The Journal

-- Saturday, July 13, 2002 --

12:55pm - I'm used to having my bags searched at airports, but this morning, not only was all of my check-in luggage x-rayed, but every piece of gear in my camera bag was individually examined and bomb-swabbed.Joechang showed up this morning in his shiny black car (with luggage already in the trunk!) to drive me to La Guardia airport. He was even nice enough to solder a loose connection in my UK Germany housing last night (it's the second time I've severed the flash hotshoe connector while closing the housing). What a friend. :) I've been excited about this trip since Jim emailed me a Great Hammerhead photo he shot the last time he was out in the Bahamas. Doh. It's almost time to board another airplane. 733 miles down, 1144 to go.

11:55pm - In my hotel room, alone. Dave picked me up from the airport this late afternoon, and we went out for Cuban food with Jim, Tina, and Anna. It's very humid here, and fleeting thunderstorms have been roaming through the area lately. Andy showed up at 9:30, and he and Dave are off roaming around on the beach. We go out for a couple of dives tomorrow morning before getting on the boat for the week. I'm very excited. Anna said they have seen 18' Great Hammerheads out there. :)

-- Sunday, July 14, 2002 --

10:06pm - We've just left port on the M/W Shearwater and are now en route to the Bahamas. In the morning, Jim, Tina and I went out for a couple of dives (Juno Cove and Shark Canyon) to prepare for the week of diving. I took my UK Germany D30/D60 housing with new port extender between the dome port and the housing, for use with a Canon 16-35/2.8 lens. I dunked it in the rinse bucket to make sure that it was sealed properly... and it leaks! Needless to say, I was not very happy, but it was refreshing to dive without a camera, which I have not done for some time. Hmmm. We're watching some of Jim Abernethy's footage of him flying a Flying Boat. It's really strange. He's cruising along the water on a boat with wings and a propeller attached to it, and suddenly, he's flying. Anyway, the dives this morning were fun, although the visibility wasn't so great. I was surprised at the amount of macro algae on the reef here, and we saw some logger-head turtles, nurse sharks, a couple of giant barracuda... and lots of smaller fish. On the boat, I was approached by Todd M., who had written me email earlier about something on Wetpixel. He's on the Bahamas trip as well. It's also always nice to finally meet people with whom I've corresponded only by email.

We ate lunch at Mondo's and spent the rest of the afternoon killing time, waiting for the boat to be prepped for our departure. Out of desperation, I had to stop at Walgreen's to buy a swimsuit, flip-flops, and a toothbrush. I'm not really sure what is happening to me, but I seem to forget more things these days. I hope that it has something to do with having a temporarily displaced home, and not having to do with getting older. :)

I took the port extender off for an inspection, and discovered some thin, curled plastic ribbons under one of the o-rings. Those were easily removed, but I also found a hole in the same o-ring channel; they drilled too far for a screw on the inside of extender, so it's now effectively a useless piece of plastic. I am very disappointed that I have to send this thing back to Germany. I just hope that it's not another few months before a replacement can be sent. Defects like this should be caught by the manufacturer.

The staff (owners Jim and Anna Abernethy, and Captain Mike) are amazing. I think we're going to have a fantastic trip. :)

-- Monday, July 15, 2002 --

12:31am (late evening) - We all swam and played with Atlantic spotted dolphins tonight in 1000' of water, 40 miles from land, in the Gulf Stream. They were very playful, letting us in for an occasional stroke or belly rub, and Jimmy got some funny footage of four or five of them staring up at a flying fish that was hiding against the bottom of the boat. It looked like they were trying to figure out how to catch it without banging against the hull. :) Finally, a shark showed up, and Andy (the last one in) decided that it was time to call it a night. :)

From early this morning until 8pm, we dove El Dorado among a group of about ten or eleven Caribbean reef sharks. A couple of them were actually quite large, including one particularly ill-tempered one named "Sally" (named after Jim's step-mom), who took a chunk out of Jim's backside at some point in the past.. They were fairly aggressive, swimming around us and bumping us with their noses. Most of us were so excited that we ended up (surprised) in decompression with very little air left. :) At 4:36pm, I descended down the line alone and snapped a few shots of a giant barracuda. At about 40', I looked west and spotted... a great hammerhead! My first hammerhead! I was very excited, and communicated its arrival to both Jim and Dave with rookie (i.e., wrong) hand signals. They were amused. :) We had a pool going on what time our first hammerhead or tiger would show up (and so Paul won, with his 4:30-4:45pm slot), and its arrival was confirmed by Jimmy, and then Dave and Ronda. We all took photographs of it, but it never really ventured close enough for us to get comfortable with it. We're all looking forward to more of them in the coming days.

Some statistics from Jimmy (he, Jim Watt, and I are the only ones left awake, at this point):

1600 people a year are attacked and bitten in New York... by other people.
400 people a year die from falling coconuts.
9 people a year die from trying to get money out of vending machines.
7.5 people a year die from shark attacks.

See? Shark diving is very safe thing to do. :)

-- Tuesday, July 16, 2002 --

11:11pm - Again, Jim Watt and I sit here around the dining room, tapping away at our computers. Everyone else has passed out already, after indulging in gluttony (angel hair pasta, spicy sausages, chicken, salad, piña colada bunt cake, ice cream) and then watching Deuce Bigalow. Yes, it's that sort of crowd on board. :)

What a day! We anchored this morning on Triggerfish Reef, hoping for some sharks, but nothing other than a 8' lemon shark showed up (and I didn't even get to see it), and the current was ripping through the area. The area on the bottom behind the reef mound wasn't too bad, but on the anchor line on the way back up to the boat, it was all we could do to hold on for dear life. Combined with my chronically fogged mask and camera (which acts as a sail in strong current), the experience wasn't so exciting. And so, we abandoned Triggerfish Reef, and cruised to the shallows in search of dolphins. At 2pm, we entered the water, and didn't come back out (except to take an occasional break) for five full hours! Near the end, Todd and I were out chasing a lone dolphin, when four more appeared in the distance, resting in pairs on the sand floor. While we were watching them, eight more nearly plowed straight into me (I had been totally oblivious, staring down at the sand floor). Luckily, I managed to squeeze off a few shots before they passed by. The dolphins became much more playful as the sun sank lower on the horizon, and many of our group (including me!) were treated to belly rubs and petting. A dolphin's entire body twitches when you stroke it. I can't imagine that anyone would ever tire of playing with them, especially in sparkling blue water. :)

Captain Mike was very good about motoring the boat around for those of us who wanted to get bow-riding and wake jumping shots. He's as accommodating a captain as one could wish for. It was especially neat today because many of the pods were mixed groups of bottlenose and spotted dolphins. Anna said that they have had encounters with as many as 100 dolphins at once out here. I can't even imagine. :)

Oh, yes. I promised Jimmy that I would post the definition of a new verb that has come into existence recently:

Main Entry: Jim·Watt
Function: verb, Date: circa 2002
Pronounciation: jim-waht
Etymology: Captain James Abernethy, aboard the M/V Shearwater
Definition: To show one a photo of an event while the event is still taking place
Example Usage: "Don't Jim Watt me! Wait until we are on the boat!"

We have many digital cameras on board, including five Canon D60s, with four UK Germany housings (!). Both Jim and Dave shot well over a microdrive's worth of dolphin images today. Jim alone snapped almost 900 photos, which would have amounted to 24 roll changes, had he been shooting film. I think the film guys are feeling left out. It's only a matter of time before they all switch, anyway. :)

-- Wednesday, July 17, 2002 --

In the morning, we baited and dove at Mini-Wall, but nothing but a few lemons and Caribbean reefs showed up. We all thought a small tiger showed up (a large chunk had been taken out of the bait, and all of the smaller sharks scattered), but it was an unconfirmed sighting. We eventually took off for El Dorado, where we could play with the local Caribbean reefs while waiting for the big ones to come in. The sharks were a lot of fun this time around: I managed to pet one for a bit, and momentary chaos ensued when some bait came loose while we were all kneeling around it. A shark literally darted between Jim's strobe arm and cord, and while Jim and Dave struggled to get away, Jimmy was laying on the sand, laughing uncontrollably.

At dusk, we moored up at Sugar Wreck, which sits in 15' of water and is teeming with life. While cruising there, I reeled in a great barracuda the lines had caught, and the thing sprayed blood all over me.

At night, Jimmy, Dave, Sandy, John and I went in for a long night dive, and I managed to get some nice macro shots of flamingo tongue nudibranchs and Orangeball Corallimorphs. It's a little disconcerting to look up during a night dive to see a school of large, silvery jacks hunting with great barracuda, flashing around just out of clear view.

-- Thursday, July 18, 2002 --

1:19am (after night dive) - We baited at "Ledges" this morning, but no big sharks came in. :( I'm beginning to think that at the end of this week, the only hammerhead I'll have seen will be the one we saw on the first day of diving. Oh well. It is only on their terms that we get to see them, anyway. In the afternoon we cruised around in search of dolphins, and eventually ended up back at Sugar Wreck for another night dive. Jimmy managed to get some amazing footage of a squid eating a small, bright yellow fish (a damsel?). I was following Captain Mike around, and his peals of audible laughter and strangely clear regulator-talk made the 90 minute dive thoroughly enjoyable. We found a flamingo tongue nudibranch with both an anemone and a clump of algae growing on it, which was neat. I could spend hours down there at night; there are so many little nooks that critters emerge from once the sun goes down.

Jim Watt has been working on a slide show for the trip which showcases all of our photographs. It should be available for download at some point, and is already very impressive (very easy with three professional photographers on board). I feel my skills improving, and I was especially proud today because both Jim and Dave agreed that they'd have to kill me if I didn't stick to my day job. However, it is precisely because of time spent with them that I've learned so much, so quickly. So... thank you, guys. :)

Watching Jimmy in the water is inspiring, as well. Even though he's been diving and shooting video for a long time, his enthusiasm still radiates outward in abundance and soaks into everyone nearby. Sometimes, I don't know whether to watch the critters in the water, or to watch Jimmy getting excited about them. :)

-- Friday, July 19, 2002 --

3:20pm - HAMMERHEAD! We're at Jewfish Mountain, which is a beautiful reef (45-90') covered in hard and soft coral. About 30 minutes into my first dive, I heard Jimmy screaming about something (but I had no idea where he was, since I was down in a sand channel). We all turned back toward the bait ball to see a a small great hammerhead shark (a "small" great hammerhead is about 9' long. hmmm. is that an oxymoron?)! The Caribbean reef sharks were getting worked up about something, as well, and one of them ended up harassing Dave and Mike so much that they had to kick it a few times and then use a spear on it for self-defense. One of them also took off with the entire bait line, ripping it off of the boat. When a frenzied 6' shark is whipping around mouth-first, looking for the thing that is leaking blood, it is virtually impossible not to let out muted shrieks of terror (and of laughter) through the regulator. I'm glad that I had people looking out after me; I had some close calls. :)

We're all going down in staggered groups to photograph the hammerhead, but it hasn't come in close since it almost rammed into Andy's dome port. I hope to get some good shots. :)

9:59pm - What a fantastic day of diving! Most of us were in there for four or five long dives with the hammerhead, and later on in the afternoon, another hammerhead and a tiger shark showed up, briefly. The smaller 9' hammerhead made a perfect pass over Jim, Dave, and Me, but since I was behind both of them, my shots include a nicely exposed Ikelite strobe right next to the shark. *sigh*. Make Ike can turn it into an ad or something. :)

Jim Watt is absolutely insane. While we were all hanging on the bait line waiting to surface, Jim (snorkeling with his camera) decided to try to get to the bait before the hammerhead, and ended up a foot away from sharp, chopping teeth. After surviving the first attempt with all limbs intact, he proceeded to do it two more times. "I was worried that I wouldn't have anyone to go to South Africa with." - Dave Fleetham

-- Saturday, July 20, 2002 --

The Abernethys are really amazing. They're out all week with boats full of customers, and then often spend the entire weekend with them before embarking on another trip out to sea. It's this kind of unparalleled service and friendship that keeps bringing the same people back for more diving. Todd, Andy and I were the only ones left in the area after our return to port, so Jimmy took us up for "flying lessons" in his flying boat. Yes, you read that correctly. It's "a dingy with a big wing and a lawnmower engine attached to it," and flying around in it is a boat load of fun (har har har). The local film developing guys know when Jimmy goes flying because so many people take pictures of it as it, and almost everyone waves as buzzes by. It's also the ultimate wildlife spotting plane because it's so maneuverable, and you can land and get in the water with whatever you are tracking! We saw multiple manta rays, spotted eagle rays, sharks, and turtles. I tried to get a shot of waders with a shark nearby, but I wasn't able to. However, you can pretty much assume that there is a shark nearby if you're in the water -- they were everywhere. Todd spotted two of the wildest of creatures out at sea: a couple, naked, in action, on the back of their boat. On the second pass, they had covered themselves up, but the guy dropped his pants for show. :)

We had lunch at Mondo's (again) with Anna, Jimmy, and Mike, and then dinner at the Roadhouse Grill with Jimmy before heading to the beach to observe turtles laying eggs. I am a wreck now, though; My arms and legs are covered with fire coral rashes (my wetsuit hung, unused, for the entire trip!) and bug bites, but it was definitely worth it! This week has pulled more involuntary smiles and laugher out of me than any other trip I've been on. I'll definitely be back. :)