Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Art and Science of Scuba, Part 2

    This post was meant to be included in the July post I made about my dives in Sipadan. It will cover more of the struggles, personal victories, and contemplations I experienced whilst diving from Seaventures, that oddly painted dive rig in the middle of the Celebes Sea. To begin, I’ll say that I did not expect to end up going to Sipadan, or to even go diving a second time before returning home. Somehow I got pulled, enticed, by this very rare opportunity to dive in some world class sites, considered some of the best on the planet. I thought that I’d be in the thick of medical school so soon, I really should not just let this opportunity pass me by, especially considering how my last diving experience had been so awe-inspiring. And that place was second or third rate compared to this. Also, I had to celebrate the end of an incredible year- on my trip home I needed to give myself a good chance to reflect on the utterly stunning and mind-blowing experiences of this year. I rewarded my intrepidness this year with an activity that would further test and hone my bold openness to new, unusual, and often risky, experience. But this was something of a totally different flavor.

     This time around, I was no longer inhibited in my ability to fully enjoy the calm and beauty of the sea. I took an advanced open water course with Ricardo, a super star dive instructor. This course is also known as the “Adventure Diving” Course, and for good reason. Right below the dive rig, I experienced my first night dive, which certainly took a little getting used to and gave me a scare when a barracuda showed up in front of me completely out of nowhere. The added anxiety of maneuvering in the dark (albeit with a flashlight) made me burn through my air tank in all but 25 minutes, an absolutely dismal performance.
     The next day, we went to the pristine island of Sipadan, where we explored a world-class dive site called “Barracuda Point”, diving 30m, nearly 100ft below the surface. At this depth, the water exerted a pressure of 4 atm, or 4x the pressure we normally experience walking around outside. Down at these depths, I saw creatures that possessed an other-worldly character- white tip reef sharks, torpedoing by fearlessly but without excessive aggression; green turtles, the prototypical stoners of the sea; lion fish, petite yet gaudily boasting a venomous sting; stonefish, carefree with their deathly poisonous flare; and eagle rays, angelic creatures gliding effortlessly in this infinite sanctuary.  I was in my element, especially now that the course helped me optimize by buoyancy control in the water. And let me tell you, buoyancy is everything down here.   
      My diving was completely transformed when I learned to effortlessly change my sea depth with an easy exhalation here and there, whilst also conserving energy and hence air by using soft kicks of my flippers rather than chaotically flailing hand motions. I glided by psychedelically beaming corals, a  nudibranch with zebra design gliding like a living ribbon. Reflecting on the experience later that day, I was awe-inspired by the incredible orderliness amidst the chaos of life happening all around. That order was in part created by the specific part of coral one is looking at. Each little segment of coral is home to a multitude of diverse organisms, nibbling away, coexisting peacefully in this microcosm, this microcommunity, of the sea. Corals are the strings linking all these organisms together, sustaining life in all its myriad forms.
     Over the years, ships and more significantly, climate change, have caused significant damage to the world’s coral reefs, representing a real threat to the survival of all these beautiful life forms. Still it is pretty reassuring that corals can migrate to new sites with currents and reproduce into new reefs. Corals have some pretty wicked biology, no surprise there. They can reproduce asexually or sexually, and can be male, female, or both. The actual living part of the reef is called a “polyp” and the hard part is its coralite, a limestone exoskeleton made of calcium carbonate. The psychedelic colors of these corals are pigments made by algae called zooxanthellae, millions of which live in every  square inch of coral.  
      Sadly, increasing carbon dioxide levels in the air cause a heightened carbonic acid levels in the world's oceans and seas as a result of carbon dioxide dissolving into the water. And this increasing acidity solubilizes calcium carbonate essentially dissolving the skeleton that sustain these living centerpieces of the water.This effect in addition to the damage done by increased water temperatures are definitely causes for concern. I was very much saddened to think about these processes happening right under our noses, for fear of losing the many known and likely many more unrecognized contributions these organisms make to the planet. 
          My last night on the dive rig, I sat around chatting with Ricardo and the manager of the rig, who looks pretty identical to Dwayne Johnson, The Rock. I was surprised to learn that the manager of a dive rig and company didn't believe in evolution. I guess no set of experiences and knowledge exclude the possibility of ignoring what seems all too obvious to me. Still, I was deeply moved by my what transpired here in these few days. I became more aware of the profound beauty and inextricable connections linking all organisms in this ecosystem to one another.  I wondered about the countless commensal and symbiotic microbes likely calling all the shots within each of these larger lifeforms. Diving was an escape from the trivial concerns and pursuits of average life. It was a way to become meditative, to internalize the infinite transquility of this underwater world, to connect to, and even engage with life in all its slimy, gill-ie, venomy, and fin-ie glory. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Art and Science of Scuba

Post intended for June 2011. Yes I know- I Fail.

Note*- I think this post I wanted to finish and put up more than any other post I’ve ever written, because I’m finding that Scuba diving is probably the activity I would do for life if I had a choice of one thing to do till the end of my time on Earth. Sadly never got around to putting the final touches on this piece till very recently.

If you Asked me just a bit over a year ago, when I was still an itty bitty senior in college, “Mike, would you ever imagine yourself scuba diving amongst white tip reef sharks and poisonous stone fish?”, well I would have chuckled and promptly replied “not a chance”. But I guess the same would have been true of me if you told me that I was going to spend a year trekking and researching in Borneo and S.E. Asia. Go figure. Life changes. We, humans, are pretty terrible at predicting in the present day what our feelings or opinions about pretty much anything in the future will be (Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness). Experiences change us in ways we could never have expected, both because we can’t predict many experiences happening to us, and because we just don’t truly know how any given stimulus is going to change our body and mind. I will say that I’ve definitely noticed many unexpected changes in my psyche over previous years, but that’s a conversation for a different post. The important thing is that I made the right choice of going on this trip to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the eastern side of Borneo. It helped that I had a travel buddy, my friend Ashley, to motivate me to plan the trip and all.

I’ll admit that there was certainly a bit of anxiety going into beginning my open water course but Roy, my instructor, helped assuage any worries I had with his carefree, Rastafarian attitude. “Everything’s gonna be alright.” So there I was, all suited up in my wet suit, BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), flippers on foot, mask on face, and certainly air tank connected to my regulator (the device that delivers air from the tank to my mouth and to the BCD if I press the button to inflate it). Roy does a buddy check on me to ensure I’ve not missed anything in setting up my equipment and that everything is functioning smoothly. Roy tells me to just take a big stride off the boat into the water, and so I did, making sure that my mask was on, BCD was inflated, and regulator firmly in my mouth. After some briefings, I was instructed to deflate my BCD, and with regulator in mouth, descend slowly. In doing so it was absolutely vital that I made sure to equalize the pressure, as it built up in my ears, by just pinching my nose shut and blowing air through my ears (i.e. like when you’ve landed from a flight). You see, pressure in water rises much more rapidly with depth than it does in air. And that makes plenty of sense, since water is way denser than air, and thus has a greater mass for the same volume.

A little graphic to learn more about scuba suits

I won’t pretend as though those first moments underwater were immediately wonderful and natural feeling, because they certainly were not. In my first minute under water, I fell into the dangerous cycle of what I call “panic suffocation,” which is a vicious synergy between abnormal breathing (i.e. rapidly, irregularly, holding breath as opposed to breathing in slow, deep, and regular fashion) and panic. The abnormal respiration gives way to uncontrolled, wild, panic, which itself worsens your ability to breathe normally. My problem was that I understood how to breathe in, but the exhalation part was really strange for me since there was this regulator in my mouth kind of blocking me from exhaling. So I would inhale and hold my breath, one of the worst things I could have done, especially when you combine this with me later panicking and just rising to the surface with lungs full of air. This little maneuver can get one’s lungs overexpanded and even completely burst open, since pressure drops as you go closer to the surface, and so in the closed system of a breathe-holder like myself, the air in the lungs will be able to expand against this diminishing pressure. Luckily I quickly learned the right way to do it- I found the learning curve in this situation to be very steep, considering the alternative of suffocating or lungs bursting. And then once I got it, it seemed like the most obvious thing ever, though still not absolutely natural. Very soon though, I started thinking less about how strange it is to have this device in my mouth. A little after that, though pretty much simultaneously, that initial anxiety started to give way to sheer awe at the inexplicable beauty contained in this underwater world, this treasured secret of the Earth that humans have yet to fully conquer (and hopefully never do).

      Don’t get me wrong, I still had this slight butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling right before I would go for a dive. But with each sighting of a turtle, nemo, lionfish, scorpionfish, or coral, beckoning to me with its psychedelic aura, the anxiety of being “stuck” underwater in such a vulnerable position dissolved away, until eventually it was just pure bliss. Even by my 3rd and final day of diving, I can't say that I was 100% carefree going down into the humble abyss of the sea. But I was very much sold on this  scuba thing. I knew I needed to do more diving before getting back to the U.S. Sipadan, an island in the Celebes sea on the eastern coast of Borneo, was considered a world class dive site in the top 10 on the planet. And I was not going to miss out on sharks, turtles, and poisonous critters down under.