A taste of what lies in store for all our oceans?

One of my first memories is snorkeling as a child, I must have been perhaps six or seven years old. At ten I had done my first SCUBA dive and by thirteen I was a qualified openwater diver. This lead to summer jobs in dive centres where I would mop floors, clean gear and greet clients in return for free dives. By the time I was eighteen I was a divemaster and working full time in the dive industry. I am grateful to have had the chance to dive the island of Tenerife’s amazing dive sites, logging over 2000 dives since then, for almost two decades. Travel and sailing have also enabled me to dive the Red Sea where I was overwhelmed by a chance night encounter with a majestic Manta Ray, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where on my first dive I was greeted by a White Tip Reef shark and the Caribbean. All of these places have been different, each area harbours a unique and different ecosystem, each a product of local currents, weather patterns and the effects of man,s mostly unwelcome, intervention.

The yacht I am working on is currently anchored in the South of France at Golfe Juan which sits slightly East of Cannes on the Cote d’Azur. On a rare day off the chance to dive came  up which I snapped up in an instant. I haven’t dived for a while for various reasons but was reassured by the familiar smell of neoprene and the hissing of high pressure air tanks venting. Setting up was second nature and before I knew it I was in the dive centres fast RIB speeding toward the La Formigue light (actually an isolated danger mark which indicates a large rock in the centre of Golfe Juan) where our dive would take place.

The La Formigue isolated danger mark in Golfe Juan.

The La Formigue isolated danger mark in Golfe Juan.

This was to be my first dive in the Mediterranean Sea and I was  little aprehensive about what to expect, mainly because I was aware of the sea’s reputation for overfishing and pollution. The Meditteranean’s 2.500.000 square km is bordered by around 132 million people and 3 continents (Europe, Asia and Africa). The area has been the crucible of civilization in the west since records began which also means that it is the most fished area historically in the world, ever since the Phoenecians started exploring many thousands of years ago. Today many costal areas still depend on ever dwindling fish stocks as a source of income, an income that is far from sustainable. The Meditteranean’s curse does not end there   as many rivers such as the Rhone meander through Europes industrial and agricultural heartland, ending their journey in the sea. They bring endless tonnes of agricultural waste sush as fertilizers and contaminated waters from the factories and populouses that hug their banks into ”The Med” each year. This problem is further aggravated by the fact that climate change is affecting the sea in an alarming rate due to it’s fairly shallow nature and the bottle neck at the Straits of Gibraltar, just 8 nautical miles wide, mean that it takes over 100 years for the sea’s waters to fully recycle. Scientists are using the Medittaranean as a prediction model for the planet’s other seas and oceans, with some alarming conclusions.      One of which is appearance of ‘dead zones’ where fertilizers have optimized conditions for algae and bacteria which sufficiently starve the surrounding water to a degree where fish and other marine life cannot survive. Complex food chains which range from the large apex predators such as sharks and the nearly wiped out tuna population to plankton are becoming increasingly stressed and are giving way to a state of ‘Brittlness’ which favours simpler food chains made up of jellyfish (hence the areas ever increasing jellyfish blooms to which I have been witness), invertabrates and algae. This sadly is what all our oceans face if drastic action is not taken to avoid it. Sadly, the effects in the Medittaranean may be too far gone.

The dive was at best an excercise in futility as the Medittaranean’s barren nature was painfully apparent. In a 45 minute dive ranging from 10 to 26m in depth I saw no fish over a few centimetres and no larger predators such as octopus, barracuda, groupers or similar fish. Small wrasse and damsel fish where all that where to be seen in what seemed to me a very stark and folorn seascape. This was made even worse when we came across a huge monofilament fishing net that had caught on rocks and been abandoned by it’s owners. Far too large for us to remove and potentially dangerous also as it could ensnare a careless diver all I could do was document it’s presence by camera as it lay there. How long would  it pray on unsuspecting fish and turtles?

How long will thius net stay here on a never ending cycle of death?

I left the water with mixed feelings. I am always stoked to get in the water wheather it be surfing, diving, sailing, swimming but I had the bitter sweet taste to having witnessed first had the calamity that faces our oceans in the not too distant future, a painfull realization that has left a numbness in my mind.

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My first dive in a while....

My first dive in a while….

Happy New Year!!!

Well, once again we find ourselves at the dawn of a New Year. Quite why at the strike of a clock things should magically change, people stop smoking, lose kilos, take up skydiving I will never understand. But hey, if that’s what makes you happy then rock on.

I am not a big New Years fan, don’t get me wrong. I love a cold beer or good whisky as much as the next guy but I hate the excesses that seem to follow the hype of New Years. To me, waking up with a hangover and penniless is not a good way to start the year. I have worked a number of New Years on a professional or volunteer basis with the ambulance service but every now and then I try to do something special.

At the dawn of the now forgotten millennium I was working as an instructor at Aqua-Marina dive centre. At around 8pm we did the last dive of the millenium. It was just a shore dive right in front of the centre, down to 8m with staff and some loyal clients. At 5 metres we knelt on the sandy bottom in a tight circle as we passed around a bottle of champagne, each taking a symbolic swig. As the bottle is pressurised due to the gas the sea water stays out, as long as you press your thumb over the hole.

After that we had a quick dinner and then I pulled my wetsuit on again, this time my surfing shortie and grabbed my board. Both where festooned with glow sticks and a strobe light as where those of my brother, Guy, and our friends. You see, I had read in the November 1999 issue of Transworld Surf Magazine an article about ”joining the two millenniums with a wave”. I seemed like a special way to mark the occasion, one that fully stated who I was and one that I would always remember and cherish. It was also totally wacky, we loved it! At 23:30h we paddled out from the rocky shore at La Fitenia, our local break, to the applause of well over a hundred people. This was a huge surprise as we had expected something a little more intimate, what we hadn’t counted on was the fact that the hotel that backs onto the break has one of the biggest firework displays in the area at New Years…… We where extremely stoked, we kind of felt like rock stars I guess and at 18 years old it was awesome. The waves weren’t great but that wasn’t the point,  chest high chop was all that was on offer. We laughed as we paddled into the dark sets, feeling more than seeing the waves as they picked us up and hurled us, javelin like, towards the shore. As the gongs sounded at midnight a set rolled in and we all caught a wave, one that joined two millenia in a short frothy 10 second ride. Fireworks exploded overhead, painting the sea green, red and blue as the sparks fell earthward. Reading this you might think it is all fiction. or at least embellished but it is not, that is the way we saw in the year 2000. Just to prove it isn’t all good, I should mention that on getting out of the water I stood on a sea-urchin and had 3 spines in my foot for days!!

This year my best friend and I planned to climb ”El Teide”, the 3718m high monolith that sits at the centre of the island of Tenerife. It just happens to be the highest mountain in Spain and has one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage sight and the set for movies such as the original Planet of the Apes or the 2011 Wrath of Titans. In winter it is often tipped with snow and at night temperatures drop to well below freezing.

I worked my shift at the lifeguard station, had my last session in the ocean for 2012 (a quick 30 minutes of bodysurfing as that was all the waves were up to and the wind was too fickle to sail). Not long after I was swathed in thermals and mountaineering gear, a santa hat on my head and trudging up the Montaña Blanca trail head. Our eyes concentrated on the terrain in front, our worlds reduced to a pool of light just a few feet wide. Sadly, we set of late and even after pushing hard and getting from 2000m to 3200m in just 1 hour and 50 minutes we decided to stop there. The plan had been to hit the peak, see in the New Year with the few other nut jobs who had the same plan and then hit the trail again as I was on a full shift on New Years day (no rest for the wicked). We arrived at the AltaVista mountain hut at 3200m just after 23:00h and decided to stay there rather than carry on and be in the middle of no-where as the bells chimed.

We settled into a sheltered corner outside the hut, whipped up some hot chocolate on the camping stove and pulled on several layers as the temperature was -2ºC, and with the wind chill the actual sensation was much lower. Miguel put on a small radio to hear the official timing and we prepared our meal. Overhead a billion stars spread a mantle of fairy lights over our us. I spotted Orion, Osa Major but couldn’t make out Casiopea which is my favorite. I was a bit upset by this as I always look out for Casiopea and even talk to her on night watches at sea (yes, sea fever will do that to you…). It crossed my mind that it was ironic that I was seeing in a New Year, one that I hoped would bring new ocean adventures, about as far from the sea as you can get on this island. Seeing the stars hanging there, like old friends, reminded me too that nature is always there and we are always linked to her.

Miguel Angel enjoying hot chocolate fresh off the stove. 3200m, -2ºC and dropping!!

Miguel Angel enjoying hot chocolate fresh off the stove. 3200m, -2ºC and dropping!!

As the final few minutes grew closer we uncorked the miniature bottles of champagne and got our grapes ready (in Spain it is good luck to eat a grape at each strike of the clock, 12 grapes in all). The time came we choked the SEEDED grapes down, hugged, chugged down the champagne, took in the epic view which was by now illuminated by a spectacularly bright moon and pulled on our packs ready to head down.

Only a few  hours later I was back in the beach town of El Médano where I currently live, weaving my way down the street to my buildings door as I dodged the detritus or human society debauchery. Glass bottles, plastic cups, streamers and stinking vomit littered the pavement as the BOOM BOOM of music blasted from the square. Such world apart…… I certainly know where I would rather have been.

Me with a very red nose.... Refugio de Altavista, Mount Teide, Tenerife. 3200m. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Me with a very red nose…. Refugio de Altavista, Mount Teide, Tenerife. 3200m. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

So, 2013 is here and I wish you all the very best. I sincerely hope this year is filled with smiles, happiness and warmth. For those of you who like me crave the ocean I also wish you clean and warm seas, fair winds and good swells.