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June 28, 2010

Taking a Bite Out of SHARK WEEK

Next month marks the 23rd anniversary of cable’s longest-running event -- SHARK WEEK. I used to consider SHARK WEEK a holiday second only to Christmas. These days though, I’m not a fan.

The Discovery Channel says SHARK WEEK helps "viewers learn more about one of the ocean's most imperiled creatures and how they can help save them from the threats of overfishing and habitat loss." Sounds good, right? Absolutely! Where do I sign? It’s unclear though how the programs support that statement when you review what the Discovery Channel calls “SHARK WEEK 2009 highlights”:

"Great White Appetite" conducted "experiments that uncover the great white sharks unique eating habits." In reality, the show’s host – a former Navy Seal – fed a great white shark five whole tuna to determine the limit of its appetite. I don’t think tuna-on-a-rope qualifies as a unique eating habit.

Les Stroud – whose Survivorman show I enjoy – hosted "Deadly Waters." During the program, Les tested the waters in the world’s “sharkiest hotspots” to answer one simple question: Which water is the deadliest?

Another program, titled "Day of the Shark 2," illustrated what happens “when a great white shark breaks through a 300-pound aluminum shark cage and traps the divers inside."

How do these programs help viewers learn about sharks and how they can help save them? I don’t know.

On the flip side, some SHARK WEEK programs claim sharks are harmless. One program exemplifies this: In 2007, shark behaviorist Dr. Erich K. Ritter hosted a program about bull sharks, which are known for their aggressive behavior. Standing in a bay amidst several bull sharks, some up to eight feet long, Ritter says, “They realize were not a threat to them and they couldn’t care less.” Seconds later a bull shark who apparently could care less removes Ritter’s left calve in one bite.

While sharks aren’t out to kill people and most don’t pose a threat, some sharks are dangerous. While Ritter certainly understands sharks better than most, the fact remains that sharks are wild and unpredictable. I have no problem with experts introducing people to harmless sharks to disprove the popular “man eater” stereotype, but it’s dangerous for experts to present all sharks as harmless.

I’m hungry for something other than shark bite survival and breaching great white shark programs. This year, SHARK WEEK will have to chum the Discovery Channel with less sensational and more educational programming to lure me in.

Posted by jroualdes at 07:49 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2010

Stuck Between a Reef and a Hammer

A word to the wise diver: Expect the unexpected and always prepare for the worst. I know, I know. You've heard it before from various dive instructors, assistant instructors and dive masters. While some of you will heed my advice, others – yes you – will need to learn this lesson the hard way, just like I did.

My girlfriend Carolina and I recently took advantage of a trip to Boca Raton, Florida, for two weddings to get a boat dive in. We conducted research prior to the dive to identify the dive spots we were most interested in and qualified to dive. When we, along with another diver from Minnesota, boarded the boat the morning of our dive, the dive master asked if we had any dive spot requests. We anxiously suggested a spot that interested us because it’s one of the best dives to spot reef sharks. I love sharks, so saying I wasn’t disappointed when the dive master said we wouldn’t see sharks this time of year is an understatement. Deflated, I pumped myself back up thinking about the turquoise blue waters awaiting us.

With 10 minutes to go before we hit the water, the dive master began his overview of the dive spot. Our max depth was 60 feet. We were supposed to keep an eye out for lion fish on the reef and manta rays, sail fish and turtles during our ascent. While the excitement of the upcoming dive makes some divers’ minds wander during these critical overviews, Carolina and I listened to his every word since this was only our third drift dive. Since there were only three divers, the diver master opted not to dive with us. After the overview, Carolina and I discussed our dive plan with the other diver. He planned to look for lobsters, while Carolina and I would take photos of interesting critters. We’d stay together and at 1,000 PSI, we’d head to the surface. We ran through signals, checked each other’s gear and then suited up.

One giant stride later we discovered more bad news – while we had a sunny skies and little wind, visibility was reduced to merely 30 feet due to a storm that had blown through a few days earlier. Oh well, still better than Monterey’s average visibility, I thought. Once we finished our decent, I took the lead with Carolina a few feet behind and to my right. The Minnesota diver darted back-and-forth inspecting every nook and cranny that could be harboring lobsters.

Despite the poor visibility, we spotted a sting ray, sea turtle, several large lobsters and numerous large sponges. As I surveyed the reef, amazed by how quickly the current was carrying us, I felt a tug on my right fin. Turning to my right nonchalantly, my mind cycled through a list of things Carolina may have spotted: a manta ray, dolphin, or maybe even an elusive frog fish! Interrupting me mid thought, Carolina pulled up along my right side and wrapped her left arm around my right as our eyes locked. Her eye lids were wide open, fully exposing the whites of her eyes – not good!

Behind Carolina, a shadow emerged. Again my mind cycled through images, attempting to define the outline quickly approaching us. Seal… no. Dolphin… no. Manta Ray… no. Shark… yes! But it wasn’t a reef shark. Nearly 20 feet away, its outline was unmistakable. It was a scalloped hammerhead and it was big – 8 feet at least with a dark grey, muscular body that effortlessly cut through the water. First, I was in awe. Then my instinctive fight or flight response kicked in. This was the first shark I’d come across that was large enough to pose a threat. Carolina and I had planned what we’d do if we came across much smaller reef sharks, not a hammerhead. What do we do? We knew our hand signals, but there weren’t enough hand signals or time to sufficiently communicate in this situation. Fortunately for us, the hammerhead banked a u-turn around us and then leisurely swam off. Amidst pulling the regulator out of our mouths to smile and exchanging rapid-fire hand signals illustrating our excitement, the other diver swam up with his hands out asking what all the fuss was about. I gave him the sign for shark, and then extended my arms all the way out to emphasize how large it was. Unfortunately for him, he’d had his head in a hole searching for lobsters and missed the whole thing.

After boarding the boat a few minutes later, I turned to the dive master and said, “You said it’s not shark season. Does that include 8 foot-long hammerheads?” All kidding aside, Carolina and I were lucky. While we hadn’t planned for it, we’d seen a large hammerhead without any issues arising. Chatting over dinner that night, we realized that despite all the research we’d done and questions we’d asked we hadn’t planned for the unexpected and prepared for the worst. While no one – including our dive master who had dived that spot numerous times beforehand – expected us to see a large hammerhead, we came across one. Carolina and I should have taken it upon ourselves to identify all the potentially hazardous animals located in the area and planned how we’d respond if we came across each of them. While the hammerhead simply swam off, what if it hadn’t? What if it we’re inquisitive, didn’t leave the area and we were on low air? What if the diver from Minnesota panicked and shot to the surface?

At the end of the day, every diver is responsible for his or her own safety. While seeing certain things may be highly unlikely, always consider all the things you could come across during your dive and plan for them in advance. Here are a few suggestions to help you prepare for your next dive:

· If you dive with a dive shop, call prior to your dive and ask for an overview of all the marine life you could come across during your dive. Most importantly, ask for a list of all the potentially hazardous marine life. Then, prior to your dive, double check the information you received with your dive master.

· If you’re conducting a dive and don’t have access to a dive shop or divers who are familiar with the site, search online for overviews of your dive site. One site I visit frequently before conducting beach dives is www.shorediving.com, which provides maps of the dive site and overviews of marine life and hazards.

· Become a member of the Divers Alert Network and complete some of the training courses.

· Complete PADIs Rescue Diver course. The course teaches valuable skills that teach you to save your dive buddy and yourself.

· If you dive with a partner, always establish a dive plan, review hand signals and review their gear so you understand how it works. If it’s the first time you’ve gone diving with that person, conduct your first dive together in shallow water with good conditions to evaluate their abilities before taking on more challenging dives.

· Always abort a dive if conditions are poor or you feel you are not qualified to make the dive.

Posted by conradb212 at 04:43 PM | Comments (0)