My Top Three Diving Sites: The Red Sea Pt. 2

I was one little inch away from BIG trouble.

Twenty kilometers north of Sharm el-Sheik are four current-swept reefs that attract Red Sea divers and bountiful sea-life alike. We left for the dive site from Ras Nasrani, heading for Thomas Reef, in the middle of the current-swept Straits of Tiran.

Thomas Reef is the smallest but most popular reef for diving. Because of the current, it requires a different diving technique than the simple but awe-inspiring wall dives at Ras Mohammed. Our dive boat with some diving professionals and tourists onboard anchored just off  Thomas Reef  and quickly had its bow swept into the current.

The plan was to enter the water from the stern, and follow the anchor line down to a point where we could kick like mad and make our way to coral encrusted rocks. From there, it would be a fairly short swim against the current, using the rocks for assistance, until we entered the calm water in the lee of the reef.

Thomas Reef provides a unique dive site due to the sea life attracted to the current. Because of that, it is well worth negotiating the heavy flow; rewards awaited the determined diver. In my case, a surprise awaited me as well.

As I let loose of the anchor chain, I could clearly see the steeply sloping bottom features of the reef, where I was headed. I spotted my target rock and kicked mightily until it was in my grasp. Now anchored, I had time to survey the beauty around me, and plan my next step. It was then that I noticed that an inch way from my naked right hand, the one firmly grasping the rock, sat not just another stone, but a stone with eyes.

It was in fact, something far more dangerous than a stone —  it was a stonefish.

Red Sea Stonefish

Stonefish are reputed to be the most venomous fish in the world. Had I grabbed it instead of its stony neighbor, glands at the base of its many dorsal spines would have flooded my bare hand with venom. The sting causes intense pain; with the affected body part swelling rapidly, potentially leading to death of tissues.

Just how bad the symptoms become depends on the anatomical location of the punctures, depth of penetration and the number of spines involved. The effects of the venom are muscle weakness, temporary paralysis and shock, which, if encountered during a scuba dive in a strong current, could make a safe return to the dive boat somewhat  difficult. If not treated, the incident could prove fatal.

The emergency treatment required is  much more than is likely to have been available on a chartered dive boat. As breathtaking as a Red Seas trip promises to be, you might stumble across critters that can take your breath away, literally. So a check of the closest and most capable medical facility should be high on your pre-dive checklist.

No doubt about it, if I had grabbed the wrong “stone” I would have been in a world of hurt; and probably in a lot of trouble with my dive buddies as well since that trip would have been brought to a sudden and exciting conclusion.

Oh yeah, once I overcame my surprise, and moved on, ever so carefully to the lee of the island-like reef, the experience was everything I had come to expect from the Red Sea.

Highly recommended!

My Top Three Diving Sites: The Red Sea, Sharm el-Sheik

I’ve read a couple of books lately where the author, critically injured in an accident, experiences what seems to be a visit to heaven, followed by a swift return to Earth.  The most recent such book was Flight to Heaven, by CAPT Dale Black, a plane crash survivor.

A common theme in these books is that the author finds colors in Heaven to be much purer and vibrant than any colors seen on Earth. Well, I know a place just like that, and for a diver it must indeed be heaven on Earth. It’s called the Red Sea.

Sharm el-Sheik and Ras Muhammad are located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba meet the Red Sea. On my first dive at Ras Mohammed, as I sank below the water’s surface I saw a wall of color that defied description. The phrase, “a riot of color”, is a cliché, but that is what I saw. It was as if every inch of the reef was shouting for attention, clamoring to be the most colorful, the most interesting piece of rock ever created. I was stunned — in sensory overload from the beginning to the end of that dive.

At Ras Muhammad, the coral encrusted wall dropped at a dizzying angle, headed for depths of 3000 feet, 1000 m, a very short distance from shore. I had planned a dive to no more than sixty feet, where the natural light was bright enough to show off the colors cascading downward, towards what seemed to be a bottomless abyss. But at sixty feet I saw a never ending waterfall of fauna, just a few feet below me, and then below that, even more. The colors were still spectacular even at that depth, defying all the laws of physics as I understood them.

When I realized I was twenty feet below my planned dive depth, a curious thing happened. I stopped searching for the next most beautiful thing, stopped my descent, but for a few moments I had an almost overwhelming desire to throw rational thought aside and continue down into the abyss.

I understood the consequences of that action, had I continued deeper, but the experience in that moment seemed to transcend my worth as a human being. The living communal organism, and all the life forms sustained by it, clutching close to the wall, seemed to have much greater significance in the whole scheme of things than I did. I felt a kinship, perhaps pointing to our theorized evolutionary beginnings, that made it seem that where I was, was where I belonged.

Napolean Wrasse - Egypt. (Photo credit - Sami Salmenkivi.)

My Top Three Diving Sites: The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

My Navy travels have afforded me the privilege of diving in some of the most interesting places. In this, and the next couple of posts, I list my top three diving destinations.

I’ve been diving on the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on two occasions, both times departing for the reef from Cairns, pronounced like the first syllable in “Kansas”. The first trip was to the inner reef, a short boat ride away from the docks. That experience was OK, but not what I had expected. It seemed like the reef had been abused by massive diver and snorkler populations which had not treated the reef with the respect it deserved.

On my second trip to Australia on Navy diving  business, I traveled with the Commanding Officer of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, CDR (later CAPT)  Jim Wilkins.

Two NEDU Divers - Jim Wilkins and John Clarke (the short one)

From Cairnes we took a fast boat to a liveabord vessel anchored on the outer reef. It was a beautiful 140 ft. tall schooner, SV Atlantic Clipper. And that made all the difference.

During the diving season the Clipper is stationed on the outer reef, and shuttles divers to four diving locations; Norman Reef, Saxon Reef, Hastings Reef, and Michaela’s Reef. Each location featured different underwater vistas, showing an overwealming diversity of colorful reef animals. On a typical day we’d make three daylight dives of varying depths plus a night dive.

SV Atlantic Clipper

After one memorable night dive we walked up the long gangway to the deck, shed, cleaned and stowed our dive gear, and then, attracted by commotion at the bow, found a cluster of divers feeding large fish while six or more Bronze Whaler sharks circled amongst the fish, which seemingly paid the sharks no mind at all. The fish knew where the sharks were at all times, and only the healthiest, quickest fish dared feed in such proximity to the large predator. The agile fish apparently felt confident they could dodge the far more cumbersome sharks, because while we watched, not a sinlge fish was taken.

I, on the other, was not quite so agile. And I admit that it bothered me a bit that while I had been swimming through the dark to a dive ladder on the port side of the vessel, near the stern, Bronze Whalers were circling alongside the port bow. But the ship’s crew assured me that the Bronze Whalers were “not particularly dangerous.”  They had attacked spearfisherman and “bathers”, but the attacks had not been fatal.

Well, that’s comforting, I thought.

I have to say the most memorable series of dives were with the magnificent Green sea turtles. To observe such beautiful and docile creatures in their native environment was probably the highlight of the entire trip.

 During one of the many dives I learned a valuable lesson about diving with diveboat gear. Through the years I’d been diving, since 1964, the equipment was either my own, or belonged to the Navy, and was always maintained in like-new condition. It may have looked battered, but mechanically it was pristine.
As Jim Wilkins and I descended through 60 feet on one dive, I noticed my regulator was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. I checked my bottle pressure, and there was plenty of air – the dive was just starting. But whether I understood it or not, it was becoming harder and harder to breathe – by the second. I finally took action by grabbing my dive-buddy’s octopus regulator (a back-up regulator), and together we slowly ascended to the surface.
Back on the boat I discovered my tank valve was not fully turned on. Why not, I wondered?
Well, the valve was worn, and generated a considerable resistance before it was fully open. As I am accustomed, I had turned the valve until I met resistance and stopped. That is a good way to prevent damaging a well working valve, but that particular tank valve was not working as smoothly as it should. It fooled me.
Chalk one up to lessons learned.
Without a doubt, the series of dive made from the Atlantic Clipper were among the most memorable of my diving career. In upcoming posts I’ll describe Red Sea dives at Sharm El Sheik and Ras Mohammad, followed by a dive at Herod’s Port, in old Caesarea, Israel.

My Family’s Exciting Flight with the Navy’s First Ace

Sometimes weather makes for an altogether bad flying day.

The luxurious turboprop was speeding through turbulent skies, using its radar to pick its way around southern thunderstorms, en route to a quail hunting plantation just across the Georgia-Florida border. The craft had left Cleveland with my wife and one-year old son on board. Occasionally the plane was jolted so hard my wife feared her head would strike the ceiling of the spacious cabin. I, remaining in Cleveland, was praying for their safe arrival in Florida. 

I had met the King Air pilot, David Ingalls, at the airport in Thomasville, Georgia a couple of months previously when he landed to refuel before flying back to Cleveland. He was returning from one of his frequent bird hunting trips to his antebellum plantations (yes, plural is correct. He owned two.) My wife and I frequented the Thomasville airport because we had our two-seater Cessna 150 hangared there while I was in graduate school at Florida State University. In 1976 I was finishing my Ph.D. and was about to move to Cleveland, Ohio to work as a research Associate in Biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

The airport manager, knowing we were about to move up north, suggested I talk to the King Air owner because Ingalls lived in Cleveland. Apparently he was supposed to have owned part of Pan American Airlines, and had served as an aviator in World War I. That explained why he looked to be in his mid-seventies at the time, albeit a virile, well-preserved seventies.

I approached the pilot as he was inspecting his aircraft, and mentioned that we were moving to Cleveland, and before I knew it he had invited my wife to fly back to Florida with him anytime she wanted. He explained that he made frequent hunting trips with his business associates, and he usually had a couple of empty seats on board the aircraft. My wife had been thrilled at the offer.

At the moment however, my wife was having second thoughts about the trip as the turbulence seemed to be shaking the plane apart. But eventually the storms gave way to smoother air as the aircraft sped towards the Florida border. Unfortunately, the foul weather was soon replaced by low-lying fog which covered their intended landing site, the grass strip at one of his plantations.

As the aircraft descended into the murk, searching for the runway, my wife started praying. She had seen no sign of land through the thick clouds, and she knew they were far from any regular airport. As the time on the approach counted down she finally caught sight of the pine tree tops just beneath the plane’s wheels. Other than someone calling “pull up, pull up” just at the end, the landing was smooth; but baby boy wasn’t the only one with a wet diaper that day, figuratively speaking.

LTjg Ingalls in WWI

Ten years later when I was working for the Navy diving community in the Washington D.C. area (Bethesda, MD actually), I came across his obituary in the Washington Post. I never read obituaries, but by some great coincidence, I saw his. As I read, I saw he was the REAL DEAL.

Not until many years later did I find out more about David Ingalls. We were in Panama City where I was still working for Navy diving, eating lunch with my family at an aviation-themed restaurant, and on the wall next to our booth was a print of a British plane shooting down a German fighter. It was a lucky shot we were told, but it placed a very young Ingalls in the history books as the U.S. Navy’s only WWI fighter ace. He was nineteen years old.

While later visiting the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL we saw a plaque commemorating LTjg Ingalls. Well, we began to realize that the King Air pilot had not only been the real deal, he had been a very BIG deal; and yet he had remained entirely humble and personable.

March 2, 1931

David Ingalls, born in 1899, was a grandnephew of President Taft, and by 1929 had become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, a personal friend of President Hoover. He served throughout the Second World War, and retired with the rank of Rear Admiral. And he was indeed a Director for Pan Am World Airways.

As they say, weather is no respecter of persons. But that day, the airplane and its passengers arrived safely, due no doubt to the sophisticated electronics in that aircraft and the consumate skill of  the pilot. Admiral Ingalls lived another 10 years, and that baby boy is now a Navy Flight Surgeon.

Life magazine, August 1945, Eliot Elison photographer

Polar Bear in Town

In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.

In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.

The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up. 

In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.

By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.

Until one night.

There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?

On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”

The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.

Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.

As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.

“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”

“Hmm… I see what you mean.”  I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.

The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.

Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.

There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.

I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.

My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.

That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.

I wondered how badly it would hurt.

Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.