While we are on the subject of reference points, let's talk about one of my favorites….temperature. As far as diving is concerned, anything less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit is considered cold water diving. My happy spot however is around 83 degrees….as long as I have a full-length 3/5/3. If you thought I was kidding about taking my drysuit to Costa Rica, I wasn't. I remember my instructor trainer telling me that cold-water divers are the best divers in the world. During an ice-dive in Grand Lake in Colorado at 8300 feet in January that required 2 chain saws, 3 four-wheel drive vehicles, several bar mats and hundreds of feet of caving line, I remember wondering if that referred to surviving in difficult conditions or your brain being so numb that you just remember the experience as being fun. To be fair, the upside-down underwater tricycle races on the underside of the ice that day were a lot of fun. Still, I have always been delighted at the chance to get away from cold-water conditions and head to the tropics. Mostly, I don't need to bring my drysuit.
Even with my dearly beloved 3/5/3 wetsuit, after hour-long dives multiple times a day, I was utterly frozen, even in the middle of Indonesia. Mostly, the dive site temperatures had been in the mid-70s, and simply sitting in the sun afterward to warm up was having little effect. So I took more drastic measures. I began huddling in the engine room after each dive, wrapped in a towel and sipping a cup of coffee. It must have been over 120 degrees in there, and the engineers were baffled by my regular appearances. While the other divers were up on the shaded deck enjoying cool beverages, I was shivering in the dark, inhaling diesel fumes; I was warm and happy. Although the engineers were confused by my behavior, I was in heaven. Thoroughly warmed up, I could handle any dive site Alor had to offer, for as long as was required….or so I thought. I was about to discover the secret of Anemone Country.
My log book claims that we dove this site five times in 21 days, which is a lot for any one site given that it was an exploration trip and we were charting new sites. The reason for our continued return was that the site was quite unique. It was a gentle slope at about 60 feet. There were no especially remarkable features; its topography was pretty flat. The visibility was good, and there was a gentle but steady current. There was a colorful variety of reef life including tube anemones, delicate sea anemones, bulb tentacle anemones, gigantic sea anemones, colonial anemones….are you seeing a pattern here? The entire site is, literally, a carpet of anemones of every color, size, shape and variety. The photographers had no end of material to photograph, and none of them seemed to move more than about a dozen feet to one side or the other during the entire hour-long dives. For myself, this lack of movement meant……yeah, I got cold.
So on this latest dive, while the half dozen photographers clicked away, I concentrated on keeping my body moving to stay warm. I swam up about 20 feet off the reef and looked further down the slope. We had discussed what it might be that caused this site to be so astonishingly packed with anemones. Something had to be feeding them in a way that other sites did not have the resources to provide; nobody was yet able to discover what that was. The fact that Anemone Country is located VERY close to Kal's Dream should have rung some alarm bells on that subject, but that would come later…... or rather, very soon. I swam up another ten feet, making sure to keep my eye on the photographers below. I glanced down the slope and looked from side to side. Nothing but thousands of anemones as far as the eye could see. The slope dropped down into the blue below me after another 100 feet or so, but there was nothing to see and I began to turn back. It was our third dive of the day and although only 10 minutes had passed, I was cold and I wanted to keep moving. Then I saw the most amazing thing I had seen so far; I stopped and stared out into the blue. It was a lone thresher shark.
I had never seen a thresher shark before, and I was completely mesmerized by not only the unique shape of the animal with its distinctive tail fin but also its size. The shark must have been close to four meters long and by far the largest shark I had ever encountered. It was spiraling up out of the depths where the anemone slope disappeared over a ridge and dropped into oblivion. I (not EVER on scuba) held my breath. It was unbelievably graceful as it made lazy circles up toward the surface and did not seem to notice either myself or any of the other divers. As it moved closer to me,its image began to shimmer. Part of my brain announced what I was seeing was odd, since the shark itself was getting closer not farther away from me. Why then, was it beginning to shimmer? I had done enough inland lake diving to be able to spot a good thermocline. I had also seen what happens in areas where fresh water and salt water mix, but neither of those options seemed relevant just now. So what was going on?
I glanced from the shark to the slope below and realized the shimmering wall extended as far down as I could see and it was rolling toward me in an ominous way that reminded me of a Stephen King book. Wow. Weird. I watched the "shimmer" advance up the slope. The shark had disappeared from view but the wall of shimmer was moving toward me alarmingly fast. It was probably 30 feet high at this point, and stretched as far to either side of me as I could see. It was literally a wall rolling up out of the depths and covering everything as it washed up and over the slope. Had to be a thermocline….just had to be. As it approached, I considered my options. After only moments, the shimmer was close enough to touch. On an impulse, I stuck my left arm, with its wrist-mounted computer, into the wall of oncoming uncertainty. My dive computer related what followed:
Depth: 66 feet
Temp: 71, 65, 52
The temperature dropped so fast that the computer only had time to mark one reading (65) between the starting temperature of 71 and the ending point at 52 degrees. My brain barely had time to register what my eyes were seeing on the computer when the wall of frigid water hit me full-force. The cold water took my breath away and all the hair on my body stood up. Instant ice-cream headache. As it washed over me, I turned and looked down at the photographers below me who were all blissfully unaware of what was about to envelope them. I had a fleeting thought to try and warn them, but it was too late. As I watched, the upwelling of cold, nutrient-dense water from the same deep channel that hosted Kal's Dream washed over the entire group. Ahhhh. well at least the mystery surrounding why this site was as packed with anemones as it was had been solved. The anemones must've been silently cheering as they feasted on the nutrients that the cold water brought up from the depths, however, I was still unable to breathe with the sudden change in water temperature. It seemed that the photographers noticed as well.
Not many things can wrest the attention of an underwater photographer away from a photo subject once they get started shooting. This did however. Heads came up in surprise, and Michael looked around for me. He stared at me for almost three seconds and then gave me the sign that I should exit the water. The photographers themselves however had no intention of leaving. The action on the dive site had just kicked into hyper-drive as the anemones feasted and the photo ops were not to be missed. Not wanting him to change his mind, I stayed just long enough to pass down the camera I was holding and then high-tailed it back to the Baruna. Working on the assumption that I would survive missing a safety stop after my twelve minute dive, I surfaced and as soon as I was back onboard, disappeared immediately into the engine room. A surprise awaited me. Accustomed to my post-dive appearances, someone had thoughtfully placed a chair with a blanket in my normal warming spot, and there was even a small table with a hot cup of coffee waiting for me. I smiled and wrapped myself up, reflecting on my experience.
I had been under the impression during the previous dives at this site that the water was cold. 71 degrees, after all, is fairly cold for tropical conditions. What I had just experienced re-framed that concept for me however. You see? It is good to have a reference point.
Photo credit: Michael AW