Wednesday, February 8, 2017

New toy - Silent Submersion UV-18

The 'Inspo' lid was dispatched back to Ambient Pressure Diving this morning, and as predicted, my new Silent Submersion UV-18 (underwater scooter) arrived into the care of Nigel Lees, who also took delivery of two new SS UV-18 scooters for his wife and himself.

Each scooter was broken down into three boxes for shipping, making the consignment total a grand nine boxes that required a forklift truck to lift the pallet off the delivery wagon. Nigel quickly found my three boxes containing the battery, hull and charger, and the motor section. As we loaded them into my station-wagon, I soon forgot about my scrubber lid.

Assembling the batteries and scooter took no time at all. I’d seen how to do the assembly when I was lucky enough to be a support diver on the TSS Niagara 2004 expedition. Hopefully I’ll get into the water tomorrow morning and work out how the bloody thing operates! ;-)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Back to open circuit

I’ve just spent most of the evening carefully packaging my rebreather electronics for an exchange to a replacement scrubber lid from Ambient Pressure Diving. The turn-around time from New Zealand to the factory in England and then back to New Zealand usually takes three weeks. This is a major bummer. Somewhat typically, on the same day that the courier will take my scrubber lid away, my new Silent Submersion UV-18 DPV (Diver Propulsion Vehicle, or for lack of a better description - an underwater scooter!) will arrive here from the good folks at Silent Submersion Inc., Florida.

I guess this means that I will have to dust off my trusty twinset (Hogarthian rig) and go open circuit again. To be honest, I enjoy open circuit as much as diving closed circuit, even with all the noisy bubbles that churn their way to the surface.

What the hey… It’s all diving and time in the water getting wet! Bring it on!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Freshwater rebreather dive

My "breather" finally got out for a dive this month. After a couple of false starts earlier in the month, I packed the scrubber, checked the battery voltages, lubricated the o-rings and reassembled the Inspo (Australian slang for the Inspiration rebreather) ready for a freshwater dive in Lake Taupo on Sunday 10th April.

During the positive pressure test after assembly, there was a loss of pressure in the rebreathers loop. With the aid of soapy water, the leaks were quickly found and resolved (a small leak in the exhale hose connection to the counterlung tee-piece and from the dump valve.) The unit now held both its positive and negative tests. The auto diluent valve (ADV), manual inflators and Auto Air all worked without any problems.

Nigel Lees drove Dave Maddox and myself across to Lake Taupo via the Forgotten World Highway. After almost three hours of snaking through tight turns and unsealed sections of road and we were standing at the side of the lake in a small settlement called Pukawa. Our three Inspirations were unloaded quickly from the vehicle and the side slung tanks (for open circuit bailout off the rebreather loop) were placed at the waters edge for putting on in the water. After calibrating the rebreathers to account for altitude (Lake Taupo being at a height of 356m above sea level) and ambient air pressure, we pulled on our drysuits, strapped on the VR3 dive computers, and donned the Inspirations for pre-breathing the scrubber.

Pre-breathing the InspoAs always, a small group of onlookers watched as we approached the water and proceeded to ask the usual set of questions. Nigel took the role of spokesman for the day and answered with a knowing tone which seemed to appease the onlookers curiosity. I was getting too hot in the drysuit and walking about with the 32kg rebreather didn’t help, so I made a beeline for the water and geared up. Nigel and Dave pulled on their fins and side-slung tanks in the water. Dave had a 40cu.ft. aluminium tank, Nigel was using a 7litre Faber steel tank and I had a 10litre Faber steel tank (with an extra connector allowing it to be used as an off-board diluent source via the ADV.)

We all submerged and met up at the edge of a ledge in 3m of water. Here we checked for any bubbles (a sign of a leak in the unit) and adjusted the gear for comfort. Dave set off down the steep slope with Nigel and myself following behind. The water was 18C and the visibility dropped to about 8m after 18m of descent. Setpoints now at 1.3bar and using a modified frog-kick, we pushed out deeper following the now gently sloping contour of the lakes’ banks to a depth of 38m (Lake Taupo can get to a depth of 160m in places and we were diving a spot that went to 85-90m.) A thermocline in the water at 27m made the temperature drop to 15C and it was very noticeable (I heard Dave let out a yelp as he passed through it!)

Nigel was photographing the cheeky freshwater lobsters. At only 3-4 inches long, they would try and take you on by jumping up and snapping their pincers at you. The lake bottom is composed of mud with a fine silt sitting on top. Great care with buoyancy and finning technique are required to prevent a silt out. After 35 minutes of bottom time we turned and followed the slope upwards, taking care to stop at our first required stop depth.

The steep slope had occasional large rocks embedded in it. These rocks seemed to be places where small fish and freshwater lobsters congregated (they looked like they were having committee meetings or something very similar.) Nigel and Dave pressed their masks up close to one such gathering, but nothing seemed overly bothered by their presence. Ah, the joys of no bubble diving!

It was time to play at 14m with Dave deploying a DSMB (Delayed Surface Marker Buoy) which was yellow and had the word "EMERGENCY" written down its length. This type of SMB is fired off when there is a problem on a dive and assistance is required! When he pulled it out and was about to inflate it, I grabbed his attention and asked if he really wanted use that particular SMB and not his orange one for doing deco on. Dave signalled back that all was well and the SMB shot off to the surface dragging the line out of his reel effortlessly.

With all our stops completed, we switched our setpoints to 0.7bar just before the 3m ledge and made our way up the shore. In water shallow enough to stand in we closed our mouthpieces and walked out of the water. Very quickly we were all reminded of how heavy the units are when not supported by the water.

A quick check on the dive computers showed a runtime of 77 minutes.

We got all the gear packed and loaded into Nigel’s vehicle and then we headed home with one stop for refreshments and a blueberry muffin.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Diving, diving, and even more diving

Wow, it's been a hectic month with all the diving I've been doing since my last post - "Cabin fever".

The Great Barrier Island dive trip was fantastic. The rugged native bush covered island is located north of the Coromandel Peninsula in the Hauraki Gulf, and is probably one the best kept secrets in New Zealand with it’s beaches and hidden bays. The water temp was 15C and the visibility varied from a few metres to about 25m, depending on the dive site.

A dive I did on the trip was to Channel Rock, between the Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula. This pinnacle of rock sits in the middle of nowhere and experiences strong tidal currents, as I found out whilst struggling to push up into shallower water from 50m and up. My dive buddy, Gary Palmer, was diving his twinset on air (he couldn't find a gas blender to make up a mix in time for the trip) and racked up about 40mins more deco than myself on the rebreather. A very enjoyable dive despite my leaking drysuit.

One of the next dive trips was to Tutukaka, a gateway to the diving paradise of the Poor Knights. Jacques Cousteau rated the Poor Knights as one of his top ten dive sites in the world, and I can fully understand why. The New Zealand government made it into a Marine Reserve in 1981, and as a result, the marine life has become without exception both diverse and abundant. The Eastern Australian Current (the same one mentioned in the kids movie ‘Nemo’) flows past the islands bringing in turtles, whales, and more recently, manta rays.

I did two days of diving in the Poor Knights and the rebreather worked well. On one of the dives, we discovered a large eagle ray lying on a white sand shelf at 20m. When I lay down beside it and stroked its wing, the ray looked at me with it’s large eye and continued to gently breathe the water surrounding us. This is why I personally love the Poor Knights, you always have the opportunity to get really close to the marine life as nothing appears to be bothered by the presence of divers (either on closed circuit or on open circuit).

The majority of my other dives have been off the Taranaki coast. The warmer than usual water has meant that lots of species of fish have remained for the winter season. Even our resident great whites are nearer to shore than usual, with one getting snagged up in a commercial fishing boats nets. Sadly, it died before it was able to be set free. We even had a leopard seal come ashore for a photo opportunity with the local newspaper.

But by far the best thing I saw in the last week or so was a Southern Wright whale and her newly born calf playing only 150m offshore in 20m of water. This was in our Ngamotu Marine Park off New Plymouth, which 100 years before was a regular calving ground for the whales. Then a few days later a pod of Orcas came through. I'm just so lucky to have all this on my doorstep!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cabin Fever

Winter here in New Zealand means the visibility in the ocean can vary from zero to 30m plus, and can slip from one extreme to the other in a day. Yesterday, the cabin fever reached new heights and I opted to take a dive off the coast despite the 35 knot northwester and rising swell.

With the rebreather on, I jumped into the scrotum shrinking 12C water (well it would have been scrotum shrinking, but luckily I had my toasty Fourth Element thermals on under my drysuit). After checking that the controllers were still operating, I descended to the seabed.

The 0.5m visibility water obscured almost everything. I even collided with rocks the size of a car... striking the exact same spot on my head where my surfboard clobbered me during a wipe-out the day before. Fifteen minutes passed and I was considering calling the dive, but as luck would have it, I found a patch of cleaner water with about 1m of visibility. Staying motionless, I hovered over a hole where I knew a large but friendly octopus normally resides, but it wasn’t there. Instead of the octopus in the hole, I found three seahorses huddled together at the entrance. Their tails were wrapped tightly around an old section of encrusted chain.

Because I was just staying in one place the whole time, all the local marine life was either coming over to check me out or just getting on with their busy daily routines. I spent the next 45 minutes just watching the social complexities of a 1m by 1m quadrant of reef. Word must have got out that I was there because all sorts of the harder to find species introduced themselves to me. The only thing I never saw were any red spiny lobsters, but I could hear them all around me, particularly the bucks as they clicked some kind of code at each other.

After the dive, I clambered out of my dive gear and got soaked in the process due to the horizontal rain blowing at me from all directions... but guess what, that has to be one of the best dives I had this year!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Poor Knights and the Samba Sound - Day 2

The day kicked off for me at first light. I filled my scrubber canister with a fresh load of sorb (carbon dioxide absorbent), then assembled and calibrated my Inspo’ rebreather ready for the dives.

Rebreather divers Pete Mesley and Simon Mitchell were in Tutukaka for the Oceanz Award dinner from the previous evening and joined us on ‘Arrow’. Gareth decided that he didn’t want to dive so under the supervision of Noel, skippered the boat over to the Poor Knights. The weather was very similar to Saturday’s, with a North-westerly blowing and a messy swell brewing up. This meant that it would only be dive sites on the Southern aspects of the Poor Knights islands that would be dive-able.

We settled on the outside wall of Shaft Cave on Arorangaia Island as the first dive for the day. The entrance to Shaft Cave went from just above the surface of the sea down to a depth of 50m, with a further drop off to 87m below that. I was going to dive with Simon and pose for photographs with the sponges at the deeper depths.

The water was 21C and the visibility was easily 20m. The descent went without a hitch, briefly pausing at 25m just as a check to see that everything was functioning properly, and then on to 45m where Simon left his camera on ledge before we descended further. Following the wall down to a large ledge at 61m, I stopped and watched Simon go to around the 80m mark. A seriously cold thermocline (an often visible and abrupt temperature change in the water) occurred at this depth, so after a few minutes of looking about I ascended back to the ledge where the camera was stored, whilst still watching Simon ascending below me.

Once the camera was made ready with the strobes pulled out on their spindly stalks, we set off along the wall amongst the finger sponges. At this depth they start to increase in size considerably to the ones found in shallower waters. Photos were staged and posed for. Shoaling two-spot demoiselles were keen to get in on the photo shoot and swam about me as I gazed at sponges with my HID torch highlighting the beautiful colours and finer structures.

Using the wall as a guide we slowly ascended, incorporating our decompression stops into the slow traverse of the underwater cliff. My decompression obligation was about 20 minutes shorter than Simon’s. During the shallow stops, we found a surge free zone with overhangs that contained some very diverse ecosystems. To my dismay I came across a lot of intact but dead crabs lying about the ledges. One crab was like no other I’d ever seen before. I just hope that a virus or a toxin is not responsible for causing some of the population to expire.

We surfaced from the last stop at just under two hours from entering in the water, and swam out from the island to get picked up by the boat. This was a really enjoyable dive.

For our surface interval, we stopped off in Southern Harbour and watched the divers coming and going from all the other charter boats. The sea looked quite nasty out beyond the protection of the natural harbour, but was relatively flat within.

The next dive was at “The Rock” again, but this time it was going to be a shallow no-decompression dive. Simon waited for me as I joined him near the top of the lava knoll. Almost immediately, we were joined by a long-finned boarfish who refused to stay in one place long enough to have its photo taken. I swam away from the boarfish, but it seemed to think I was rejecting it so it made a point of swimming right up next to me while I looked out for nudibranchs and banded coral shrimps. Eventually I gave it the slip and found Simon taking photos around the corner. Huge snapper circled above us.

The water was thick with noisy open-circuit underwater photographers, so I headed for the highest point of The Rock and observed a nudibranch laying its spiral egg case. Crested blennies were everywhere and popped their inquisitive looking faces out of the holes in the rhyolite rock. Definitely the place to get a good photo of one. Simon finished taking photographs so he signalled that he was ready to surface and we were back on the boat within a few minutes.

Noel took the boat back to Tutukaka, but before we set off I cleared a space on one of the forward bunks and grabbed the chance of a sleep before my 7 hour drive back to New Plymouth in Taranaki.

--

I noticed during my last dive on the Sunday that my rebreather controllers were showing that cell 3 was giving a reading about 0.1bar above the other two cells. This is usually due to moisture on the cell face. I currently have the rebreather electronics hanging up and drying out, but I’ll keep an eye on it and perform a linearity check before the next dives.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Poor Knights and the Samba Sound - Day 1

DAY 1 - Saturday

Tutukaka marina at first lightThe Poor Knights Marine Reserve was the venue for this weekend's diving. I arrived at the Tutukaka marina at 5:30am and grabbed a quick sleep amongst all the dive gear in the back of my station wagon. "Uncomfortable" would have been quite an understatement.

The weather forecast for the weekend was not looking good, but in reality only a slight wind was blowing and the ground swell was relatively manageable on the Saturday. Noel Ericsson, our skipper, guided the Yukon Charters boat 'Arrow' over the bumpy twelve nautical miles of ocean to the Poor Knights southern lying Aorangi Island. My dive buddy for the day was Gareth Bellamy, who was diving his home-built manual closed circuit rebreather.

Our first dive was at a site simply known as "The Rock" off Archway Island. This huge pinnacle-like lump of rhyolite dropped from 6m to 48m on its southern flank, and was covered in sponges and soft corals. Every nook and cranny was filled with nearly every species of triplefin and blenny. Small grey moray eels were spread about everywhere on the walls, some crammed into very tight holes. I even found one jammed into a hole lying upside down and looking ready to pounce on some small unsuspecting reef dweller. I thought it best not to wiggle my gloveless finger in front of it because I’ve seen the lightning fast strikes these guys can make.

The fish life near and on the walls consisted of very territorial black angelfish, shoals of adult and juvenile two-spot demoiselle, blue maomao, pink maomao, red pigfish, kingfish, and a solitary juvenile long tailed stingray. A clown toado (also known as a sharp-nosed puffer) swam about conducting its daily business of nibbling at sponges, bryozoans, and ascidians.

Gareth and myself swam in a counter-clockwise direction around "The Rock", slowly ascending from the depths to the sun-lit summit where our dive boat was stationed. After completing the last of our required decompression, we surfaced and joined the rest of crew onboard 'Arrow' after 75 minutes in the 21C water.

Eastern Archway (The Tunnel)Noel took ‘Arrow’ around to Rikoriko Cave where a samba band had planned to hold a concert on a boat (the sea cave is huge and has superb acoustics, some big bands have played concerts and recorded in there!), but the swell was a bit ugly looking. We ended up catching up with the band in Eastern Arch (also known as The Tunnel) in Arorangaia Island. The acoustics were really good and the band played some great Afro-Brazilian rhythms (when the big drums played and reverberated through the archway, they were out of this world). This was all part of the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Poor Knights Marine Reserve and the Oceanz Awards dinner being held in Tutukaka later that evening.

Our surface interval seemed to pass quickly, and in no time at all we were geared up and were ready to drop down on the second dive site called “Fraggle Rock” which was only a short distance from previous dive site.

The water was crystal clear giving the impression that when jumping off the boat you were going to hit the rocky slopes below, but upon entering we found that there was at least 8m between the rock and the surface. At first glace, the top of the slope looked almost barren but on closer inspection it was buzzing with activity from all the crested blennies and triplefins living in a garden of small bryozoans. We headed down to the white sandy beach that lay in 42m at the foot of the slope. Grey moray eels occupied ledges on the wall and the red spiny lobsters noisily announced their presence from the back of larger holes with cracking sounds.

Heading along the submerged beach with the wall on our right, we soon discovered a swim-through in the lava rock and stole the opportunity to explore it further. Gareth led the way and we quickly found ourselves at the end of a short lava tube section. This lay at the bottom of a crack in the slope that ran all the way from the surface. This was an awesome place to be and I let out expressions of appreciation (the diving of rebreathers allows divers to talk to each other) which Gareth quickly acknowledged.

The wall ended abruptly with a sudden right-angled turn to the right, which we followed for about 20m as it took us into shallower waters. At this point we turned the dive and ascended slowly whilst traversing the wall back to the boat. Shoaling kingfish joined us while we decompressed. Some were even swimming within inches of me which is very rare for these majestic game fish (again, yet another benefit of diving a rebreather… no bubbles to scare away creatures).

Decompression completed and back onboard ‘Arrow’, Noel headed back to Tutukaka. The crossing passed very quickly for me because I fell asleep, no doubt complete with loads of dribble pouring from my mouth and loud snorting sounds emanating from my airways.