September 10, 2006
My take on diving with critters
I've thought long and hard about this topic. All my life I've loved interacting with animals and, to be honest, I don't ever look for that to change. Everyone at work is now calling me "Stingray" because of how I replied when they asked me if I'd stop diving now because of how Steve Irwin died.
I never met Steve, but I certainly would have enjoyed that opportunity. I admired him for having the ability to interact with often deadly creatures. I also occasionally thought he was nuts for doing it. All in all, Steve had a wonderful and unique life. I feel such extreme and deep sorrow that he is no longer with us. It saddens me to know that what is often thought of as a docile creature was able to take his life in such an almost impossible manner. So, once again, just as Steve's life was unique, so was his untimely death.
Some may see me as an extremist, too, I suppose. The very thought of being in the water with a creature over 40 feet long thrills me, and in no way intimidates me. Swimming with humpback whales, whale sharks, and a plethora of varieties of sharks and rays has added a great deal to my fondest memories of things that have taken place underwater.
I have been able to visit places such as the Galapagos Islands, Socorro, San Benedicto, the Sea of Cortez, Palau, Yap, Kauai, Channel Islands, Catalina Island, Vancouver Island, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas, to name just a few, I have been fortunate enough to see and interact with a lot of large animals. Animals such as giant manta rays, golden cow rays, marble rays, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, guitar fish, and skates. Sharks such as Hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, silkies, white tips, black tips, silver tips, tiger sharks, bull sharks, sand tigers, nurse sharks, angel sharks, and grey reef sharks. I've also encountered such large critters as Mola Molas, harbour seals, monk seals, sealions, an elephant seal, bottle nose dolphins, and spinner dolphins to name a few! And, yes. I do still have all of my own appendages :-)
One of my first underwater experiences with rays was at Stingray City in Grand Cayman. For many years Stingray City has been known as the World's Best 12' Dive location. And that it is! We were briefed before entering the water about how docile the rays are, how to feed them, how to pet them, and how to avoid the only injury even thought possible ... and that's a "Stingray Hickey!"
How might one receive a Stingray Hickey? Well, it's not easy, but it can happen! Each dive team is given a small plastic container filled with chopped fish. This is stingray food. The container's lid has slits cut in it so that you may stick a couple of your fingers inside to retrieve a piece of the fish. This way not all of the fish will come out of the container. Your goal is to feed the less aggressive females. It's obvious which are females; they are larger than the males. You are instructed to hold the container with the lid up against your body so the scent of the fish does not get in the water around you. My dive buddy, Ted, received a hickey because a male stingray snuck up from behind and tried to get into the container he was holding. Ted was wearing a lined dive skin, and even through the skin, the ray was able to grasp onto his arm flesh and cause a small bruise. Hence, a Stingray Hickey.
Some of my most memorable events underwater have taken place at Socorro Island, San Benedicto Island, and Roca partida. All of these are enjoyed by booking a trip on the Solmar V live aboard out of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The boat is fabulous and the crew is phenomenal. (If you go there, please tell Captain Pedro, Jose Luis, Pepe, Ray, Jeronimo, and the rest of the crew that I said hello!) On almost every single dive we encountered giant manta rays. Often we saw lots of sharks, as well. I have had numerous experiences with giant mantas, but two stuck out above all the rest. Back in 2001 when I went there the first time, I had a remarkable experience that I will not go into detail about right now, but I will tell you this... Every day of my life I think about it!
Last December I returned to the islands. During that trip I do believe I found an old manta friend. Her belly markings looked familiar, and she certainly wasn't timid when it came to approaching me! I spent at least 30 minutes during a dive having what I call a religious experience with this manta. I was hovering directly below the boat at 30 feet deep, and was virtually alone, with the exception of this manta ray. I was within sight of the anchor line at all times, the water was crystal clear, and the rest of my dive team was 30 feet below me watching a school of hammerheads being cleaned. The manta ray was not afraid to be touched, nor was she afraid to touch me, often finding myself face to face with this beautiful, majestic creature!
The most harmful encounter I've ever had with any of the creatures has been with sealions. On more than one occasion sealions have grabbed my fins with their teeth. It doesn't help that I always find myself drawn to be right in the middle of the colony, so I'm sure my encounters have been unusual. One one occasion in the Galapagos Islands, a sealion got a little too playful. Instead of just nipping at my fins, he placed his teeth on my calf. He did not hurt me, nor do I believe that was his intention. I totally believe he was playing with me just as a pet dog would play with his master.
All in all, I am enjoying a totally fabulous career in Scuba diving! I would not change it for the world. The only thing I would do differently is that I would have gotten certified years earlier in my life!