Monday, June 04, 2007

Crossing over to the Dark Side

Finally, my plan to cross over to the dark side of diving has come to fruition.

Technical diving is one of the most contentious issues in the scuba diving arena. Many argue about how to define it. Some question why it's necessary. There are even those who wield it as a holier-than-thou stick with which to beat others.

I just call it going doubles, as in connecting two tanks with a manifold. Mine happens to have an isolation valve to keep the tanks' contents together or separate as required. Since I'm short (5'1"), I've chosen a 5' hose for my primary reg (MR22 Abyss) instead of the usual 7' snake. My short torso also necessitated a small, 4-pound stainless steel backplate with which to connect my 45 lb bungeed wing.

So why double up? Well, for one thing, it allows me to have equipment self-sufficiency. For another, it allows me to make single longer dives; being lazy by nature, I would rather make a single long dive than 2 shorter ones - I hate changing tanks! That's work...I try to avoid that wherever possible.

A valiant attempt last Sunday to test-dive the rig in Humber Bay Park West (Lake Ontario) in west end Toronto ended in a decision never to dive there again! Take 2 was supposed to be at Big Bay Point (Innisfil Beach, Lake Simcoe) but ended up happening at a friend's swimming pool for reasons best not to dwell on.

After some small adjustments to the harness, the rig sits perfectly on me. Trim is good and boy does the rig feel great on in the water!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Closing out the Season: Tobermory

This past weekend, I lucked into a trip to Tobermory. Last one for this year, and we couldn't have asked for better weather.

We dove Forest City, the Dufferin Wall, and Arabia - flat calm waters and 80 foot plus visibility. Water temperature at depth was 46F. All in all, pretty comfortable dry suit diving.

Arabia has always been my favourite wreck in Toby. There's something beautifully evocative about her that's indescribable (by me anyway). Her bowsprit still pointing proudly skyward after more than a century, while the rest of her continues to crumble into a pile of lumber that's surprisingly free of zebra mussel encrustation. I never get tired of coming down the mooring line and seeing her come into sight. Now there's a dive to write home about.

For better pix, click here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Chillin' on Tioman

Back in September, my brother Tze-Yaw and I went on another of our dive trips. I look forward to these more than any other. Living on opposite ends of the earth as we do, these dive trips are the precious and rare occasions where we have the luxury of enjoying each other's company for more than 48 hours at a time.

Our short stay on the island of Tioman was idyllic. The only thing I would change is to have stayed longer! My brother's friend (no, not girlfriend) Jessica came along for the ride. What a blast we had!

The diving was definitely worth the trip. Tioman is an island, and most of the diving occurs on the western coast, to take advantage of the relative shelter provided by mainland Malaysia to the west. So although pelagics are rare, the critters and the turtles more than made up for the lack of big life. Check out these shots taken by my brother Tze-Yaw.

All three of us are fond of nudibranchs and other sea slugs, and Tioman did not disappoint. Tiger Reef became unofficially nicknamed Nudi Valley for the sheer volume of nudibranchs and other sea slugs. It was a macro wonderland.

Topside, the staff at Paya are the best I've ever experienced anywhere in the world. In comparison, the Caribbean is downright inhospitable. From the wait staff in the dining room to the dive centre manager, we got an unbeatable level of personal service. One day, the dining room manager actually sent over a plate of moon cakes as a gift!

Not to be outdone, our lovely dive master Remy decided to jig for seafood after our dives one afternoon. Back at the resort with a big bucketful of squid and fish, Remy rigged up a fire on the beach right in front of our chalet and proceeded to grill up the freshest, sweetest seafood I've ever eaten, simply seasoned with butter and pepper.

I would have happily died on that beach that very night.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Horror...the Horror...The Screeching

I have to admit, I was very apprehensive about the whole screeching business. I’d been threatened with it for some months now, ever since I announced my decision to go to Newfoundland.

It was awkward; entertaining; went on a bit long; and half the time, I had no idea what the Newfie was saying, which I think is part of the point.

When we were screeched in, our Screecher sang a song that almost brought tears to my eyes. I know, I know, seems a bit melodramatic now in hindsight, but I was moved at the time, OK? Must’ve been all that screech and rye I had….

The Saltwater Joys was written by Newfoundlander Wayne Chaulk only recently (1989); it captures something of the close ties that Newfoundlanders still feel towards their place in space and time, a sense of kinship that most of us itinerant city dwellers have lost.

Just to wake up in the morning, to the quiet of the cove
And to hear Aunt Bessie talking to herself.
And to hear poor Uncle John, mumbling wishes to old Nell
It made me feel that everything was fine.

I was born down by the water, it's here I'm gonna stay
I've searched for all the reasons why I should go away
But I haven't got the thirst for all those modern day toys
So I'll just take my chances with those saltwater joys.

Following the little brook as it trickles to the shore
In the autumn when the trees are flaming red
Kicking leaves that fall around me
Watching sunsets paint the hills
That's all I'll ever need to feel at home.

This island that we cling to has been handed down with pride
By folks that fought to live here, taking hardships all in stride
So I'll compliment her beauty, hold on to my goodbyes
And I'll stay and take my chances with those saltwater joys.

How can I leave those mornings with the sunrise on the cove
And the gulls like flies surrounding Clayton's wharf
Platter's Island wrapped in rainbow in the evening after fog
The ocean smells are perfume to my soul.

Some go to where the buildings reach to meet the clouds
Where warm and gentle people turn to swarmin', faceless crowds
So I'll do without their riches, glamour and the noise
And I'll stay and take my chances with those saltwater joys.

Some go to where the buildings reach to meet the clouds
Where warm and gentle people turn to swarmin', faceless crowds
So I'll do without their riches, glamour and the noise
And I'll stay and take my chances with those saltwater joys.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Four Enormous Shipwrecks And One Man-Sized Jellyfish

The Man-Sized Jellyfish
We ended the week’s dives with something unexpected.

As I neared the end of my dive on the PLM, I looked out over the wreck and saw something approaching just beyond visibility. Ah, another of those beautiful Lion’s Mane jellyfish.

Except this one had a body that was bigger than I was and tentacles that trailed back forever.

Where is Lucy English? I had seen her hovering nearby. She wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t share this sight with her. There she was. By then, the rest of our group was re-grouping nearby as well. I finally sighted Norbert and gestured impatiently for him to come over with his camera. Tom English and I, in telepathic fashion, instinctively swam into view of Norbert’s camera to give some sense of scale.

And there we all were, hovering in awe of this massive life form pulsating with this indescribable inner glow, the shipwreck beneath us all but forgotten.


Four Enormous Shipwrecks And...Part 3

PLM 27
Fresh from the rush of the kill, Wissman next trained U-518’s gun sights on PLM 27.

Short for Paris-Lyon-Marseilles, PLM 27 was a Free French ship which escaped Ruggeberg’s attacks that sank Saganaga and Strathcona two months earlier, saved by the counter-fire from the valiant Evelyn B which was anchored nearby.Wissmann tied off the loose end left by Ruggeberg, firing a single well-aimed shot that dispatched PLM 100 feet to the bottom almost immediately, taking 12 crew members with her.

The shallowest of the 4 wrecks, PLM was the favourite of the fishy kind. What I remember most about her is not that she’s so mangled – her shallow depth exposes her to the worst of the weather, including the icebergs that occasionally scraped by. The PLM I see in my mind’s eye is throbbing with marine life. Truly, the sea has claimed the wreckage. If it’s true that we all came from the sea, then it is fitting perhaps that we return to it.

Near the entrance inside the aft cabin, I see a single half-decayed shoe. I signalled for Norbert to come by with the video camera he was aiming about the wreck. As he swam slowly into the room, the light illuminated a bathtub, along with other detritus of everyday life.

As Norbert swam back out of the room, I backed up and noticed another shoe on the deck. It strikes me that these shoes were very large.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Four Enormous Shipwrecks and...Part 1

Thanks to my current state of unemployment, I finally have the opportunity of time to dive the massive ore carriers sunk by 2 U-Boats during WWII off Bell Island, Newfoundland.

SS Saganaga & SS Lord Strathcona
September 5, 1942. It was a beautiful fall morning in Conception Bay with clear skies and mirror calm seas, probably much like the conditions we experienced this first week of July in 2006, some 64 years later.

Beneath the calm surface of the sea, however, U-513 lay in 80 feet of water. Her captain, Rolf Ruggeberg, was eagerly awaiting his first kill.

SS Saganaga, fully loaded with 8,800 tons of Bell Island iron ore, anchored in wait off Little Bell Island for a convoy to escort her to the smelters in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The 48 crew members were enjoying a quiet Saturday; some had even launched a boat to try their luck at catching a cod dinner.

Saganaga wasn’t alone. SS Lord Strathcona and Evelyn B were also anchored nearby. Strathcona was loaded with iron ore, awaiting escort to Nova Scotia while Evelyn was waiting her turn to unload her cargo of coal.

Across the sheltered channel between Little Bell Island and Bell Island, SS Rosecastle and the Free French ship PLM 27 (Paris-Lyon-Marseilles) also lay at anchor. Like Saganaga and Strathcona, Rosecastle and PLM were also Nova Scotia bound. Rosecastle was being loaded with ore, while PLM was already loaded and ready for her voyage west. They would escape the fates of Strathcona and Saganaga that September day.

11:07 am Atlantic Daylight Time. William Henderson, Chief Engineer of the Lord Strathcona, hears a sickening sound of explosion as the first torpedo hit the Saganaga about midship on the port side, tearing her in two. In less time than it takes to say Saganaga, Henderson reports that "a second torpedo literally blew the Saganaga to pieces. Debris and iron ore was thrown up about 300 feet and, before the last of it had fallen back into the water, the Saganaga had disappeared." With 8,800 tons of iron ore on board, Saganaga landed upright on the bottom of the North Atlantic in 15 seconds.

Quickly recovering from the shock of the attack, Henderson gave the order to abandon Strathcona, knowing she faced the same peril. All 45 crew members got off in 2 lifeboats, then attempted to rescue the survivors from Saganaga. Most of the rescue efforts, however, came from the men of Lance Cove. For 30 of the Saganaga crew, September 5 was their last sunrise.

In the days immediately following, morbid curiosity would drive Rees and his friends to row out to the wreck. She lay in such shallow depths in water with such good visibility that they were able to look down on her and still see the spread-eagled body of a sailor with an arm pinned on the deck.

11:30 am. While efforts were underway to rescue the Saganaga survivors, the crew of Strathcona would witness 2 torpedo strikes against their abandoned ship. Strathcona sank within a minute and a half, but not before U-513’s inexperienced crew accidentally rammed into her stern as it manoevred for attacks, damaging its conning tower in the process.

I enjoyed diving the Strathcona tremendously. Subconsciously, I think, part of it was due to the fact that no lives were lost in her sinking. She’s beautifully decorated with anemones and populated by cod, conners, lumpfish, sculpin, star fish, and various jellyfishes pulsating with their otherworldly inner light. Strathcona’s deck is in about 75 feet of water; the day we dove her, the sun penetrated 75 feet down and illuminated a large area of the wreckage. In my mind, I will always see Strathcona with her debris strewn deck bathed in the dappling sunlight.

I didn’t get a chance to dive Saganaga. It was only my second day diving the frigid North Atlantic, and I was shaking uncontrollably when I surfaced from my dive on the Rosecastle. I called off the second dive of the day, which was to be on the Saganaga, since we planned to dive on her again the next day. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. There would be only one dive on Saganaga this trip.

I guess I have unfinished business in Newfoundland.

For pix taken by real professionals, which is to say, far beyond my ability, go to the following sites:
Marine Life

Rupprecht de Thomas
Lloyd C. Rees


Four Enormous Shipwrecks and...Part 2

SS Rosecastle
November 2, 1942. U-518 had arrived the previous day in Conception Bay, under cover of darkness. This was her maiden voyage, and her captain, Fredich “the wise guy” Wissmann was in comand. His mission: to land a German agent in Canada and to seize every opportunity to attack allied shipping.

In the overnight hours, Wissmann fired his first shot. Fortunately for the Anna T and the Flyingdale, which were tied up at the Scotia Pier on Bell Island, Wissmann missed. The torpedo struck Bell Island instead, bestowing the community with the dubious distinction of being the only one in North America to sustain a U-boat hit during WWII.

Unfortunately, Wissmann’s aim improved. His next 2 shots sent SS Rosecastle 150 feet to the bottom. The impact woke sixteen year old Lloyd Rees. From his bedroom window, he saw what he already knew: that Rosecastle had been hit. Running to his sister’s room to get a better view, he arrived to see bits of Rosecastle still raining down on the surface of the sea. Attacked as they slept, the crew hopefully never knew what hit them. Miraculously, 15 of the 43 on board survived.

Three of our group of divers (Rob Geddis and Ron Irvine, led by Norbert Pietkiewicz) decided to search for the torpedo holes on one of their dives. They had asked our able divemaster Arthur Cleal if he knew where the torpedo hole was.

“Nope,” says Arthur, who knows just about all there is to know about these wrecks. Next, they asked Debbie Stanley, co-owner of Ocean Quest Charters, who was diving with me that day.

“Nope,” says Debbie, who also knows just about all there is to know about these wrecks, having made more than 200 dives on the Rosecastle alone. That leaves our wise skipper Bill Flaherty.

“Nope,” says Skipper Bill.

Excited, our 3 intrepid divers splash in, their hearts no doubt thumping in anticipation that they might be the ones to discover the sites of the torpedo holes. They descend down the line on the wreck, tied off amid-ships on the port side. Continuing down towards their planned deepest depth to begin their search for the holes, they see somewhat anti-climactically the massive concussion just below the down line. They’re convinced they’ve been the butt of a Newfie joke.