September 20, 2012
The conversation of climate change and its possible effects on our world and our future often hinges on millimeters of sea level rise and half degrees of temperature increase—little enough, perhaps, to make it all sound irrelevant if you’re already a skeptic, or by no means an emergency, anyway. Yet, little by little, ice is melting, storms are getting worse, deserts are expanding and islands are going under. In 2005, a hundred residents of Tegua, an island in the Torres group, turned off the lights, closed their doors and sailed away for good. It was reported as the first known instance when a modern community was abandoned to rising sea levels—though people have questioned what role global warming really had in the abandonment. Now, more islands, coastal cities, low-lying farmlands and wild wetlands are looking at a future growing grimmer by the year. Here are a few ideas of things to do and places to see before climate change swamps the party.
Walk on the beaches of Tuvalu. While standing on the sand and staring across the world of water that surrounds this Polynesian island group with roughly 10,000 people, climate change suddenly seems a force far beyond reckoning with—for predictions that the seas will rise by a full meter or more by 2100 plainly spell doom for a place like this, whose highest point stands no more than 15 feet above sea level. The island is already famous for its very inadequacy as a sustainable nation. There is not enough freshwater to drink, and there is virtually no economy. Now, sea level rise seems to be gnawing at Tuvalu’s wispy, sandy figure—and at its future. Although climate change doubters have accused islanders in Tuvalu of seeking economic gain by exploiting their predicament—and maybe even exaggerating it (islanders have threatened to sue nations of the developed world for reckless carbon emissions)—some scientists say that Tuvalu, and other islands like it, can count their days. Take a walk on this beach while you can. Other islands to visit while they’re above water might include Vanikoro, Kiribati and the Florida Keys.
Snorkel on a coral reef. Throughout the world’s tropical oceans, coral reefs are dying. Bleaching and diseases are destroying these rich sites of micro- and mega-organisms. Ocean acidification—caused by CO2 absorption into the sea and characterized by dropping pH levels—is also having severely deleterious effects on coral and could render some marine regions downright corrosive to certain materials by 2050. As of 2011, according to the environmental news source Grist, 75 percent of the earth’s coral reef environments were deemed to be threatened, while 20 percent were reported already dead—their busy, subsurface communities, occupying just 1 percent of the seafloor but home to 25 percent of marine species, gone silent. The timely correlation to rising global temperatures, plus the rapidity of the phenomenon, leaves little doubt that humans are at fault. Put on your masks and fins and jump in—soon.
Taste the fine wines of the Napa Valley before they turn to plonk. While midocean islanders might have to take to lifeboats as climate change unfurls, winemakers may also have consequences pending. In the Napa Valley, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sell for more than $1,000—but a report in 2006 by Southern Oregon University climatologist Gregory Jones predicted that by the year 2050, this most esteemed of American winemaking areas could be too hot to grow premium wine grapes. Jones has said that just a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2050 could place the Napa Valley at the “upper limit of its capability.” But Jones recently told this reporter during a phone interview that the distinction between a fine wine and a mediocre wine is a nuance only detectable by, perhaps, 25 percent of wine drinkers.
See a polar bear. The intrigue and mystique of the polar bear, to say nothing of its camouflaging properties, are so embedded in a world of floating ice that we may wonder just how this greatest of carnivores could live anywhere else. In fact, it may not be able to. While the polar bear is no stranger to munching berries and shoreline grasses, such bruins always take to the ice again at first freeze to resume the blubber hunt. But the ocean’s northerly ice cap, year by year and acre by acre, is disappearing. This summer, for instance, the Arctic sea ice shrank to less than half of its what it was 40 years ago. For the polar bear, extinction is the worst possible, and perhaps likely, outcome—while speciation is another. This could leave the earth without the polar bear but create a new one—a hybrid between Ursus maritimus and its close cousin, U. arctos, the brown bear. Already, the two have been observed mating and producing fertile offspring in the wild. This may be great news. Nonetheless, you may want to go see a wild polar bear while you can—before the great white bear turns brown.
Hike through the woods in the Everglades. The Everglades is among the world’s wild areas most threatened by climate change. A three-foot increase in sea level will flood much of this forested wetland, stealing precious habitat from the indigenous cougar subspecies, the Florida panther, and the local black bear. What’s more, millions of Floridians are looking at serious consequences of climate change. The entire coast is considered extremely vulnerable to the expected sea level rise, which may be accompanied by inundating storm surges during hurricanes. Florida’s highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, and about 10 percent of its coastal zone could be swamped by seawater by 2100.
Kayak the streets of Venice. The future of Venice is nothing but a watery one—though it’s unclear whether the city will prosper or just go under. In 2009, residents held a mass mock funeral for their town when the declining population hit a benchmark low of 60,000. And while an expensive sea wall could save this city, already a gray urban swamp teeming with gondolas and aquatic taxis, some people—call them curmudgeons or realists—are talking about abandoning it. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Venice is sinking and has been for centuries. Four hundred years ago, occasional high tides washed into the streets. By 1900, high waters were washing over St. Mark’s Square at least a half dozen times annually. In 1996, the city flooded 99 times. Today, monuments and buildings are considered threatened by saltwater intrusion, many first floors have been vacated and thriving tourism on the order of 20 million visitors per year seems to be replacing the resident community itself. But it all spells good times for kayak rental companies—and this is at least one vacation you have plenty of time to take. Other cities that could be swallowed by the sea include New York City, Houston, Bangkok and New Orleans.
August 14, 2012
A real-life drama, tragically similar to the story line of the 1974 film Jaws and replete with sharks, a reluctant town mayor and hired fishermen, has erupted on a small island in the Indian Ocean.
Here, on the usually idyllic community of the French-owned Reunion Island, a 22-year-old surfer named Alexandre Rassica died after a shark bit his leg off in late July. Thierry Robert, mayor of the small Reunion beach town of St. Leu, answered by proposing that local fishermen cull the island’s shark population in spite of protections imposed in 2007, when area coral reefs were made part of a marine reserve. An immediate global outcry from shark advocates sent the mayor backpedaling, however, and he withdrew his proposal. The sharks remained protected, and begrudged surfers kept surfing.
Then, days later, another man was attacked—a 40-year-old who survived but lost a hand and a foot. About 300 outraged surfers gathered outside the St. Leu town hall, demanding an organized hunt. Two fatal shark attacks in 2011 along the island’s beaches already had the local wave-riders on edge, and this time Robert said he would open up the marine protected area to shark fishing.
Now, as Discovery Channel’s annual TV series “Shark Week” takes to the tube amid all the usual viewer excitement over the world’s most feared and fascinating predators, the hunt is officially on at Reunion Island. Hired fishermen, reportedly to be paid by the French government, have been charged with the task of removing 20 sharks from the island’s waters—10 bull sharks and 10 tiger sharks, each species being a known culprit in numerous attacks. Yes: it’s a bounty, that wayward feature of 19th-century wildlife management that many of us supposed had been done away with decades ago. And while the island’s people are understandably upset by the string of attacks, it’s fair to ask: Is imposing a shark bounty the appropriate course of action?
After my last shark post, in which I wrote about the Western Australian government’s proposal to lift protections on great white sharks after a fifth swimmer was attacked and killed in less than a year, numerous comments came in, with most readers lambasting the suggestion of intentionally reducing shark numbers in Western Australia. Several people, though, voiced support for thinning the population of great whites, and one reader even alleged that pro-shark advocates might sing in a different key if they ever spent time in the water. That was an erroneous blast of hot air, for many or most shark advocates do go into the water. They include surfers, kayakers and divers—and I’m among them. I spend many days each year snorkeling in great white shark habitat off the beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m aware of the small risk of a shark attack and even wear a Shark Shield in the hope of reducing the danger—but I wouldn’t wish to see white shark fishing, illegal since 1994, resume even though it might lower the risk of an attack.
When we walk into a coconut grove, we risk getting bonked fatally on the head. When we cross the street, we risk getting squashed by a car. And when we go surfing, swimming or diving in the ocean, we run the risk of encountering a shark. And so it seems fair that as long as we plant coconut trees and manufacture vehicles, we must refrain from organized shark hunts.
But as we speak, organized, get-paid-to-kill shark hunting is already underway—and even generating praise from the press. A young sport fisherman in Pensacola, Florida, recently won the annual Outcast Mega Shark Tournament on August 4 by reeling in a half-ton tiger shark, which one of the angler’s companions shot in the head with a pistol after a three-hour battle on rod and reel. Tiger sharks are protected in Florida state waters, but the angler, 21-year-old Tyler Kennedy, and the boat’s crew were in federal waters when they hooked the fish. After securing the big dead fish to the boat, they towed it back to port, where the official scale of the fishing derby rang in the tiger shark at 948.6 pounds. The group posed for numerous photos with the bloody, tail-tied shark, its belly distended with what would turn out later to be a seven-foot-long porpoise.
Vividly illustrating the bizarre cultural contradiction between advocating to protect sharks while simultaneously practicing the sport of killing them, Kennedy, who would catch a 336-pound bull shark the next day, told the media he was pleased that the shark’s bulging belly was not laden with unborn pups.
“We were worried that it was going to be pregnant because we really don’t want to kill a bunch of baby sharks,” he told the press.
The young Kennedy’s words were heartening, but confusing. Because which is it? Do we want sharks dead? Or alive? Around the world, these animals command a strange sort of fascination in their human admirers—an urge to see, learn and encounter, but also to kill. While “Shark Week” plays on the Discovery Channel, we’re killing the animals. Shark butchery continues in spite of laws that prohibit cutting off the the fins of live sharks—and some authorities have even shown reluctance to support shark protection laws. Estimates vary, but it seems humans kill between 26 million and 73 million sharks per year for their fins, a prized and essential component in the controversial Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Other mortality totals are not even accounted for. Even some research institutes that advocate shark conservation seem reluctant to criticize shark derbies, which provide them with specimens for dissection. To be fair, shark derbies kill a small percentage of total sharks killed each year—but the public celebration and cheer that derby fishermen receive are troubling. The Outcast Mega Shark Tournament is hardly the only active derby. The Monster Shark Derby is held every summer in Martha’s Vineyard, where crowds of summering tourists cheer and applaud anglers as they haul their dead mako, thresher, porbeagle and tiger sharks from their boats for weigh-in. The Yarmouth Shark Scramble in Nova Scotia, Canada, is still one more, a derby spotlighted in journalist Carla Allen’s new book, Shark On Line. The Food Network’s “The Wild Chef” even sent their hosts out fishing several years ago on a boat at the Yarmouth derby to kill a shark, for the paltry thrill of cooking it at sea. That these derbies and others still take place is a discouraging thorn in the side of conservationists, and a reminder that the lust that has driven humans to wage war on so many cohabitants of the planet still boils in our blood. Opposition to shark derbies is loud (this Facebook page is dedicated wholly to stopping shark-killing tournaments). Yet enough media sources cover the events that it seems clear they’re pandering to some segment of their readership enthralled at seeing sharks die.
In related news, the aforementioned Shark Shield—an electronic device that costs a pretty penny (about $600)—may not be the shark deterrent we would like it to be. Tests by researchers in South Australia found no difference in the frequency with which great whites attacked tuna carcasses fitted with the device and those served au naturel. But a similar series of tests conducted in South Africa produced conclusions well in favor of the Shark Shield’s purported effectiveness.
In less related news, juvenile salmon sharks, possibly affected by a bacteria, have been washing ashore on Northern California beaches. The salmon shark is a close relative of the great white and the mako. They can grow to hundreds of pounds in weight and bear a formidable armory of teeth but are not known to attack humans. When the first beaching incident of this summer occurred on August 5 at Manresa State Beach, several beachcombers found the stranded juvenile and carried it back to the water. Later the same day, another juvenile appeared thrashing on a beach in Pacifica—and do you know who came to the rescue and delivered the pup back to water? Surfers.
July 24, 2012
The fifth fatal shark attack in less than a year in the coastal waters of Western Australia has put local swimmers, divers and surfers on edge. Authorities have tried to catch and kill the individual before it attacks again—but their efforts may not stop there. Some officials are already suggesting that lawmakers take a 180-degree turn in shark conservation practices, lift protections from great white sharks and allow people to fish for and kill the animals again after a 14-year moratorium.
The great white shark is a protected species in much of the world and considered vulnerable and threatened in places. Once the popular target of trophy fishermen, who used rods and reels like cranes to haul in sharks as large as two tons, the great white received protection in Western Australia following the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s labeling of the species as “vulnerable.”
But Western Australia Fisheries Minister Norman Moore says he will now be lobbying to legalize sport and commercial fishing for great white sharks in the waters under his jurisdiction.
The most recent attack took the life of 24-year-old Ben Linden, who was paddling on a surfboard on July 14 when a large great white bit the young man in half. A jet skier who came to assist said the shark circled around the victim’s remains before nudging the jet ski, then seizing Linden’s torso in its mouth and disappearing.
Linden’s death was preceded by several other similar events. On September 4, 2011, bodyboarder Kyle James Burden was killed at Bunker Bay, about 190 miles south of Perth. On October 10, 2011, Bryn Martin went missing while taking a swim at Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Later, only his Speedos were recovered. Then, an American tourist, 32-year-old George Wainwright, was killed October 22, 2011, while diving at Rottnest Island, near Perth. Finally, on March 31, 2012, another diver, 33-year-old Peter Kurmann, was attacked and killed near Busselton.
Now, after the Linden attack, people are rethinking how dangerous sharks are, how safe the water is and whether animals that kill people should be allowed to live. Certainly, the rapid-fire recurrence of shark attacks in the past year in Western Australia has been alarming, horrifying and sad, and Fisheries Minister Moore believes a heavy hand must be delivered to protect his state’s precious tourism industry.
“Five fatalities in Western Australia (in ten months) is unprecedented and cause for great alarm,” Moore recently told the press. “It won’t be helping our tourism industry, and those people who want to come here to enjoy an ocean experience will be turned away because of this situation.”He also said recently, “Further action is necessary to deal with it.”
Already, action has been taken. Shark cage diving, though a micro-tourism industry of its own, will probably be banned in Western Australia. Critics, including Moore, had said even before the Linden attack that such operations, which sometimes involve the use of bait and chum to attract sharks to the area and within viewing range of paying customers, could be responsible for bringing great whites into the proximity of heavily used beaches—and, worse, instilling in the sharks an association between humans in the water and free food.
It sounds terrifying. The thing is, sharks aren’t very dangerous. At least, they’re a lot less dangerous than cars, which we cherish and wash on Sunday afternoons and use for driving our kids to church, and for whose deadly wheels most societies all but lay out red carpets. In Western Australia alone, 179 people were killed in 2011 in automobile accidents. And in America, 150 vehicle occupants are killed every year when their cars hit deer in the road.
Sharks killed only 12 people in 2011—worldwide—according to the International Shark Attack File. So, if tourists are afraid of going into the ocean, they should be petrified at the thought of traveling on a paved highway to get there.
For now, lifting protections on great white sharks remains just an idea, and if the suggestion advances toward the desks of Australian lawmakers (who likely drove their cars to work), we will surely hear firm opposition from conservationists and others. In Santa Cruz, California, independent white shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran hopes that people will simply accept that sharks are a part of the environment in Australian waters, rather than back-stepping and rescinding protective regulations on the species.
“People need to come to terms with the environments they go into to recreate,” said Van Sommeran, the founder and director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. “There are streams with crocodiles and forests with poisonous snakes, and there are sharks in the water. You just need to adjust your behavior to a place, not the other way around.”
Van Sommeran was among those who first campaigned for the protection of great white sharks in the early 1990s. By 1994, the species was fully protected in California waters, and by 1997 white sharks were illegal to take in all United States federal waters. Elsewhere, the species is likewise protected. In South Africa, a fishing ban took effect in 1991; in Namibia, in 1993; in Australia, in 1998; in Malta, in 2000; and in New Zealand, in 2007.
But Van Sommeran notes that these laws have been repeatedly bent to allow for white shark capture in the name of science.
“By 2001, the laws were being undermined by aquariums and scientific collection projects,” he said. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has offered payment to commercial fishermen who accidentally catch and then turn over juvenile great white sharks, with fees varying depending on the condition of the animal—and top dollar going for live juvenile sharks, which have periodically become popular tourist draws at the aquarium. And in the past several years, laws forbidding white shark fishing have been waived for documentary television crews. The shows Expedition Great White, Shark Men and Shark Wranglers have each portrayed teams of scientists hooking and landing adult great whites, hauling them aboard their vessels and spending 20 minutes or more prodding the animals and fitting them with SPOT, or Smart Position and Temperature, tags. Many critics of the activity have warned that SPOT tagging procedures are potentially harmful to larger sharks.
The popularity of sharks in mainstream culture seems to have increased with more and more televised presentations of sharks in their natural habitats, and the men and women who study them—but concern for sharks’ protection has not necessarily grown, Van Sommeran believes.
“Sharks generate a strange kind of enthusiasm that isn’t at all confined to conservation,” he said. He explains that many of the people stoked on sharks are only stoked on the prospect of catching them. Even today, catch-and-kill shark tournaments are held every year in the United States.
Van Sommeran warns that any steps backward in protecting great white sharks could set a precedent for changing laws that protect other large predators.
“If we remove the protected status of every species that runs afoul of humans, we’ll run out of bears, lions and tigers really soon,” he said.
The International Shark Attack File reports that sharks of all species made unprovoked attacks on 75 people in 2011. The database file adds that shark attacks have grown increasingly common since 1900—a trend that most likely reflects the increasing popularity of surfing, diving, bodyboarding and other water sports. It’s also a trend that comes in spite of the world’s declining populations of sharks, of which people kill 30 million to 70 million per year, according to the International Shark Attack File.
So, perhaps the bottom line to this story should be that although shark attacks are frightening and tragic for those involved, they are not a relatively significant per-capita danger. You might even be safer in the water today than a century ago.
Just be really, really careful while driving to the beach—and beware of hitting a deer.
Following recent attacks, is it time that laws protecting great white sharks be changed? Tell us what you think in the comment box below.
April 12, 2012
They’re clammy. They’re rubbery. They’re often deep-fried in vegetable oil. And though the red abalone of California was once a staple of dirt-cheap seafood shacks, this big slippery sea snail is today one of the most prized seafoods in the world.
Abalone is also the goal of one of the most dangerous recreational games in America. Abalone diving season kicked off in Northern California on April 1, and though no fatalities have yet been reported, well, let’s just knock on wood. Because since 1993, at least 54 people have lost their lives while pursuing abalone, including eight in 2008 and seven in 2007, and rare is the season in which at least one diver doesn’t perish in the cold and rough waters of the North Coast. Yet so fervent is the urge to get in the water and bag one’s daily limit of three abalone that many divers who have driven hours to get to their favorite spot only to find the sea surging and violent just brave the waves anyway. Sometimes they die. Kelp may be the greatest of hazards to the diver, who are prohibited from using SCUBA gear. This spectacular seaweed, so gentle in appearance and symbolic of the California coast, occurs in nasty thickets in many locations. Kelp may grow more than a foot per day, and in the summer sun during calm periods, kelp forests can burgeon seemingly out of control until the fronds layer the surface like a carpet. Underwater, the long, cord-like stipes hang ceiling to seafloor. Among the rocks at their base is where the abalone dwell. Some divers wait until a large storm rips these kelp plants from the seafloor, clearing the water, while most just deal with it—the sensation of long, rubbery cords of kelp sliding over one’s legs is familiar to any abalone diver. Many carry knives strapped to their lower leg to cut through the kelp should they become entangled. Ironically, divers have drowned when their knives become snagged on the kelp.
Other divers die of exhaustion or heart attacks, sometimes collapsing on the rocks after a particularly strenuous dive. Among the least of dangers is the great white shark—though the fear of being eaten is one of the most persistent and haunting. In 2004, a well-known diver in Mendocino County was decapitated by a shark in one swift attack. Though dozens of abalone hunters have died from other causes since, Randy Fry remains a name that Northern California divers speak with a tone of regret and unmistakable dread. Today, many divers, as well as kayakers and surfers, wear “Shark Shields,” a relatively new device that emits an electric field that may deter sharks as large as great whites.
So, what is all the fuss and excitement about? For many people, abalone means nothing more than an excuse to get wet in one of the world’s most beautiful underwater settings. For some divers, it’s a treasure hunt—all about locating the big snails and prying them out of their crevices and holes. For a few divers, eating abalone isn’t even the point—collecting them is. After sacking their limits an driving home, they hand out the snails to their friends. (I recently joked with one such diver that she might just hunt for rocks instead and leave the abalone, which may be decades old, to their peaceful business.)
For others, abalone hunting is an obsessive game of numbers. These dedicated trophy hunters will take nothing but “tens,” that is, abalone at least 10 inches wide. (The minimum legal size is seven inches.) So particular are “ten divers” about this hallowed but arbitrary dimension that they usually measure and record their catches down to the hundredth of an inch, with the difference between a 10.64- or 10.47-inch abalone being a worthy distinction. The shells they polish and display on walls, and there is even a website dedicated to the hunt for huge abalone called Abalone Ten. Large abs, as divers often call their quarry, often occupy dark crevices 20 feet or more beneath the surface, and one may wonder as shivers creep up the spine how many divers have drowned with their heads stuck in an underwater cave.
The snails, meanwhile, keep meekly minding their business. They slide slowly across the seafloor, seeking kelp scraps, their chief food source, by day and returning to cracks and caves by night, and little do they know of the storm that their existence stirs—a storm of economic activity, weekends spent camping, poaching busts and car chases, photo ops, celebrations and family feasts … and funerals.
By the numbers:
Of about 35,000 licensed abalone hunters in California, more than 50 have died in the past 20 years.
Of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 27 died in accidents from 1994 to 2009.
934: Commercial fishermen killed in America between 1992 and 2007.
6,000 to 8,000: Estimated total number of mountain climber deaths on Mont Blanc.
March 28, 2012
I am not a SCUBA-certified diver and I may never be. Instead, I free dive and have been for about 13 years, mostly along the coast of California, and I have no interest in introducing tanks, tubes and pressure valves to the simple relationship I have with the water. I can only imagine the burden of swimming with all the mechanical gadgetry and gear on my back that tank divers must wear, or the logistical nuisance of having to fill the tanks prior to each dive. Free divers must fill only their lungs, and sometimes just 5 or 10 feet beneath the surface we find all that we might ever hope to: the mangrove thickets of Belize, alive with nurse sharks, reef fishes and even crocodiles, or the kelp beds of California, where many divers spoiled by tropical reefs may be born again as they discover this unmatched habitat. But SCUBA technology grants access to a deeper world that I, again, can only imagine. And I think that the magic of SCUBA diving can be simmered down to one flat and obvious fact which an old friend and diving buddy once illuminated for me as we debated the pros and cons of air tanks:
“Dude,” he said. “You can breathe—underwater!”
There’s no arguing with that. And so we go, tanks and tubes and valves flowing with pressurized air, into the finest SCUBA diving destinations in the world.
Great Blue Hole, Belize. Jacques Cousteau visited this site in 1971 and declared the Great Blue Hole of Ambergris Caye to be among the best diving locations in the world. The Great Blue Hole is a wonder of geology, a 410-foot deep sinkhole located within the Belize Barrier Reef system and was created through forces similar to those responsible for the underwater caves of the nearby Yucatan Peninsula. The Hole is more than twice as wide as it is deep, making it less like a bottomless pit than a huge pothole, yet the vertiginous void may offer divers something of the feeling of facing off with the edge of the world. Descending into the hole, one will encounter local residents like groupers, various sharks, great barracuda and a diversity of other species. Bottom topography consists of sand, reef, many varieties or coral and ancient limestone stalactites, as well as caves and dramatic outcroppings that look like cathedrals. Visibility may exceed 150 feet and surface water temperatures rarely dip below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wrecks off Papua New Guinea. Things under the sea may be categorized into two classes: naturally occurring or the far less common anthropogenic. And that’s where diving can get creepy—coming across tools and devices and vehicles, objects that weren’t supposed to end up here but which, through some mishap or disaster up above, sank into watery graves. The sea floor is littered with manmade stuff, and few underwater adventures may be more thrilling than exploring a wreck. World War II was an era in which Davy Jones acquired a wealth of collectibles for his locker, and a great many planes and ships went down around Papua New Guinea. The Boeing Blackjack B-17 bomber is just one of the region’s popular dive wreck dives, sporting a very recognizable cockpit and turret guns. Discussing the “best” wrecks seems a bit callous, considering that many people have died on them. Some wrecks, though, are sunk intentionally, without casualties, as tourist draws and habitat enhancers, such as Papua New Guinea’s Pacific Gas, which has rested in 145 feet of water off of Port Moresby since 1996. On the wrecks where human lives may have ended, dive with respect.
Red Sea, Egypt. Surrounded by land, the Red Sea experiences a temperature range much like that of a continental lake, with waters in January as cold as 65 degrees Fahrenheit and, in the late summer, as warm as the high 80s. Furthering the flux in temperatures is the north-south extent of the Red Sea, which crosses almost 15 degrees of latitude, from 30 degrees north into the tropics, where its waters touch the coasts of Eritrea and Yemen. The Red Sea wreck of the Thistlegorm, a British vessel sunk in 1941 during an air strike, is said by some to be the “best” shipwreck anywhere, with motorbikes, guns and vehicles still intact and viewable. In the realm of living things, whale sharks occur here in some abundance, and they’re just the biggest of the 1,100 fishes to be encountered in the Red Sea. About 200 of these species occur nowhere else. Marine mammals include the sluggish, vegetarian dugong, which grazes on sea grasses in the shallows and in lagoons. Further from shore, the sea floor plunges to some 10,000 feet deep. In many ways, the Red Sea is much like the equally splendid Sea of Cortez in Mexico—a sea also two miles deep, also a product of tectonic activity, also ranging from tropical to temperate, also of giant temperature range, also surrounded by desert and date palms, and also one of the most beautiful places in our mostly salt-watery world.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The most renowned diving location, the Great Barrier Reef is also the biggest barrier reef and, like nearly any tropical reef, a hotbed of colorful coral snags and zillions of striped fish darting in and out of the cracks and, well, you know—all the same stuff you’ll see in the travel brochures and computer screensavers. We could, I’m sure, go on all day about warm-water reefs—of Bermuda, Thailand, Micronesia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean. Those and others like them are the places that most “best diving” lists consist of, and the Great Barrier Reef, like them, deserves every medal it wears around its neck. But what more is there to say by now about clownfish and big friendly grouper and how clear the water is?
Monterey Bay, California. And so I come home, to the waters of the American West Coast. They’re often murkier, surgier, spookier and gloomier than the seemingly airbrushed beauty of the tropics—but I’m just one diver of many who first fell in love with the world underwater in the stately kelp forests of the California coast. Those of Monterey Bay might be the most famous, teeming as they are with rockfish and surfperch in the water column, lingcod on the bottom, abalone in the rocks and, backstroking over the kelp fronds on top, sea otters. The average “vis” in places—such as Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just south of Carmel—is 30 to 40 feet but can be as much as 60 on the best of autumn days. A jaded SCUBA jock who lives in a thatched beach hut in the Maldives might spit on such conditions and go back to bed, but for temperate-zone divers, even just 25 feet is like magic. The waters off Northern California, too, are frigid. Go in without a hood here, and it’s an instant head-freeze so shocking that you might almost pass out. Many divers even wear drysuits, though most can pull off several hours in the water with a 7-millimeter wetsuit. But for the beauty below sea level here, it’s worth braving the elements—the towering trees of kelp, the shafts of sunlight slicing through the canopy, the schools of fish silhouetted against the gloomy blue. Kelp forests grow all along the West Coast, Alaska to Baja, as well as around the world, from New Zealand to Chile to Japan to Scotland. Almost anywhere, in fact, where water touches shore is worth a dive—with or without air tanks on your back.