Thursday, December 01, 2011

Diving and the Art of Seeing

Scuba diving is an interesting activity. There is the initial thrill of overcoming your fears of being underwater. And some people continue to push the thrill and fear by diving deep or in caves etc. But most people dive to see the amazing life underwater. That surprises me. In this age where the most common activities seem to be talking on your cell phone and shopping, it surprises me that so many people will spend hours underwater not speaking and just observing nature. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

When you start diving you're fully occupied with yourself and your gear, trying not to suck your air too fast, trying to control your buoyancy, trying not to lose your companions. You have to remind yourself that you are supposed to be looking around.

Once you get more comfortable (an ongoing process) you start to see more. A coral reef is an amazing place. There's really nothing like it on land. A rain forest might have as much diversity, but it's much harder to see and nowhere near as colorful. The backdrop of coral and sponges is an amazing array of shapes and vibrant colors - bright reds, greens, yellows, purples, blues, etc. And the fish are everywhere. Imagine if you were bird watching and you could glance around and see 20 different kinds of brilliantly colored birds all around you in large numbers.

The more you dive, the more you see. Partly that's a result of getting better at the skills. At first it's like you're blundering and crashing noisily through the forest. Not surprisingly, things tend to run away when you do that! But as you get better at moving more smoothly, you don't scare everything away. And once you get better control of your buoyancy you can swim closer to the coral without worrying about crashing into it. Being closer lets you start to see smaller stuff.

The huge range of scale of underwater life was brought home when I was listening to people talk about a fish they had seen. They were describing its shape and color and behavior. Then they mentioned that it was the size of a grain of rice!

Of course, there's also a large factor of luck. On one of the few dives we skipped they saw a manta ray, a rare and exciting sighting. But you also have to notice what's around you. At one point the group was playing paparazzi to a turtle and missed seeing the eagle ray that glided silently by right behind them. That turned out to be the only eagle ray seen during the week.

Another example - I swam over to look at a sponge, then noticed that there were some brittle stars on it, and then noticed there was a scorpion fish right beside it. It would have been easy to swim right by thinking it was just another sponge.

Other times you notice something exotic looking and get excited about it, only to subsequently realize that it's everywhere.

This is the first trip where I got good looks and even some photos of the "cleaning stations" where bigger fish go to get "cleaned" by shrimp or smaller fish. It's funny to see a grouper sitting still on the coral with its mouth wide open, and then as you get closer see that there are a bunch of spindly little shrimp scurrying in and out of its mouth and gills. It's a good deal for both of them - the big fish gets its parasites removed, and the shrimp or little fish get to feed (without getting eaten!). Other divers always used to talk about the cleaning stations but I never saw them, no doubt because they swam away when I blundered by.

In the past it was always the dive masters pointing out stuff to us. That still happens (they obviously have way more experience than us) but at least now we also spot stuff on our own. One of the challenges is pointing stuff out to each other or to other people. First you have to get their attention, which isn't easy when you can't just call to them. If you have to swim over to them to grab them, half the time you lose what you were looking at. Things either swim away or simply disappear via their camouflage. And even if you can still find it, it's often hard for the other person to figure out what you're pointing it.

A lot of people get most excited about the sharks. Sharks are amazing creatures, and even when you know they're safe, there's still that undercurrent of fear. But there's so much more to see that's just as interesting and often more colorful and exotic.

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