Posted: 2009.09.13(Sun)8:39 Post subject: Adventures in Collecting Marine Fish
Richard Pyle talks about the dangers of collecting marine tropical fish; since I have made
a few dives in Palau myself, I found this particularly entertaining; this is quite a story...
"As a high-school student, I had been granted several wonderful opportunities to experience my life's calling - the study of coral reef fishes - in some pretty exotic places; most notably Christmas Island in the central Pacific, and the Micronesian island of Palau...
I had unlimited access to a 15-foot Boston Whaler, I had all the SCUBA tanks I wanted, I was surrounded by some of the world's best dive sites, I was young, and I was feeling pretty damned immortal. All in all, it was an extremely hazardous and potentially disastrous combination.
I still regard those two weeks as the most fantastic diving experience of my life. For those of you unfamiliar with Palau, it is blessed with perpetually glassy surface conditions, underwater visibility approaching 400 feet at times, some of the most spectacular drop-offs on earth, and an incredibly vast array of marine life. Palau has been designated one of the 8 underwater wonders of the world. I dived everyday, four or five times a day, pushing my limits a little bit further each time. I was not ignorant - I had completed my diving education through the level of Divemaster. But I was naive - I thought that I could continue getting away with dive profiles which now make me shudder.
Halfway through this fortnight of diving bliss, the eminent Dr. John "Jack" Randall, one of the world's leading authorities on coral reef fishes, visited Palau. He needed a boat and a diving partner, and I, a budding coral reef fish researcher, was more than thrilled to take him diving wherever he wanted to go. We dived every day, collecting amazing fish specimens, seeing fantastic things, and generally having a blast. I was having the time of my life! As the date of his departure - July 15th - drew nearer, we had accomplished all of his objectives except one. He wanted to make a dive at the legendary Palauan Blue Holes, a huge and elaborate cavern system located along one of the island's most spectacular drop-offs. I had been in Blue Holes a number of times before, and each time had encountered some fantastic or unusual fish species. I was anxious to take him there, and we decided to go July 14th - the day before his departure - exactly one year after I had been mildly bent at Christmas Island.
Exceeding the Limits
We spent the morning loading our gear and driving the hour-long boat ride from the dive shop to Blue Holes. When we arrived, I set the anchor and quickly got ready to get in the water. I rigged my tank and regulator and put on my fins. When I grabbed my mask, the glass plate fell onto the floor of the boat. I had brought a really nice black silicone mask to Palau with me, but some puppies had found it and had torn it to shreds. The only replacement I could find in Palau was this cheap rubber mask with an oval glass plate, which kept falling out. With no small amount of dexterity, I reassembled the mask and re-attached the metal band, which held it all together, just as I had done many times before. As I plunged over the side of the boat and descended through the fabulous caverns, I was in awe at the incredible visibility of at least 400 feet. The main body of the cavern opens to a drop- off with an enormous gape of about 200 feet across. The top of this entrance is at a depth of about 90 feet. The floor of the cavern is a steep sandy slope that begins at 70 feet at the back of the cave, drops to 150 feet at the mouth, and continues down into the abyss. Four large circular holes, about 30 feet in diameter, connect the ceiling of the cave at 50 feet to the reef-top at 10 feet: a truly spectacular system.
I had spent a good deal of time exploring the cave system on previous dives, and I decided to follow the sand slope down outside the cavern on this dive, rather than further explore its insides. I wore only a single aluminum 80 cu. ft. cylinder, and in those days of overconfident stupidity, I had no qualms about dropping down to 250 feet for a quick look around with such meager equipment. Jack had loaned me one of his old mechanical decompression meters (a.k.a. "Bendomatic"), so I used it as a guide for decompression. Arriving at 250 feet, I experienced one of the most intense moments of awe - the closest thing I've had to a religious experience - in my entire life. I looked back up the slope through the incredibly clear water, and even from that depth, I could see the boat hanging lazily over the edge of the drop, I could see ripples in the surface, I could even see the anchor line connecting the boat to the reef - from 250 feet away! (No kidding!) A small Gray Reef shark swam along the reef a hundred feet above - 150 feet below the surface - and a White-tip Reef shark lay resting on the sand a few yards away. But the most spectacular sight of all (by far) was the cathedral-like columns of light penetrating the darkness of the cavern, emanating from the four round "chimneys" which give the Blue Holes its name. Given this setting, along with the comfortable numbness of narcosis and the warmth of the surrounding 82-degree water, I was feeling content with just staying there - forever.
The spell was broken when I suddenly noticed a vast school of small fishes off to my right. I could recognize that they were a group of fishes called "Anthias" (or "Fairy Basslets"), but the color pattern of black and white bars was unlike any known species. I frantically tried to collect a few specimens with the hand nets I had, but they were evasive. With the narcosis, it seemed like I was down there for hours. I knew it was deep - really deep - and I had this constant nagging feeling that I really should get the hell out of there soon. But the needle on my decompression meter wasn't yet in the red, and my pressure gauge read 1100 psi, so I ignored my pangs of concern and continued my efforts. I chased and herded and swung my hand nets in a desperate effort to collect this unknown species. Finally, after what seemed like hours of bottom time (but was actually about 15 minutes), I managed to catch one of the fish and without hesitation I headed back towards the surface.
WOW, what a incredible read!!! I was mesmerized the whole time, even though it's quite lengthy, I just couldn't stop! I've always been a "closet" scuba diver but always too scared to try. So well written, I was absolutely terrified and mesmerized at the same time. JUST WONDERFUL!!! _________________ LeeAnn
Glad you enjoyed it.
The wall dives in Palau are mesmerizing; one minute you're standing in 3 feet of water
at the top of the reef, the next moment you're looking off the edge of a cliff that drops down several thousand feet.
I found myself chasing a turtle off the edge one day; the water is so clear,
once you get away from the wall everything is just blue, so you can easily lose track of how deep you are.
I was just happy as a lark, gliding down snapping photos of this turtle, then I felt a tug on my swim fin;
it was our dive guide and he was pointing at his
depth gauge; I was over 120 feet deep and didn't have a clue! _________________ Keepin' marines happy for 25 years
Oh my....what blissful freedom!! It's hard to imagine! No worries, no earhly ties! How incredibly beautiful it must be! I really envy your courage and sense of adventure. I should be so brave...LOL! _________________ LeeAnn
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