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.