I knew I’d feel Don attempting to brush off the unwanted hitchhikers from where they had become affixed to my dive suit material. I didn’t mind them being on me like that, although it does kind of feel creepy; but in trying to remove them they always end up in a cloud of hundreds of disattached arms and tiny pieces.

‘Stupid things!’ I would swear regrettably.

I always feel bad seeing them float away in such a cruelly dissected condition, and with me not having any choice in the matter. Surely they aren’t able to survive such a traumatic dismemberment; although I later learned that the feathery multiple-armed thing is able to regenerate lost "branches" the same way a starfish does.

After returning from my first dive trip last May I borrowed a nature book from navy diver Tom. It contains hundreds of shots of all different sorts of undersea life. Paging through the thick book I finally found a photo of the mystery creature. I learned that these odd things are called feather stars and they really aren’t plants at all, but in the same phylum as starfish.

Feather stars are crinoids, along with a closely related multi-armed sibling creature called a sea lily, which resembles a feather star, only the sea lily has a stalk that attaches them to whatever surface they choose to live on. The stalk prevents sea lilies from swimming like feather stars, but interestingly, five years ago in 2005 a stalked crinoid (sea lily) was observed actually crawling at the rate of more than 2 feet per hour (Go Speed racer Go!) So, both sea lilies and feather stars have motility.

Some interesting facts about star feathers (crinoids):

• They have a mouth on their top surface completely surrounded by its feeding arms.

• With a U-shaped gut, their anus is located also on the topside of their central dorsal cup right next to its mouth. (So, its mouth and ass are side-by-side; I wonder if they ever get them confused?)

• These creatures were so numerous in ancient times that slabs of limestone hundreds of feet thick are found to be made up of countless layers of broken crinoid pieces.

• Feather stars are free-swimming; their arms, starting out with five, the same number arms that starfish have. Only feather star arms branch again and again in multiples of two, so that as they mature, they can generate up to two hundred by the time they are done.

• They eat by collecting small particles from the sea water with their feather like arms.

• The tube feet on its multiple arms use sticky mucus to collect tiny specks of floating food; the tube feet then pass the tiny particles into its ambulacral groove located down the length of each arm, where cilia continually push the particle infused mucus stream to the mouth for digestion.

• The different species of crinoids number in the hundreds (various sites claim anywhere from 450, up to 650 species), and include every conceivable color.

• Crinoids are the state fossil of Missouri.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 12 - 20 2010 part 6

So here’s the revelatory information revealed to me during that dive I was in the midst of describing in my last post, part 5: I CAN go deep!

Up until that dive I thought that I would never be able to get very far below the waves due to my inability to get deep quickly, all because of my inner ear equalization problems. But on this particular dive I learned that all I really need do is to get my ears equalized at 35 feet, and once good to go at that depth I’m good to go at ANY depth.

Here’s the drill. While still on the surface I pinch my nose and blow steadily until my ears pop, not too hard of course. I deflate my vest one squeeze at a time until I slowly begin to sink. All the while I continue to keep positive pressure in my middle ear by pinching my nose and blowing, while also swallowing and moving my jaw. Even with all these actions I begin to feel painful pressure right around ten feet down. As soon as I feel the beginnings of that pain I stop descending and go back up a foot or so and then swallow, swallow, SWALLOW.

Within a few seconds, sometimes up to a minute, I’ll either feel the end of the inner ear pressure suddenly when the telltale pop goes off in my head signifying equalization, or the pain just withers away, like air slowly escaping from a balloon; the latter not quite as satisfying as the instantly occurring “pop,” but good enough nevertheless. Either way, I release more air and sink down a few more feet until the pressure begins to rebuild; and so the procedure continues.

Until this dive I thought I would have to go through this grinding routine all the way down to whatever depth I ended up at, which sucks since it eats up air pressure, and just as bad, it drastically reduces bottom time since the body’s tissues begin to absorb nitrogen almost as soon as the dive starts. Most people know that “the bends” is caused when the nitrogen comes out of solution faster than the body can safely process it out of the blood stream. This “out gassing” should occur between 30 and 20 feet on the way back up from a long deep dive; how long it must be done depends on how deep and for how long the dive.

So, based on all that bit of simplified physiology, if a diver intends to go deep for an extended period, ideally, the depth should be reached as quickly as possible. The faster the depth is reached, the more time one can spend down there, and the more safety can be built into the ascent plan to allow for any glitches on the way up to the “safety stop” aka “the out gassing period.”

Based on all that I figured I would never be able to get much deeper than 60 or 70 feet, since I’d use up all my air trying to get much deeper, especially considering that I wouldn’t have enough air left to safely and properly out gas on the way up. Indeed, my narrow Eustachian tube syndrome was all very troubling and depressing considering how it would necessarily limit my scuba career to only a bit of shallow diving. Sigh.

But NOT anymore! Now I’m one happy scuba camper. Settling on my stomach into the silty sand next to the buoy mooring concrete I checked my depth gauge—just over 30 feet. Don pointed south toward the down slope, then pointed to my ears and gave me a questioning thumbs up.

‘Let’s go for it,’ I thought, and gave him a return thumbs up. Off we glided to the edge of the precipice. Almost immediately I felt a slight pressure in my ears so I blew against my pinched nose and swallowed hard. “POP!”

Ahhhhh! Instantly I was flooded with joy and relief. I checked my gauge—almost 40 feet. Don had paused knowing that I probably would need time to equalize but as soon as he turned to check I gave him a thumbs up and pointed down the gentle slope we now rested upon. Pushing against a rock he slid down another ten feet or so. I followed, expecting ear pain.

But what’s this? No pain! Not even a hint of pressure behind the ear drums. I was delighted. ‘Oh man! We’re already 60 feet down!’ Don looked over at me and I gave him a hearty thumbs up. ‘Let’s go!’ I yelled at him telepathically.

We continued like this, gliding down, down, down. My ears were no longer even a consideration. I kept my console in my left hand and watched the needle climb higher and higher. When the bright orange warning section on the pressure gauge turned to gray I knew we had passed 70 feet, where the sun’s ability to penetrate deep enough to provide the perception of certain colors, like red and orange, ends. I KNEW it was going to happen, but I was thrilled to actually observe the phenomenon for myself. ‘This is so COOL!’

As we sank deeper we began to angle eastward so that we went down the hill on a less steep more diagonal course. In this manner we covered a fair distance both down and away from our starting point. I felt a new thrill at each newly reached depth for me—there’s 80, now 90 feet!

Don stopped us there. ‘Fine by me’. We were at 93 feet! Awesome! I looked off to the south where even deeper depths lurked. ‘I’ll be back’ I whispered to myself. I glanced north and then craned my head up, ‘Where did that cliff face come from? Dang, but that’s a long way up there.’

Suddenly, Don pointed up that cliff face and took off. ‘Okay, I guess we’re going back up.’

What the . . .? Don was practically sprinting upwards. ‘Something must be wrong.’ As he practically flew up the steep hill I lagged back. Soon he was 10, then 15 feet above me, kicking his fins as hard as I’ve ever seen him do so. ‘Holy cow, he’s like a rocket!’ I let him go, knowing I’d soon see him at the surface. We had plenty of air left so I KNEW something was up, and soon it would be us.

We hadn’t been down deep or long enough to have to worry about a safety stop, so that was of no concern to me, but I took my time drifting upwards just the same, keeping my eye on Don’s flapping flippers as I followed my own bubbles to the surface. Eventually, I too reentered the atmosphere some ten feet from my dive partner. I noticed he was coughing and sputtering before I got the obvious question out, “Are you okay? What happened?”

“Wait a sec. Cough. Cough. Cough. Gasp. Cough.” He put his regulator back into his mouth for a few breaths before taking it back out and endeavoring to respond. Finally, he could. Between coughing gasps he explained.

He had craned his head to look over his shoulder and somehow got a mouth full of salty sea water into his throat when his regulator came mostly out of his mouth. He began to cough and couldn’t stop. Rather than try to clear the coughing at depth, which should be entirely possible, he opted to head back up and do it. I asked him if that had ever happened to him before and he said no, never in all of his hundreds of dives going back to ’96.

That’s diving. You just never know when “stuff” is going to happen. Just don't panic, try to think ahead for any contingency and plan for what you will do to survive it. For me, as long as I'm breathing, THAT is the main thing. Recover and live to dive another day.

As for me, a great weight had lifted from my scuba diving shoulders. I KNEW that I could go deep! I had and I would again!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 12 - 20 2010 part 5

Getting back to the little revelation mentioned in my last post that perhaps I wasn’t doomed after all to not be able to get to significant depths due to my tiny Eustachian tube syndrome. But instead of calling it tiny let’s call them narrow, because that’s probably what’s actually causing the equalization problem. I don’t think I was born with this physical glitch because when I was a kid I remember being able to easily dive down to the bottom of deep pools, well below 9 or 10 feet and never experienced the pain of “ear squeeze” in doing it.

I initially discovered that I NOW have an issue with “going deep” a few years ago when I first tried to free dive down to the famous Gant Clams located near Puerto Galera at the south end of the Batangas Channel. These crustaceans, I mean mollusks, are indeed huge, maybe a yard across, and depending on the tide are only a little over ten feet down. I jackknifed toward them, kicking hard with my fins, only to be stopped dead in the water by the pain in my ears still more than five feet from them. I tried everything to clear them, but with snorkeling gear there was no way. It was frustrating as hell.

Discussing the “why’s and how’s” of ear squeeze with my retired navy diver friend, he assured me that I should be able to work through it and still get in some decent dives. He assured me that it was something that I had to work with; just keep at it and figure it out. I hoped he was right. I really wanted to be able to get down to depths below 100, even to 125 and deeper, after learning that there are some good things to see at those levels, such as the shark caves around the bend from Sabang not all that far from the resort at which we stay on the back side of that town.

After discovering our “buoy blunder” and putting it out of our minds Don and I continued our dive. He pointed at my ear followed by a questioning thumbs up which means “ears ok, let’s go?” They were equalized and so far, pain free, so I gave him a thumbs up in return, meaning “I’m good; let’s go.”

Even though Don never has to worry about ear pressure pain he is always concerned if I am in the midst of it. The sea bottom at the buoy is just over 30 feet, or almost 1 full atmosphere of sea water pressure; in other words, the pressure there is twice what it is on the surface. That’s a lot of pressure. I got a little reminder that you do not mess with it in the pool a few days after acquiring my new dive gear. We were in a local swimming pool and I was trying to see what kind of ballast weight I would need. I was in just 5 feet of fresh water but according to my navy diver buddy, what I did next could easily have killed me.

I was flat on the bottom and was trying to practice using my lungs to control my depth. I took a breath almost filling my lungs when I began to rise from the extra buoyancy. I rose to the surface without exhaling and was immediately struck by the pressure in my lungs. I knew immediately that I had screwed up. For the next week or two the damage I sustained from that bit of idiocy felt exactly like a deep chest cold right in the middle of my chest. It was only after I had discussed this incident with my expert diver friend that I learned that I could have died. As he lectured me on the physiology of what I had done to myself I felt dizzy.

“You see, this is why I am so leery about diving with people who haven’t gone through the training I did in the navy. Most folks who scuba recreationally only learn just enough to kill themselves. You were very lucky Phil. You could easily have killed yourself in five feet of water.”

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 12 - 20 2010 part 4

The next morning, sitting just outside our room just off the beach, I stared out at the buoy that had caused me so much suffering in putting it there. I noticed that it didn’t quite seem in the same position as where I last remembered it. Now it appeared to be about 10 degrees further to the right, or to the west of the pier. I asked Don and he agreed. We surmised that perhaps without a heavy chain to hold it in place the rope now in use was being stretched out in that direction by the wind and current. Oh well.

The plan for the next dive was to navigate underwater to the buoy that we had replaced before heading out to where the drop off begins its descent only 10 or so meters further south into the channel. We would keep an eye on our pressure gauges so that we could safely return to shore with more than enough air. Don said we would go for some depth but not to the point that a safety stop would be required. We submerged, checked each other out for anything amiss such as air leaks, and off we went.

In just over ten minutes we caught sight of the massive concrete mooring point. The water wasn’t quite as murky as it had been. The increase in visibility made the big hunk of cement easier to spot through the greenish gloom.

We glided up to it with me still six or seven feet above Don. I had a very good reason for being up there—pain. It’s called ear squeeze and it hurts something fierce, as if ice picks are being jammed deep into both ears. Many divers, like Don, never have to deal with it; but some, like me, cursed with narrow Eustachian tubes, have to work hard to equalize the pressure behind the eardrums. Don can go from the surface down to 100 feet almost as fast as he can get down there. If I tried that and just pushed past the excruciating pain I’d end up with burst eardrums. The good thing about bursting the eardrums is that the pain goes away as the pressure instantly equalizes; the bad thing is you’ve just wrecked your hearing and can expect a very long recovery period.

A retired navy diver friend, of all people, also suffers from tiny Eustachian tube syndrome but still managed to achieve the very pinnacle of a navy diving career, reaching the rank of master chief. Whereas Don has no idea what it feels like to suffer the humiliation of having to slowly manage a descent through the equalization process, my navy diver buddy knows exactly what I’m talking about. Like everything else in diving he says it’s all about staying ahead of the curve.

“Start clearing your ears even before you leave the boat, and then continue to clear them on the way down. If you let the pressure get ahead of the equalization the tubes can actually collapse and then it’s too late.”

Until this last expedition I worried that I would never be able to get down to any real significant depths. I mean, heck, I get to ten feet and the pain starts. I have to start swallowing and manipulating my tongue and jaw from six or seven feet down, and I have to keep at it all the way down; or at least I thought that’s what I had to do. It was on this dive that I learned otherwise.

Before getting to that little revelation, as I finally managed to settle into the silty sand next to the concrete base, equalized and pain free in the ears, I received another revelation—Don and I had attached the buoy to a rope at the WRONG anchorage. There on the seafloor was the chain exactly where it was when it had almost landed on my head two days previously. Somewhere, a few tens of meters to the west, hidden behind the silt in the water, was another giant can shaped hunk of concrete. We should have known there were two of them I guess. Anyway, the case of the missing chain—solved.

I got Don’s attention, pointed to the sprawl of chain and then hit the side of my head. Boink. He knew exactly what I meant. ‘We really screwed that pooch, didn’t we?’ We discussed it later and he began talking that we should revisit the whole reattachment thing and put it back where it belonged. I responded that if we must, couldn’t we wait until the water was smooth and calm? Lucky me—it never was.

I continue in part 5 next...

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Scuba trip to Mindoro, Nov 12 - 20 2010 part 3

In all my visits to the waters of Mindoro going back to April 2003 I have never seen them siltier with such poor visibility. The reason for the extreme murkiness was clear enough—windy stormy weather, continuously churning the water like a shaken glass snow globe with the same results, lots of floating particulate.

I realized exactly how poor the water clarity was the first time we reached the underwater mooring point of the buoy located immediately out from the end of the breakwater pier in front of the hotel. Taking a seat on the huge cylindrical concrete slab I peered directly up the chain and rope. Last June the water had been clear enough to easily see the buoy from its mooring point below and vice versa. But this time, when I peered intently up toward where the chain and rope soared vertically above me, instead of seeing the buoy at the end of it on the water’s surface some 30 plus feet up, all I could see was the chain disappearing completely into green cloudy nothingness in less than 15 feet.

It was during this first visit under the unseen buoy that it was ripped free of its connection to the chain at the exact moment that I happened to be directly under it. What a coincidence, eh?

After the falling chain incident it wasn’t long after our return to shore, probably about the time that a hotel employee retrieved the detached buoy for our perusal, that Don got a wild hair and decided that, by golly, WE would reattach it. He declared this with complete confidence; while I on the other hand, was not nearly so sure.

He spent the next hour repairing the broken steel attachment ring, using heavy GI wire to make a series of tight wire ties to attach a 2 inch stainless steel screw across the broken ring, in effect replacing and reinforcing the metal corroded away by sea and salt. As he worked he described how we would take the big buoy, looking like a weathered oversized beach ball, back out to the spot and reattach it. Turning to study the choppy water I made my reservations known. I worried that the motion of the ocean would make it next to impossible to use tools without fumbling and dropping them. Positive and self-assured as always, Don was absolutely confident that it was not only doable but would be relatively easy, to the point that we would have time to do a little exploration diving after we finished our task. I sighed and hoped he was right.

When everything was prepared for “the mission” we suited up. Don added a catch bag to the front of his buoyancy compensator vest to carry the tools he’d need to do the job. He attached a 40 foot length of nylon string to the buoy ring and rolled most of it around a small plastic water bottle filled with water so that it would be neutrally buoyant.

We headed out into the waves where soon everything went to crap. The chest deep water at the end of the pier pushed and pulled us all about; huge rocks all around us on the bottom caught at our flippers continually causing us to fight for footing. During this mayhem I dropped the shaker tube (used to get his attention underwater) he had given me as we struggled to get control of the buoy. At that point a section of the nylon line became snarled. He had intended to slowly pay it out as we swam. I found and retrieved the shaker while Don worked at untangling the line. Once he had that done we deflated and headed to the relative peace and stability of the seafloor, the buoy now in tow, the end of the line firmly grasped in Don’s gloved hand.

Halfway out to our objective in fifteen feet of water I drifted slowly ahead about six feet above the seafloor. Don was basically crawling along the bottom barely skimming above the rocks and coral some ten feet behind me. Suddenly, my senses exploded with alarm when a yellow and white banded sea snake more than a yard long popped into view only a few feet beneath me to the right. I could have kicked out with one flipper and touched it.

Almost all sea snakes are poisonous but my understanding is that they are mostly nonaggressive. They have a small head so a person would have to practically stick a finger in their mouth to be bitten by one. Thing is, from my vantage above the two of them I saw that Don was blithely swimming directly toward the bright yellow water serpent which was hidden from his view by a small coral formation. Basically, the two were heading directly at each other.

Frantically I waved at Don with one hand to get his attention while trying to make the other hand resemble a swimming snake. I continued to do this with as much urgency as I could possibly muster trying to get him to understand the danger ahead. To my relief he finally gave me thumbs up and slightly veered away from the hidden danger.

In only a few minutes we found the gigantic tuna can-shaped concrete buoy anchor right where we expected it, but something did not seem right. Where was the chain? And why did the rope seem different from when we last saw it during the previous dive? We shrugged it off figuring that one of the dive parties regularly visiting the dive site had absconded with the chain; as far as the mystery of the rope, we blew that off.

So, instead of reattaching the buoy to the now nonexistent chain, Don changed the plan; he would now reinstall the buoy in place using only the rope. It wasn’t ideal since an unweighted rope would allow the buoy to be pulled around by wind and wave, but oh well. We headed topside to get started. On the way up I grabbed the end of the rope where it hovered a few feet beneath the surface. We popped up and went on snorkel to save our air, the swells worse than ever.

The next hour gradually became absolute hell for me. Don spent more than half his working time submerged and the rest on the buoy itself with me at the surface. I spent the entire hour plus holding onto the buoy attempting to keep it in place and steady enough for Don to permanently reattach it. No matter how I held it however, the darned thing kept bobbing and spinning. Every so often a large wave would lift it high before crashing it down into my head or body. After a half hour of that bruising situation I began to feel something else that caught me completely by surprise—seasickness.

The next time Don rejoined me at the surface I toyed with the idea of telling him that I was sick, but ruled against it. I figured he had to be almost done and I knew from past experience that talking about being sick would only make me sicker. I continued to gut it out.

My partner re-submerged and I found myself on the wrong side of the buoy; by wrong side I mean that it began to beat me in the head with every wave. At this point I began to retch. I was at the end of my rope in more ways than one. Don came up one more time and I told him I was about done. He asked me to hold on for a little while longer; he needed me to hold the buoy steady while he made the finishing lashes. I held on, feeling greener than the angry water in which I bobbed.

At last, Don finished. I finally informed him that I was so sick that if I didn’t start swimming back immediately that I wasn’t sure if I would make it back at all. He looked at me strangely not saying much. I think he was surprised. I turned for shore now looking miles away, put my head down and began to move my arms and legs in a weak semblance of a swimming motion.

I have never swum nauseous before and I hope never to again. The relatively short distance probably took me almost fifteen minutes to cover, but it felt like an hour. I’d put my head down, weakly kick my fins and breast stroke with my arms. After a minute or two, I’d look up to check on my progress; each time I’d find that I was no longer even swimming in the right direction. I would readjust and press on.

Eventually I made it back to the still water behind the protection of the breakwater. I had little strength left but managed to drag my body to a standing position by desperately holding onto the floating dock. Divine came out to greet me with her normal smiling “hello;” but I could only shake my head and lay it on my arms on the dock. Worriedly she hovered nearby waiting for me to gather myself.

I was weak and sick until well into the next morning. I didn’t approach complete normalcy again until well into the next day when I began suiting up for the next dive. Diving always makes me feel better. What I had done the day before had NOT been diving, it was more like bobbing while retching. Ugh.