Thursday, January 31, 2013

Symphony of Life

It’s difficult to explain what happened to my wife, Jill. She has been in the water all of her life; swim team, lifeguard, boating, snorkeling, and eventually scuba diving -but it wasn’t until a particularly sunny day, in the dense blue waters of the Andaman Sea, that it happened.

We were eager novice divers on out first “live aboard” trip to the Similan Islands, a hundred miles off the west coast of Thailand. As a photographer, most all of my diving stress is centered on taking my camera equipment under the water. As my dive buddy, Jill’s stress is mostly – me. She keeps a watchful eye on me while we dive – in case I get too close to a lionfish, don’t realize I’m being followed by a barracuda, or stray away from the group, preoccupied by the scenes through my lens. That was our deal. We both watched our gauges (although she was much more vigilant than I) and were generally “easy” clients for the guides. We dove enough to be comfortable at depth and in strong currents. So with this comfort, I focused on my camera and Jill focused on me - until one brilliant afternoon near the craggy black island wall of Koh Bon.

We back-rolled into the water from the tiny blue and red dingy, making it tip crazily as it was unburdened. Amanda, our guide, gave us a quick check and we all descended. As we sank lower, toward a brilliantly colored slanting floor at about 80 feet, I focused on a huge Gregorian fan, trying to frame it for a picture. Jill and I each carry small metal containers filled with ball bearings, that when shaken underwater, send rattlesnake sharp sound waves for great distances. It was our way of saying, “Hey, look at me, I need to show you something!” I took a picture - and then heard Jill’s rattle, prolonged and distressed.

The giant manta drifted above our heads, silhouetted black, wings out wide, gliding into the current in about 40 feet of water.  I tried to get as many pictures as I could as the enormous winged creature soared around us, gracefully turning in large banking arcs. I was stunned by its size and potential for speed, “Its so strong” I thought.

Jill, floating with her arms folded, enveloped by the blue, was suddenly seized by the entirety of the ocean.

She told me that at that very moment, it all came together for her; the entire undersea world of life became tangible and real. A minute before, she had just been diving, but now she was part of it – an infinitely small, meaningless part of it all. It was a symphony of life, from the great manta to the clown fish guarding its anemone; schools of batfish and jacks moving in unison to unseen forces, parrotfish munching rock, gobies watching out for their blind shrimp room mates, cleaning stations filled with millions of fish and crustaceans, damsels darting through staghorn coral, thousands of swirling glass fish - like a dancing veil of fairy dust. Every crack in the reef had an inhabitant. Every hollow in a sponge, or secret passage in a coral contained life. It was an immeasurable puzzle, with all of the pieces in perfect order – and yet in constant motion. The candy-colored world seethed around her in perfect harmony – it was loud, and confusing, and busy – but peaceful and magnificent at the same time. She told me that it was hard to fight back tears, tears that would have obscured the world to her new eyes. All of the cares that she had had just moments before - thoughts of being warm enough, of breathing slow and deep, of wondering always what was behind her, of being too far from me – all were replaced by just the weight of warm water, like she had been taken into the arms of the ocean.

There is no place on earth with a higher concentration of life, or more color per given space. The ocean is life. It is life for this entire world – and yet, we see none of it. The luxury that is afforded to some, the indulgence of diving down into the ocean and witnessing first hand all of its power and life, is something I wish everyone could experience. For Jill it was life-altering; a sudden realization that we on land know nothing of the vast majority of the planet that we call home, and that such life goes on, in such numbers – day and night, shallow and deep, without end. 

Even though we had numerous dives in the Similans prior to this one, for some reason it was the ghostly manta that painted the last brush stroke for Jill. Perhaps the size of something so imposing and gentle, swimming so close to a huddled group of technology-laden air-breathers, put everything else into perspective. The manta, a virtuoso of grace, carved turns around us, coming close, looking at each of use with its great dark eyes. Jill said she looked right into his eye, for as long as he would look back, barely breathing, understanding. She never wanted to go back up.

Once out of the water Jill exclaimed, through tears, “I can not believe that entire performance down there, it goes on 24/7! Its like a Vegas show that never ends!” It was something that she could not shake from her head for days - and even now, with a single inquiry, it returns to her instantly with all of its vivid magic – the greatest show on earth. That such a place exists, that has always existed - is truly hard to believe unless seen.

After that day we did many more dives in the Similans, and often times with the mantas. These amazing fish are the size of garage doors and agile like hawks. We were so enchanted by their presence that a year later we made a trip to the Komodo Islands just for mantas. Again, we were with our guides from Thailand, and again they knew where to find the winged ghosts, and again we dove with them – but this time it was different.

In a strong current in about 60 feet of water, hugging the gravel floor of the ocean channel, twelve manta rays drifted around us like shadowy kites. I watched as Jill, arms out wide, slowly waved her arms up and down, as if she was a manta, beckoning them closer so that she could look into their eyes once again. Elegantly and slowly, a large black manta worked its way toward Jill; its great gilled mouth open wide, taking in plankton from the swift moving water. I switched the camera to video and watched as the massive animal just hovered next to her, its wingtips moving just enough to keep it from being carried away in the current. They were close together for several minutes – each looking at the other in fascination. The others soared around like a flock of pterodactyls in slow motion, looping and banking and diving – always to angle themselves into the current for another mouthful of plankton. When we had run dangerously close to our air limits, we reluctantly grouped up tight and slowly ascended to the surface, always looking down until the mantas vanished in the food-rich waters. We dove this exact spot three more times, each dive becoming longer and longer as we learned to conserve air, and each time dreading the need to return to the surface.

In an overwhelming interaction with the grand manta ray, Jill found within her a sense of scale and wonder and emotion that she had never had before. It’s why we will go back to the waters of the coral triangle, and it’s why we read and study and support all of the conservation work being done by a variety of energized groups.  The devilfish, as the giant manta was once known, is shortlisted for an endangered species classification, and without intervention, the species will disappear into the depths of history. To see something this majestic in the open ocean is hard to describe; it’s a marvel of design for sure - and so much more.

If you would like to know more about manta rays, to donate to their conservation and research, or to even adopt one – please click on the links below. The hour-long movie is also well worth the watch.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mountain Men

For anyone who has ever traveled to rural Nepal, specifically the mountains of the Khumbu Valley, there is little to say about the local Khumbu people except – remarkable. The harsh environment and isolated folds of earth have created an idyllic kingdom of sturdy, devout Buddhists - and tough shaggy animals.

The Sherpa people are the indigenous inhabitants of the Solu Khumbu valley and are descendants of nomadic Tibetans from the north.  For 600 years they have lived in this high-altitude realm, becoming stronger and leaner than their first-world Cheeto-fed vacationer/employers. They are a happy, patient people, filled with the potential for sudden impromptu comedy. They have very little western wealth or possessions; no 403’s, health insurance, workman’s comp, welfare, life insurance, second cars (or even first cars), or storage units filled with boating gear and Christmas paraphernalia. They wear flip-flops over any terrain, sport one-dollar gas station quality sunglasses, wear cast-off Hawaiian shirts donated from more fortunate countries, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, carry more than their bodyweight of luggage, wood, rock, or alcohol each day -and do it all in the rarified air of the Himalayas.

I am never so humbled as when I return to the mountains of Nepal. On arrival to Lukla, a postage-stamp of an airport licked and pasted to the side of a 21,000-foot peak, you are instantly aware of who is fit – and who is not. You walk slowly and gulp in the thin air, while barefooted children run past carrying your gear - and laugh.  You try to convince yourself that in a week’s time you will be acclimatized to the elevation. Do not deceive yourself – the people of this valley will always be able to kick your ass.

Technically, the Sherpa people tend to be guides or lodge owners, and the porters are often times from the lowlands (a consideration when hiring men to haul your gear, as the lowland porters are not accustomed to the elevations like the local Khumbu people). If you are trekking in the Everest region, and are a responsible client, then you are following the rules of the IPPG (International Porter Protection Group) who have outlined load limits for porters in Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, and Kilimanjaro. The Nepali porter load is to be limited to 30kg, and their wages should be between 500-700 rupees a day (USD 6-8/day, actually about half of what they should be paid). Receiving such low wages for staggeringly hard work is only half of the porter equation. Each night, as you snuggle inside your $700 down bag within the stone and wood confines of a sturdy teahouse, your porters are outside – perhaps in a tent, in a local friends kitchen, or a mile or two away in a family members house.

Through foreign donations and planning, there are now an increasing number of porter shelters that have been built to protect the lowest paid members of your trekking party from the harsh nighttime elements. There are recognized porter shelters at Tengboche, Gorak Shep, Gokyo, and Machermo. These rudimentary structures are free bunkhouses for the porters and Sherpas, getting them out of the wind and cold, and saving them from hiking extra miles. Also, Porters Progress UK has a donation store in Lukla that helps outfit underdressed porters with donated boots, jackets, and sunglasses from western trekkers.  As a trekker, you are responsible for your porters.  If a porter falls ill, it is the responsibility of you and your group to ensure he is not just paid off and sent away, but that he is accompanied to a clinic.

I have seen porters carrying hundreds of pounds, suspended from their heads by crude fabric “tumplines”: gigantic green-cut wooden beams, sixteen foot lengths of corrugated tin roofing, eight cases of bottled beer, a small refrigerator, 150 gallon water tanks, great slabs of granite – almost everything you see in the villages of the Khumbu were carried on the backs of men. Most of these extremes are not linked to trekking, but are feats of strength in the simple delivery of goods – human UPS trucks in jelly sandals. If you need it, and are willing to pay to get it there, then there is a guy somewhere willing to carry it – that’s exactly how the slate-topped pool table got to Namche, and the huge panes of glass to Pheriche.

In 2005 a team of Belgian physiologists performed field-testing related to the energetics of hauling loads with tumplines. They studied porters who routinely hiked 100km - from the Kathmandu valley to the village of Lukla – delivering goods. They executed this journey in about 9 days, gaining around 26,000 feet in elevation and loosing 22,000 feet during the round trip. They were aged from 11 to 68 years of age with the men hauling an average 93% of their body weight. One particularly robust porter was measured carrying 183% of his body weight! Their study concluded that the Nepali porters were, "far more economical, energetically, than the controls at all loads, and more economical than African women at all except the lightest loads."1 Perhaps we have this backpack thing all wrong.

In the spring of 2012 a Sherpa lodge owner fell off of his tin roof while shoveling snow in Pheriche, sustaining a fracture / dislocation of his elbow. This was too complex for the physician at the Pheriche aid post, so it was decided that he should go to Kathmandu for a higher level of care. On the evening before, a wealthy solo female trekker, who had been led up the valley on the back of a pony, suddenly decided she had seen enough and was “done”. With VISA card in hand, she ordered the Pheriche clinic to arrange a helicopter transfer back to Kathmandu. This was fortunate for the Sherpa, as most often their only form of evacuation was by porter, pony, and truck, and took several days. In this case, the physician arranged to have him fly back with the wealthy trekker. Good karma was at hand.

I watched as the helicopter danced around the ring of stones like a dragonfly adjusting to a flower. Just as it touched down, local men wearing puffy jackets waded through the snow and began taking out jugs of kerosene and boxes of supplies (no helicopter flight in the Khumbu goes up or down the valley without a payload).   Then I saw the woman’s wheeled luggage carried out to the waiting craft, blades whirling and engine roaring, followed by two Sherpa assistants with the “fancy lady” as one porter called her. They held her hands to guide her balance as she carefully tiptoed through the snowy rocks to her taxi. People gathered, both locals and trekkers alike, as the medical clinic staff brought the injured Sherpa out of the medical building on a stretcher. There was conversation inside the helicopter between the woman and the pilot. The doors were closed. The engines roared louder – and the helicopter rose up into the air in a swirling cloud of sparkling ice crystals.  The physician and the litter attendants rushed the injured man out onto the landing zone, waving and yelling into the glittering vortex – and watched in vain as the small craft swiftly vanished down the valley and out of sight.

They carried the man back into the clinic. Such was the fate of just a Sherpa.

I like to think that karma found that woman; found the deep recesses of her intestines while she was sitting in the Kathmandu airport waiting for her international flight; found her thriving with a demonic spawn of bacteria that would give rise to torrential diarrhea, making her flight the most memorable of all time.

The Sherpas and porters of the Khumbu valley risk everything they have to make a living - to send their children to school, to afford food and clean water. They carry their bodyweight in tourists’ luggage, cut river stones into bricks with a hammer and chisel, create wooden beams with hand planes and sweat, and run down treacherous trails for ten miles to relay a message for a trekker. Their unprotected eyes become milky and dim after years of crossing snowfields, they climb to great dangerous heights, carry cylinders of oxygen through crevasses - and give up their chairs to foreigners. And if asked why, each one of them will tell you the same thing – so my children won’t have to.

When in Nepal, treat these hardy people with the respect deserved of such effort. Ensure they are paid fairly, that they will receive medical treatment, and that their loads are not too great. Donate to funds that create porter shelters, or to teachers at the schools of Lukla and Khumjung. Leave your old trekking poles, boots and sunglasses in Lukla. Join the Himalayan Rescue Association and donate to Stop Girl Trafficking. Limit the number of plastic bottles you buy and showers you take. Give the right-of-way to any porter. Engage them whenever you can.

We are just fortunate transients in their mountains. It is our duty to be worthy ambassadors for our respective countries, to promote kindness and fairness, and pay forward even the smallest acts from the heart.

~ our porters in 2012 

1 Bastiene, G.J., B. Schepens, P.A. Willems, N.C. Heglund (2005). Energetics of load carrying in Nepalese porters. Science, 308:1755.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Raja Ampat Diving Expedition - 2015

Hello adventure seekers, divers, and photographers.
I am entertaining the idea of putting together an exotic dive trip that would take place early 2015 (I know, thats a long way off - crazy!). Let me know if you would be interested in such a committing trip. The dates and prices are rough - but the location is not.

January 2015
2175.00  / including equipment
(Strictly Tentative)

9 days / 8 nights aboard the Jaya

The diving in Raja Ampat is considered by many as the best in the world, with its remote location, vibrant reefs and incredible marine life - there are countless dive sites, all with different characters. Raja Ampat is simply a life-affirming dive experience. According to Conservation International, marine surveys suggest that the marine life diversity in the Raja Ampat area is the highest recorded on Earth. The Coral Triangle is the heart of the world's coral reef biodiversity, making Raja Ampat quite possibly the richest coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Under the water, divers on the 9-day liveaboard may experience passing pelagics like manta rays, whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and all forms of macro-animals in crevices and on terraces of steep color-filled walls. Raja Ampat is also a Mecca for lovers of pygmy seahorses, which are found here in every shape and color, red, yellow, orange, purple or white.

Of the many species in Raja Ampat are rare Wobbegong and Epaulette Sharks (walking sharks), hammerheads, huge shoals of sardines and jacks, and reefs filled with soft corals, sponges, hard corals, shrimps, crabs, countless nudibranchs and hundreds of other invertebrates. The area is remote and unspoiled.

Raja Ampat Liveaboard - Diving Information

Diving Highlights: Approximately 27 dives - with large marine life, small marine life, drift dives, wall dives, currents, vibrant reef life, and underwater photography.

Average Depths: 5- 30+ meters

Visibility: 5- 30+ meters

Currents: mild-strong (depending on dive site and season)

Water Temperature: 22-28c (71°- 82°F)

Experience Level: Intermediate-Advanced (we can talk about this).

Location: 40+km from Sorong, Indonesia

Aboard the wooden schooner, the Jaya, we will spend 9 days wandering through the heart of the Coral Triangle, around Raja Ampat’s 2,500 islands and reefs with 1,320 species of fish, 550 species of coral - and many yet to be discovered. There are very few facilities, and very few trained safety officers in this remote region, so for these reasons, Wicked Diving will be our dive operator  - always with an eye to safe and sensible diving, with some of the best food around, a fun and knowledgeable staff, and the only ethically / ecologically operated dive boat.

A few words about Wicked Diving
They use only ecologically friendly products, from the unbleached cotton sheets and towels to the biodegradable shampoos and conditioners. Even the box for the handmade soaps is made from palm fronds. The beautiful schooner is a ‘quiet’ boat at night as it uses passive ventilation and sea breezes to keep it cool, so there’s no need for air conditioning and use of a generator - it’s so nice to be ‘hum-free’.  The fish like it too!
All water is warmed through passive solar. They avoid using any single use containers and provide all guests with one water bottle that they can refill from the water dispensers.  All cans, glass, plastic and paper are recycled. They work in partnership with GHRE, a local school for children of migrant Burmese laborers, and the BaanSanFan Orphanage running educational programs and beach clean ups. They provide data on the status of coral reefs to Reefwatch, and on manta ray sightings to the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna. They use a seawater recycling system for sanitation and capture rainwater for use in the gear rinse buckets. All of the lighting is by low energy LED light bulbs.

We have used Wicked twice now, once in the Similan Islands, and once in Komodo, and are always amazed by their knowledge of the marine world, currents, the islands, and their relentless stewardship of the ocean world.

This trip is a long way off – I know. But I want to plant the seed of exploration into your heads. As time goes by, and I can gather some local interest, I will put together a more comprehensive package of information.

The price will include all room and board for 9 days, all park fees and equipment rental. You will have to get yourself to Indonesia (Bali), and then domestically to Sorong. You will be responsible for any alcoholic beverages on the boat, tips for the guides, and accommodations on land.  The staff at Wicked can assist in all of the local air transport and accommodations.

This is a committing trip, and I would suggest adding a week of additional time to explore the local areas of Indonesia and New Guinea.

Interested? Let me