Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday at the Breakwater

We hadn't eaten ourselves into too bad of a stupor on Thanksgiving so had some energy and motivation to give our drysuits another whirl. I was extremely disappointed with my inability to be stable in the last dive and was determined to get back into it.

When we got to the Breakwater, it was cold (44F on the surface), extremely windy and the tide was at the highest I've seen here (6ft peak high tide around the time we were there). This was probably the quickest we've gotten into any suit - wet or dry - just to get some protection from the cold. Brrr. We had talked about adding a couple of pounds of weight from our last dive but decided to try out the same setup. I figured my previous rocketship impersonation was due to suit overinflation as opposed to insufficient weight.
The water was almost to the steps and just as we were about to get in, A realized she hadn't adjusted her mask strap since our return from Baja. Also, it managed to pop all the way out of the buckle when she was trying to adjust it. D'oh! We submerged immediately instead of doing the usual surface swim as there was a TON of seaweed and kelp on the surface. Almost immediately, my left ear started misbehaving and continued to do so for the duration. Considering we were there right at the slack at high tide, there was a surprising amount of surge. I was also trying out A's WetWear hood, which doesn't have the neck skirt, and it was chafing my neck like crazy. That and my troublesome ear caused me to thumb the dive prematurely. 
-> 25min, 39ft, 55F

It was good to get some more time in the drysuits and I got to try a couple of things I wanted to but, overall, a meh dive. Post dive at Hula's.

 - U

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Baja California Sur 2015

A and I just got back from a trip to Baja California Sur. We were there for a week - 3 days each in Cabo Pulmo and La Paz, 9 dives over 4 days.

There and back again
We flew between San Francisco and San Jose del Cabo non-stop. I’ve been to a lot of airports and SJD is by far the fastest and easiest immigrations+customs experience I’ve had (which makes sense considering it’s almost exclusively a tourist centric location). I would highly recommend making SJD your port of entry into Mexico as opposed to going through Mexico City, which I’ve been told can be super busy and a bit of a clusterfudge.

Getting around
We hired a private taxi for all 3 legs of the trip - airport -> Cabo Pulmo, Cabo Pulmo -> La Paz, La Paz -> airport. We got the contact of the driver from the Cabo Pulmo dive shop. Renting a car and driving ourselves around would have been much cheaper but we decided to go for convenient and easy instead. We had the same driver throughout and he was awesome. We got great recommendations from him for restaurants and info about dive sites. Even for future trips, I would still opt to be driven around simply so we can nap on the drives.

Cabo Pulmo
We stayed at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort in their Eco Bungalow and dove with their house shop which was a 5min walk. The village itself is tiny with 1 street that’s maybe 2 blocks long and has about 5 restaurants (1 of which never seems to be open).
Moonrise over the Sea of Cortez
All dives are off small boats in groups of 6 or so. The sites at the northern end of the park have more current, whereas the southern sites are more protected. The surface is really calm and there’s practically no chop or swell.

Since the diving in Cabo Pulmo is inside the marine reserve, there are certain restrictions on what you can do and almost all are pretty strictly enforced. I did not know about these until I got there, none of the dive shops or resorts made mention of this (I checked the government park’s page after getting back and found some of the info but it’s not obvious if you’re just browsing around). None of these impacted our diving but I can totally see how it can seem limiting to some divers.

- You have to follow and keep up with the dive guide, there’s no option to dive a site on your own and due to this, the dive briefings are pretty minimal. You’re also live boating and they expect you to surface as a group (barring any emergency, of course)
- Dives are to be 50min max, doesn’t matter how much gas you have left in your tank.
- You have to stay at least 8ft off the reef. Depending on how the guide thinks your buoyancy control is, they might give you a little leeway here but, in general, they will give you the signal to increase the distance between you and the reef almost all the time if you get close up to take a peek at something.
- They have quotas on how many divers can dive a particular site in a month. We were there in the last week of a peak month and some sites were closed. Since this was our first time there, it didn’t make a difference to us which sites we hit (there were no repeats) but if you want to request a particular site, you might not be able to dive it if it’s the end of the month.
- They also have a limit on the max number of dive boats that can be at a site at a given time (this number is usually 2 or 3). The dive shops also space the groups going into the same site by at least 15 minutes.
- Minimum surface interval is 15min. I think the only reason this is even mentioned is because the boat rides from the beach and to/from the sites are super short and you could potentially do them very quickly. In general, we had around 45min between dives. The drawback here is that it almost seems like they’re rushing from site to site. The 2 dive trip is less than 3 hours or so which is probably why it is this way. Didn’t bother me too much but A definitely noticed and commented on it.

We dove 2 of the northern sites the first morning and 2 southern ones the next.

El Cantil “The Cliff” - Red filter bracket on our GoPro fell off at the very first entry, went without it for the entire trip :( 
-> 43min, 41ft, 84F
El Bajo de los Morros “The Short Hill” - Ripping current, the guide later said it was the fastest he had experienced in the last few weeks and estimated it to be 6-7kt. I have no idea is that’s actually accurate or not, so I took his word for it. We saw the tornado of big eye jacks that’s one of the iconic images at this park.
-> 38min, 53ft, 86F

Los Frailes Rincon “The Friars’ Corner” - Bunch of eels and a circling school of jacks were the highlights of this trip. No current, 80-90ft viz.

-> 50min, 59ft, 84F

La Lobera “The Rookery” - Sea lions in a shallow aquarium-like dive. No current, 100ft viz.
-> 53min, 23ft, 84F
La Paz
We stayed at El Angel Azul, a couple of blocks from the Malecon, and dove with Fun Baja. The dive shop has multiple shuttles and pick up+drop off at your hotel is included. All the dives are at Isla Espiritu Santo which is a 1.5-2hr boat ride from the marina. The sea was generally choppy all day long with periods of significant swell. If you get sea sick or are not comfortable on a pitching boat, this will be a difficult trip. Current at the dive sites was mild to non-existent but they had a safety line from the boat at all times. Viz is lower than Cabo Pulmo and murkier as well. They usually have 1 guide per 4 divers but you can do your own thing if you want to. Lunch is included on the boat but is pretty basic (tuna salad sandwiches on both days). Much longer day trips overall - leave marina at 9AM, return around 4PM on 2 dive days, 7PM on 3 dive days.

We did 3 dives on the first day and 2 on the next followed by a whale shark snorkel.

Fang Ming - Chinese vessel that used to bring illegal immigrants into Mexico, impounded and sunk as an artificial reef. Easy swim throughs and penetration on all levels except the very lowest one.
-> 40min, 70ft, 30-40ft viz, 80F

Los Islotes - This is the one you want to do to play with the sea lions. There’s a little cave where a lot of the 4-6 month olds hang out and they looove to play with your fins, dive bomb you from above and get petted. There’s some that are a little older and more aggressive - I have a hole in my dive skin and a bite shaped bruise on my shoulder that can attest to that. This site has a lot of sardines this time of the year and it was great fun watching the sea lions chomp their way through the bait balls.
-> 55min, 51ft, 50-60ft viz, 84F

Swanee Reef - Nice and easy 3rd dive for the day. If I was doing macro photography, I would have parked myself here all day long. Also had the largest stonefish I’ve ever seen.
-> 44min, 31ft, 30-40ft viz, 82F

Punta Lobos “Old Sea Lions’ Colony” - No sea lions any more but you come here for the mobula rays. Not huge numbers but we saw a few groups of 3-4 mobulas. I have to admit, this dive was pretty disconcerting for me. I’m not really sure what classifies as a blue water dive but this is the closest I’ve come to one. We were at around 100ft with nothing more than featureless sand 40ft below us, blue water all around and the almost ghostly shapes of the rays swimming off in the distance. I was acutely aware of how deep I was and kept checking my depth and pressure gauge every few seconds. Dark narc, perhaps??
-> 40min, 98ft, 40-50ft viz, 82F

La Salvatierra - I think this was one of my favorite dives of the trip. A ferry boat that ran aground on Swanee Reef and broke apart. No penetration but a lot of character with broken sections of the ship, truck wheels and crates of cargo strewn around everywhere. Lot of green morays. This was the one dive where I wish I had brought a more powerful light with me - parts of the deck had disintegrated and you could see the entire hold inside with lots more stuff.
-> 46min, 57ft, 30-40ft viz, 80F

Snorkelling with the whale shark - Holy crap, this was an intense experience. We spotted a pretty large one for this area (~25ft long) and were less than an arm’s length away for 10-15min swimming with it. I almost swam right into the thing after we jumped into the water, scared the bejeezus out of me.

Another option for La Paz is to camp out on the Isla Espiritu Santo and dive from there. A lot of dive shops have camps set up - we’re going to try this next time and avoid the long boat rides.

Overall, this was a great trip. The ease of getting there from the SF Bay area makes it doubly attractive for repeat trips. In terms of number of dives done, it wasn’t the most efficient dive trip but I’m glad we got to see both places - next time we go will be just to one spot and spend the entire time there.

  - U

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Drysuit test dive at the Breakwater

A and I picked up our shiny new DUI TLS350 Signature series drysuits from Anywater a couple of weeks ago. We had already done a pool dive a week ago to make sure everything fit OK and there were no obvious problems but this was our first dive in them out in the real world. This was also the first time we would be using our new-to-us steel tanks.

About the tanks - I picked up 4 Worthington X7 HP100s last month that were just a month out of their factory hydro date. Even after getting them hydro'd, they still ended up costing me less than half of what I would have paid new :)
They came with the Vindicator knobs. I'm ambivalent about them - don't mind having them but probably wouldn't spend extra to upgrade to them.

Anyhoo, back to the diving. I had adjusted the straps on my plate to give me 3" more at the shoulder. Once I'd done that, I discovered my waist straps were just a little bit too short. D'oh!

Our plan was to do 1 or 2 dives at the Breakwater but we got a later start than usual and didn't get there till just before noon. Kitting up took longer than usual as I kept messing with my suit. In the water, we attempted to stabilize and were mostly successful maintaining decent control once we got to about 20ft. There was a fair bit of arm waving as we let the suit get ahead of us and we had to try and get back down. On one occasion, my flailing wasn't quite enough to arrest my inexorable journey up - I managed to slow it down a bit but I ended up on the surface from 30ft. Boo :( A had similar issues so we called the dive at that point and surface swam back to the beach. I think a couple of pounds more are in order.
-> 39ft, 39min, 59F

We saw a juvenile elephant seal on the rocks on our way out, another sign of the unusually high water temps this year as they don't normally come this up far north.
Monterey was also struck by a very widespread power outage. All the stores, cafes and restaurants were closed - pretty spooky as we walked Cannery Row and Lighthouse Ave. Post dive at Red Robin.

  - U

Sunday, August 2, 2015

GUE Fundamentals 1

A and I did GUE Fundamentals 1 with Beto Nava over the last couple of weeks. I’ll try to make this a little more than a play-by-play course report but more about why we picked this particular class, what we wanted out of it and how it ended up working for us.

Fair warning - the post is going to be long, rambling, with run-on sentences, lots of digressions and hop in and out of a stream of consciousness narrative mode. At some points, it will seem like I’m not talking about Fundies at all and that’s probably going to be true.

In case you’re not interested in a wall of text that might actually be visible from space, here’s the TL;DR version -
Did Fundies 1. Pool sessions sucked. Almost gave up on the whole thing. Lots of encouragement from dive forums and miscellaneous friends. Ocean dives were awesome. A got a recreational pass, I got a provisional. kthxbye.

Still here? Alrighty then.

It’s not gooey, it’s G-U-E
Monterey, 20ft below, 2nd dive of the drysuit class, career dive #7 (for me) and #15 for A. I had just cratered in the sand and was trying to un-turtle myself, she was doing handstands while inflating her drysuit and trying to initiate a feet first ascent. In the middle of all of this I noticed a few hazy lumps next to me, a few inches off the bottom, which I assumed was a bunch of kelp because it wasn’t moving like a fish or marine mammal would. I got an OK signal from said kelp which I didn’t return - because telling kelp I was doing OK didn’t quite seem necessary. I got the OK again and this time I returned it - it was the courteous thing to do and I was, in fact, doing OK. The sand I had so spectacularly roiled up had settled a bit and I could now see there were actually 3 divers in front of me. Once they figured out I wasn’t going to kill myself in front of them, they backed off (literally reversed away) and I spent the next 15 minutes or so, completely gobsmacked, watching them do a bunch of drills a foot off the bottom (I now know they were doing the basic 5, S drill, valve drill, etc). What amazed me beyond belief was how much control they had in the water, how they maintained position relative to each other and how easy and effortless they made it look. We followed them out of the water and I chased them up the beach to find out where they learned to do all that stuff. “It’s all part of the GUE fundies class. It’s awesome, do it!”

Fun Ds does sound awesome! We might need to do the As, Bs and Cs first
Feverish Googling commenced that evening and I was suitably impressed by all the articles, videos and forum posts that turned up. More digging resulted in finding out about DIR (hoo boy, was that a rabbit hole!!) and the equipment that entails. I immediately wanted to do Fundies but I don’t think I would have done very well - my buoyancy control is terrible and, from what I’ve read/heard/been told since, you need to have at least some ability to stay off the bottom to get the most out of this class. A was not keen on a 6 day class either (even if it was broken up into 2 weekends) even though I think she would have done swimmingly and gotten even better than she is now. That’s when we started looking at the Primer instead - it was short enough for her and had the important bits that I felt I needed (at the very least) to bring my diving up to what I consider a bare minimum acceptable level. 

I should note that all this decision making was a year ago when Primer still existed. We had already registered for it and a week before the class found out that it had been deprecated in favor of the split Fundies parts 1 and 2. A few days and some emails with Beto later, our class was officially changed to Fundamentals 1. I can’t confirm this other than the GUE calendar but my tiny little claim to fame will be that I was part of the first buddy team that did Fundies 1 :P

I also looked at TDI Intro to Tech and UTD Essentials. Those would have worked for us as well but we had already had so many great experiences with the local GUE divers as well as the instructors that we decided to go with that.

Show me whatcha got
Coming in, we both had about 15 dives in a BP/W setup (neither of our harnesses were properly adjusted) and 5 with the longhose+bungee backup+clipped off SPG (which had given us far less problems than I had thought). After an exhausting, frustrating and confidence-destroying drysuit dive during the DUI demo day, both of us had retreated to the relative comfort of our wetsuits for our most recent dives and were going to do the same in Fundies 1. I went back and forth about this with Beto a lot and he was extremely supportive during the entire process. Starting with the minimum base and building up from there made sense to us.
I didn’t have any expectations or concerns about pass/fail but my initial prediction was that I would provisional and my wife would get the recreational pass.

Day 1 - We spent the first morning and afternoon going over the classroom materials and gear configuration+setup. No major changes in terms of swapping anything out but all the straps were re-adjusted and and some bolt snaps needed to be re-tied. That evening we spent 2 hours swimming in the pool doing a propulsion clinic. Both of us were doing the kicks like you would swimming .i.e. moving the entire leg, and correcting this took some time to get used to. The other thing we noticed was that we were arching our backs a lot to keep our knees up instead of using the glutes - this came back to bite us hard in the next few days.

Day 2 - First pool session with all SCUBA gear, about 90min under water. The first 10-15min of futzing around felt OK as both of us experimented with the kicks and body positioning. That was the first time Beto’s camera came out and my train wreck began. 

I could blame my 8mm wetsuit and say that a 10ft deep pool is going to make things harder than in the ocean, but the main thing was that I was a total spaz. On top of ignoring the obvious things like clenching the glutes and keeping the chin up, I added a whole bunch of other stuff that made things worse. Both of my legs decided they wanted to be on my left side and my right fin wanted to be on the wrong side of my left fin. Since I could feel myself rolling to that side because of this, I tried to use my upper body to compensate and go the other way, which only resulted in my body being twisted around and remaining that way for most of the dive. And instead of relaxing to fix the problem, my brain decided that simulating rigor mortis was the way to go. Keeping every muscle in my body clenched wreaked havoc on my breathing as well. My breathing control, or lack thereof, was a known issue even before this class and was something I wanted to work on/figure out during. Even knowing this, I was shocked to see and hear exactly how bad it was during the video review - if I came across a diver breathing like this, I would have assumed they were in a full blown panic.
A fared a little bit better than I did. Her buoyancy control was already pretty good but she was having a lot of trouble with keeping her body flat and maintaining trim. This took a toll on her lower back and neck as she was using the wrong muscles to fix the problem. Her fins didn’t help with the problems either - she has an old, beat up pair of US Divers’ Blades that she’s extremely attached to. She got them used when she was first OW certified when she was 16 and they weren’t new even when she got them. They look old enough that I’m fairly certain the only person who saw them brand new must have been St Peter or one of his buddies. Despite their potentially divine nature, the one major drawback was their lack of weight. Coupled with her floaty legs and feet, achieving trim was a lot harder than it needed to be.
The saving grace in the video review was that we were in decent trim while practicing the kicks although I did have a tendency to float up a bit because of my extremely deep breathing cycle. Basic 5 was OK in terms of doing the skills, as long as you ignored the fact that we were either vertical or on the pool bottom. We did a weight check and skipped the second pool dive on that day because of an OW group doing their skills in it and the fact that we were completely drained.
Blistering barnacles, that was rough.

Day 3 - Second pool session on SCUBA, 90min under water. If anything, this session was even harder because we were already tired out and sore. In the previous session, my LPI hose was a little too long and kept looping in front of my mask. I swapped it out with a shorter one I had lying around but that ended up being too short and pulled my entire rig off center - this only served to exacerbate the twisting, rolling and clenching from the previous day. A was convinced to try out Jet fins and we got her fitted out with a pair with spring straps. They felt fine at the LDS but 15min in the water and she was in tears from the pain in her foot. I’m think she tried to tough it out but that only made it worse. We did the kicks, basic 5 and another weight check, but our bodies, minds and hearts had checked out by then.

Point break (almost)
The evenings after the SCUBA pool sessions were extremely hard. Our initial reactions were to immediately quit the class as it felt like it wasn’t helping at all and we weren’t getting any of the things we wanted out of it. I even considered giving up diving altogether and taking on something a little easier, like bingo. This may sound extreme but we were both mentally and physically shattered and, most importantly, hadn’t had any fun in the last 2 days of diving.
A day or two of licking our wounds and we were ready to face this again. We talked about what we wanted our diving to be like and why my “minimum acceptable level of diving” was so important to me. In spite of how hard the last couple of days had been, both of us agreed that we did see improvements over our earlier diving skills and felt like we had the tools to improve more. A spent a couple of days at our local pool with a few different pairs of fins to figure out what the problem was (turned out to be a too tight spring strap). I swapped out my LPI for one that was appropriately sized.

Out in the blue (technically, the ocean was green that day)
We had a couple of weeks before our ocean dives which gave us a bit of a break and worked really well for us. On the first dive, A did really well, I think she earned her rec pass right there. Her weighting was perfect and her trim and buoyancy were terrific. I was still flopping around in the sand even after a weight check and at that point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do any of the skills that day. A switch flicked in my brain and I had my “screw it, let’s just have some fun while we’re here” moment. Almost instantly, I felt my entire body relax and my breathing get a lot slower. Beto did another weight check and 11lb came off me. Eleven!!! Considering this was our 3rd weight check, neither of us could believe what was happening. That’s how much my erratic breathing and overall stress+tension+anxiety was throwing me off.
-> 53min, 34ft, 53F

Between the dives, we decided to just do a fun dive for the last dive of the class instead of trying to do more skills for me. That turned out to be an excellent decision as the combination of not caring about the class and the new weighting was exactly what I needed. For the first time ever, I was neutrally buoyant in the water - it was an absolutely amazing feeling and really did feel effortless. It was also a little disconcerting as it felt like I was about to float up and away at any moment. The video of this dive showed two divers with decent buoyancy control, trim and kicks - I could hardly believe it was us. In hindsight, I guess I could have signaled Beto to re-do my basic 5 then and would have probably got it good enough for a rec pass, but I was having too much fun just hanging out. Wouldn’t you know it - after 4 days and 6 in-water hours, the last 30min was when I got my shizzle together :p

-> 45min, 39ft, 53F

Final results - A got a recreational pass, I got a provisional (which was exactly what I was expecting before we started this rollercoaster)
Where to next, kiddo?
Fundies 1 was hard - I had never thought it would be easy but I didn’t imagine it would be this stressful either. Having said that, I’m extremely glad we did it and I know my future dives will be done with a little more confidence+skill and a lot less frustration. My understanding of what neutrally buoyant feels like has completely changed and I’m confident that with any change in equipment, I’ll be able to get close to the right weighting. I would have never been able to get it right on my own before, no matter how many weight checks I did simply because what I thought was neutral was actually quite a bit overweighted. Same goes for the harness, instead of trying to set it up based on where things should be, I know what it should feel like, how tight it needs to be, where you can give yourself a little wiggle room, etc. The fact that our non-certification Primer got converted to this class was an added bonus but I would have been happy with the experience even if it had not been changed.

Now we’re just going to go diving. A lot. Getting more comfortable with our gear and ourselves in the water. See pretty things and have fun. Hopefully, getting better and safer along the way. We’re now looking at getting drysuits for our local diving - thick wetsuits are out. Once we’re a little bit comfortable in those, we’re going to go for Fundies 2. I do need to convert my provisional pass first but I’m not going to overthink or practice for this too much. I’ll probably put aside a few minutes at the end of our dives to practice basic 5 but the fun dive itself will be the experience I need.
I came into Fundies with 25 dives, A had 28. Did that make it harder for us? Maybe. For me, there were some critical things I was doing that were incorrect and I don’t think adding another 30-40 diving the same way would have made any difference. Don’t get me wrong, I had read a lot of articles and watched a ton of videos about breathing, weighting, buoyancy, trim, propulsion, etc but having someone give live feedback and then almost immediately feeling that change yourself was absolutely critical for me.
Fundies is extremely challenging; it’s really easy to get discouraged and doubt your own abilities and reasons for wanting to dive. In the end, it’s worth it - it really is. 
I’ll end with what I was told over a year ago - “It’s all part of the GUE fundies class. It’s awesome, do it!”

-  U

Saturday, August 1, 2015


I started this blog to chronicle wifebuddy (A) and my (U) diving adventures (and misadventures). 

Both of us got certified quite a few years ago but didn't decide to make diving a regular hobby until now. As of this writing, we're both inexperienced divers and only have about 25 dives to our names. Most of the posts will be about our local cold(ish)-water diving in Northern California, primarily in and around Monterey.

We have 2 dogs (Koda and Cousteau) and a cat (Billie) - I'm sure you'll read about them on here. As with everything else in our lives, they'll find a way to infiltrate this SCUBA blog as well.
Koda, Cousteau and Billie with their spirit animals
Team Half Burrito? Our favorite dive instructor always seemed to have half a burrito for all pre, post and in-between dive meals. I thought the choice of our team name was exceedingly clever when I came up with it. It made A laugh and kinda just stuck after that.

  - U