Preview of things to come, based on things past

by B. N. Sullivan

I have just returned home from a week-long trip. (Did you miss me?) I went to the reunion of a dive club I belonged to many years ago.

Earlier, I briefly mentioned the club when I wrote about our training as divers. I first learned to dive through classes offered by the club. That was in 1970.

DiversMembers of that dive club were my first dive instructors, and my first dive companions. Several of them appear in the photo at right, also taken in 1970.

At the time we met one another, all of the members of this particular dive club resided in Athens, Greece and its suburbs. While the membership included a handful of Greek nationals, most of us were foreigners living and working in Greece. We were a diverse lot in terms of nationalities and occupations, but we all loved the sea and the outdoors. That was our commonality.

Although we could not have known it when we joined, the club would become a central focus of our lives for years, and its members would form close, enduring friendships. We dived together, went on camping trips together, and groups of us traveled to other countries together.

We all were young then -- in our 20s and 30s -- and most of us were married and had infants or small children. Far away from our homelands and our families, we became one another's support group. We celebrated holidays together, and our children played with one another. We behaved like a large extended family.

We've lost track of some of the people who were members of that dive club. Others have passed away. But remarkably, quite a few members of that old dive club have remained in touch all these years. Our children now have children of their own, but many of them still stay in touch with one another, too.

We are quite literally scattered around the globe these days, but a number of us still come together periodically for a reunion. During our most recent get-together this past week, I proposed that the story of this remarkable group be set forth in The Right Blue, and everyone in attendance agreed. As we reminisced, we prompted one another for half-forgotten details of our past adventures, and I made notes. Everyone agreed to contribute old photos from our dive trips and other gatherings, too.

We're going to relish recounting our tales here, and we hope that readers of The Right Blue will indulge us while we do just that. Stay tuned...

Diving then and now - Part 1

by B. N. Sullivan

One of the earliest posts in The Right Blue tells about our training as divers. In the post I mentioned that I first learned to dive in 1970. That's right -- 38 years ago!

Diving has changed a lot since 1970, mostly because of improvements in equipment. We decided it would be fun to review the progression of those changes for our readers. This exercise will take several posts, so bear with me.

Diver 1970To start things off, have a look at the picture at left. That's me, in 1970, when I was a newly minted diver. (No, I wasn't angry -- the sun was in my eyes!)

When we first unearthed this old photo, I had to laugh. That red thing I'm wearing looks like a life vest pilfered from an airliner, but it's not. Known as a 'horse-collar' vest -- for reasons I'm sure are apparent! -- it was used primarily for surface flotation.

Dive gear is very heavy, and can be cumbersome. Swimming on the surface with, among other things, a metal tank on your back, and lead weights arrayed around your waist can be incredibly daunting at times. When the flotation vest was inflated, it helped counteract that weighed down feeling, and enabled divers to keep their heads above water while waiting for a boat, or swimming to shore. Those horse-collars were not very comfortable, however.

The vests had little CO2 cartridges inside. The CO2 could be released to rapidly fill the vest in an emergency, but most of the time, we blew the things up by puffing into the little inflator hose. The CO2 cartridges were single-use only, and it was expensive to replace them all the time, so we really did restrict ourselves to using them only when we were struggling or in a jam.

Fortunately those dopey horse-collar vests with the CO2 cartridges are no longer used by sport divers. They've been replaced by buoyancy control devices (BCDs for short), in the form of vests, jackets, or pouches (called 'wings') attached to a harness. These days, BCDs are inflated at the push of a button, with air supplied from the scuba tank through a special low-pressure hose. Divers can and do still use the BCD for flotation on the surface, but they also make use of the device underwater. By adding a little puff of air to the BCD at depth, divers can adjust their buoyancy, compensating for the weight of their gear.

The next thing I spotted in the photo was the tank -- or rather the valve on the tank -- and the regulator. We were using "J-valves" on scuba tanks at that time. There was no such thing as a submersible pressure gauge, so we could not monitor how much air we had left in our tanks once we entered the water. Tanks fitted with "J-valves" had a mechanism that blocked the diver's air supply at a certain (low) pressure level. The valve had a lever on it that the diver could pull to release the remaining air, known as the 'reserve' air. Believe me, that reserve wasn't much, but it would provide a few more breaths -- usually enough to get to the surface (we hoped!).

The regulator in the photo is a single-hose demand flow regulator, which was a pretty sophisticated rig at that time -- compared to, say, a double-hose regulator. Those old double hose regs required the diver to sort of suck the air out of the tank! We still use single-hose demand flow regulators, but the ones we have now have numerous ports on the first stage -- the part that attaches to the tank valve. To those ports we attach various pieces of gear, including power inflators for our BCDs, submersible digital pressure gauges so that we can continuously monitor our air supply, and one or more extra second stages -- the part of the regulator that has the mouthpiece -- to facilitate sharing air with a dive partner if need be.

Note the clunky old analog depth gauge that I'm wearing on my wrist in that photo. Key pieces of dive management gear in those days were the depth gauge and the dive watch or timer. Those relics now have been replaced by digital electronic decompression computers which continuously sense depth, keep track of elapsed time, and recompute every few seconds how long we can safely remain at a given depth -- as well as many other bits of information that I won't go into until another time.

Even our wetsuits have changed. The one I'm wearing in the photo had no lining and was extremely difficult to get into -- just rubber against skin. Everyone carried a box of cornstarch or a can of talc in their gear bags then. We applied it liberally before donning our suits, but it made quite a sticky mess, and often didn't help the process all that much. These days our suits are lined with Polartec or other soft materials that make them as easy to slip into as a pair of jeans.

Ahh, the good old days!

Do Not Disturb: Sleeping Fish

by B. N. Sullivan

Pygmy Toby (Canthigaster pygmaea)We all need our rest, and so do the fish in the sea. Fish don't sleep exactly like we do. For one thing, they don't have eyelids, so they can't close their eyes. Nevertheless, most fish we know about do take their rest for some part of the day or night, on a fairly regular schedule.

Some fish -- especially pelagics -- hunt at night, and rest during the day. Most reef fish are very busy during the day, so they rest at night. They stop moving about and enter a sleep-like state. While they are resting, they are generally sluggish and not very alert. We try our best not to startle them or disturb their rest during our night dives.

Some fish lie on the bottom to rest, while others hang motionless in the water column. Small fish, in particular, often hide while they are in their somnolent state so that their predators can't find them and eat them. Staying out in the open to rest definitely would give their predators an unfair advantage. In the first photo on this page, a tiny fish called a Pygmy Toby (Canthigaster pygmaea) has snuggled itself amongst corals and sponges to "sleep."

In the second photo, a small fish has chosen to settle into a stand of fire coral to takes its rest. We're not sure what species of fish this is, although the shape suggests that it is some kind of Damselfish.

Fish hiding in Fire CoralIn addition to hiding, another strategy that many fish use to discourage predation while they rest is to change color. Their color may darken or become mottled during periods of rest, helping them to blend in with their environmental background.

Some species of Parrotfish hide themselves by spinning a slimy cocoon around themselves. The mucous cocoon is secreted from an organ in the head of the Parrotfish. (Sorry, I don't have a photo handy.) It is thought that, in addition to hiding the fish, the cocoon also masks the animals' scent, making it harder for predators to locate them.

Both of the images on this page were captured during night dives in the Red Sea, along the coast of the Sinai Peninsula.

The Leaf Scorpionfish

by B. N. Sullivan

Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus)Meet the Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus). This little fishie is one of the smallest members of the Scorpionfish family. This fish family, Scorpaenidae, gets its name from the venomous spines that most of the fishes in the family bear. (Regular readers of The Right Blue will recall our posts about the Turkeyfish/Lionfish -- another member of the same family.)

The Leaf Scorpionfish gets its name from its appearance. When you see one in its natural environment, it really does look like a leaf, rather than a fish -- until you spot its eye! Members of the Scorpaenidae family tend to be "lie-and-wait" predators. They tend to stay still in one spot until their prey happens past, and then they pounce very suddenly. They rely on camouflage so that they can blend into their surroundings, making it easier for them to surprise their prey.

The bodies of Leaf Scorpionfish are laterally very flat, which certainly contributes to their leaf-like appearance. This little fish not only looks very much like a leaf, it also behaves like a leaf! If you stay still and watch one for awhile, you'll see the little guy rock back and forth every once in awhile, just as a leaf or a stray piece of seaweed would do if it had settled on the reef. This, too, seems calculated to trick potential prey.

The Leaf Scorpionfish is a small species -- maximum length is about four inches (10 cm). They come in lots of colors -- yellow, reddish, purple, brown, pale pink, and off-white. They often have blotches, which enhance their camouflage, and they sport little fleshy appendages on their heads and chins that look like little weeds growing on them.

Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus)The photos on this page show examples of some of the color variations of the Leaf Scorpionfish. Despite the range of colors, they are all the same species. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

The first photo on this page shows a purple Leaf Scorpionfish. You can see that this individual has a lot of blotches. If you see a scuzzy-looking Leaf Scorpionfish, he's probably getting ready to molt, which they do periodically. Soon after they molt they look much less blotchy. Sometimes the color looks a bit different after molting, too.

The second photo is a 1:1 macro shot of a Leaf Scorpionfish that we watched over a period of many months. In the second photo, you can see the little fleshy appendages on the fish's chin quite clearly. It's all part of the disguise.

Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus)We've noticed that when one of these fish finds a good spot on the reef, they tend to stay put in the same small patch of real estate for a long time. Once one is located, it's a safe bet that a diver will be able to return to the same spot again and again, day after day, month after month, and see the same little fish. Good dive guides know this, and that is why they can reliably lead divers and underwater photographers to a Leaf Fish almost at will.

The final photo on this page shows one more color variety. This yellow Leaf Scorpionfish is perched on a coral head. We have noticed that smaller Leaf Scorpionfish often tend to hide in the coral this way, while the larger ones seem to prefer a spot on a rocky bottom. We don't know why this is so, but we surmise that the little ones may feel safer in the coral, since it affords them some protection. They can hunker down if there's a lot of surge, for instance.

I took all of the photos on this page at Puako, Hawaii, at depths ranging from less than 20 feet (6 m) to about 125 ft (38 m).

Life in Hawaii: A Carnival of Aloha

Garden with Double RainbowIt has been stormy here in Hawaii for the past several days. But those of us who live here know that after the rain, there's always a rainbow -- quite literally.

We like showing facets of our island home to our readers, and we regularly post articles about Hawaii and photos of the creatures that live here. But there is much more to Hawaii, beyond what we write about.

We'd like to invite our readers to visit the current Carnival of Aloha, a blog carnival hosted by our friend Evelyn at Homespun Honolulu. As always, the Carnival of Aloha features posts by bloggers on several of our islands, and they cover a fascinating array of subjects ranging from local architecture to hula dancers to whales. (Yes, our article about our close encounters with Humpback Whales in Hawaii is included, but there are others, too!) Or maybe you'd prefer to have a look at any of the several articles about interesting things to do, see -- and eat -- here in Hawaii. Take some time to go and have a look at the 6th edition of the Carnival of Aloha: We've Got Us a Whale of a Carnival!

About the Photo: I took the above picture in my back garden early one morning after an all-night rain. We woke up, opened our bedroom blinds and saw this beautiful double rainbow over the Pacific Ocean. I quickly grabbed the point-and-shoot camera that was handy and snapped this image. If you look closely (click the photo to enlarge) you'll see a pair of wild game birds, called Grey Francolins, waiting for their breakfast near our ground feeder.

Nephtheid Soft Corals - Pale Pastels

by B. N. Sullivan

Dendronephthy sp.In the past several posts, we've been displaying images of soft corals of the Nephtheidae family. To soothe any damage we may have inflicted on our readers' retinas with yesterday's collection of corals with fiery colors, today we're presenting images of Nephtheid corals in pale pastel colors.

By the way, the species of a Nephtheid soft coral cannot be determined merely by looking at the colors. Corals of a particular species in this family may come in a variety of colors.

All of the corals on this page, as well as on yesterday's post, belong to the genus Dendronephthya, but we're not certain of the species. In fact, I have been told by a marine biologist friend who studies these corals, that the only reliable way (short of DNA analysis) to identify a species of Dendronephthya is by examining certain internal structures, called spicules, with a microscope. In other words, it's next to impossible to reliably determine the species in the field.

Dendronephthya sp.For our purposes, we don't mind that we can't be sure of the exact species. When it comes to soft corals, we have been more concerned with collecting images of the different color varieties than with precise species identification. We're content just to know that these are Nephtheids.

At first glance, the more brightly colored varieties certainly are impressive, but we think there is something appealing about the pastels, too. The paler colors suggest a certain fragility, perhaps.

The stalks of almost all of these corals are somewhat translucent. But take a look at the macro image at right: The stalk is nearly transparent! (To see even more detail, you can click on any of the photos on this page to enlarge.)

Some of the corals in this family have greenish coloration, making them resemble plants. A common nickname for those varieties is Broccoli Coral. Other Nephtheid soft corals are sometimes referred to as Carnation Coral. The series of images below may give you an idea of why they acquired this common name.

I took all of the photos on this page while diving in the Red Sea, at reefs along the Sinai Peninsula. I hope you enjoy them.

Nephtheid Soft Corals - Fire in the Night

by B. N. Sullivan

This past week I began a series about soft corals in the Nephtheidae family, arguably some of the most beautifully colored marine life on the planet. I mentioned that these corals come in a wide variety of colors, and that while they sometimes look like plants, they are in fact colonies of small animals -- coral polyps -- that arrange themselves in bundles on a stalk or stem.

Yellow and Red DendronephthyaI have a big problem with these corals: There are so many wonderful colors and varieties that I can't stop taking pictures of them!

The colors range from pastel pale, to richly saturated, to just plain knock-your-eyes-out. Today, we'll show you a few that we call "Fire in the Night" -- brilliant reds, oranges and golds.

I took all of the photos on this page during night dives in the Red Sea. These Nephtheid varieties feed mostly at night, so that is when they are plumped up and looking their best, with their feathery tentacles extended like flower petals. Click on any of the photos to enlarge and see more detail.

The first photo on this page is a a soft coral that had attached itself to the underside of a ledge. This bright red and yellow color combination is, to me, the prototypical "Fire in the Night" color. In case you are wondering, that is not an official name; it's just our name for this color variety.

Next is a macro shot of that same coral. You can see that it is the tentacles of the polyps that are bright red. The stalk itself is relatively pale. Those bright yellow bits on the surface of the stalk are sclerites -- hard structures that help it to hold its shape when it is plumped up. They serve a purpose similar to battens in a sail. They also pose a lighting problem to photographers, since they tend to be more reflective than the rest of the coral.

Macro image of Dendronephthya sp. by B N SullivanThis next variety is a little less fiery than the one above, but is definitely bright and rich. We call this "Golden Glow." This time it's the stalk and sclerites that are golden, while the tentacles on the polyps are almost white.

Gold colored Dendronephthya soft coralA similar variety is the one we call "Hot Peach." It has a yellowish stalk, and bright yellow sclerites, but the flower-like polyps are a rosy pink. The combination of the yellows and pinks make it look quite "peachy," we think.

Peach colored Nephtheid soft coral in the Red SeaWe'll wind up today with a macro shot of the "Hot Peach" color variety. According to my dive log, this image was captured just after dusk. The photo clearly shows that the tentacles were not fully retracted, but not yet fully extended, either.

Macro image if a Nephtheid soft coral in the Red SeaThese corals are not exactly easy to photograph. First of all, they don't need bright sunlight to prosper, so many of them live in deep water, or under ledges and overhangs, or inside cavelets. So, first the photographer has to find them.

Secondly, since these corals are bushy and branchy, they have many planes, and it's difficult to choose a point of focus. Also, since some parts -- especially those calcareous sclerites -- are more reflective than other parts, lighting them evenly can be a challenge.

Shots like the ones on this page were taken at night. Often there is virtually no ambient light underwater at night. So, the photographer (and her helpful dive companion) must locate the subjects to photograph by shining their handheld searchlights this way and that. It helps a lot if the team already has done at least one thorough survey of the area during daylight!

Next, the photographer composes the shot in light provided by a submersible flashlight. Underwater strobes only light a relatively small area -- so the photographer really has to get in close. Meanwhile we have to mind our buoyancy, depth, elapsed time, and our air supply, among other technicalities. But somehow it all comes together, at least some of the time.

Next time we'll show you some paler specimens of Nephtheid soft corals from our photo collection.