If you have ever seen any promotional brochures about Thailand, you will have probably seen pictures of picturesque palm fringed beaches, glistening golden statues of Buddha, and smiling women selling wooden trinkets on a floating market. After all, Thailand is ‘The Land of Smiles’. Although the term ‘the land of smiles’ was originally a marketing ploy used by the Thai tourism board to attract more visitors, the name has now stuck and the country attracts millions of visitors each year to experience the kindness of the locals and the wealth of experiences Thailand has to offer.
Read our latest articles about scuba diving, travel, ocean conservation, marine life and anything else related to our blue planet!
Essential Manta Ray Facts
When asking fellow divers what animals make the top five of their marine encounters bucket list, you can almost guarantee that the manta ray is on there, and with good reason. These gentle giants are easily one of the most beautiful fish on the planet. They soar and glide through the water like birds, and they are known to interact with divers, putting on acrobatic shows that make a pod of spinner dolphins look pretty ordinary by comparison. What is a Manta Ray? Manta rays are the largest rays on the planet and when you go scuba diving and see a Manta with your own eyes, it really hits home. They are such majestic creatures, and there are only two living species that belong to the genus Manta. The smaller species is known scientifically as Manta alfredi, or more commonly Reef Manta Ray, while the larger species, Manta birostris, is better known as the Giant Oceanic Manta Ray. The name ‘Manta’ comes from Spanish and Portuguese, meaning mantle (blanket), which comes from both their blanket like appearance and the blanket shaped trap that has been historically used to catch them. What is the Difference Between Reef and Oceanic Manta Rays? Due to their similar appearances, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two species. The main difference is the size variation between the two, with the Oceanic Manta reaching a maximum wing span of more than seven metres -averaging at four to five metres, while the Reef Manta grows to a maximum wing span of five metres – averaging three to four metres. While the size difference makes it easier to distinguish the two apart, it only works for fully grown adult rays, and young rays are often misidentified. The only sure-fire to tell the difference between the two (unless you are looking at a fully grown Oceanic Manta) is by looking at their colour patterns. The reef manta has a dark dorsal side and the white head marking gradually fade into the black body, while the oceanic manta has a very dark dorsal side and there is no gradual fade between the white head markings and the dark body. What do Manta Rays Eat? Both species of mantra ray are closely related to sharks, yet their feeding habits could not be more different. Despite their enormous size, manta rays only food source comes in the form of planktonic animals that we can barely see. They find areas of strong current, and swim into it, filtering through the water as it passes by. The water will pass over their gill rakers – cartilaginous structures that protect the gills and filter plankton from the water – and they will expel all the unnecessary water, only keeping what tiny animals are left behind. Because their bodies are so big, they must consume an enormous amount of plankton to survive. While they have been known to also eat small fish, this tends to be an unfortunate mistake of the fish being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the manta ray simply absorbs it like it does with the smaller plankton. Why do Manta Rays Gather? Ocean currents tend to be predictable, and where there is more current, there is more food. Plankton tends to gather near the surface, which means that is where the mantas will gather. They have been sighted in groups of more than 50 individuals swimming side by side into the current – allowing the food to come to them. Just like any other fish, manta rays are susceptible to parasites, and these must be removed to maintain good health. They will frequently visit underwater cleaning stations and stay for extended periods while the cleaner fish will pick away at their parasites. These are the best times for divers to observe them, as they will stay in one area for a while, and wont move too much. Despite the names ‘oceanic’ and reef’ both species are pelagic, and will migrate more than 1,000km to reach nutrient rich waters and better feeding grounds. Where can I Dive with Manta Rays? Mantas are found throughout all the worlds tropical and subtropical oceans, however they prefer water that is around 20 degrees Celsius. The furthest north they have been found is North Carolina, USA, and the southern most they have been spotted is the North island, New Zealand. Mantas can be found anywhere within their range, however they are most likely to show up in areas of high current. The Maldives are well known for manta sightings, as is Kona, Hawaii (see image below), however Indonesia is probably the best place in the world to encounter these gentle giants. The rapid currents that bottleneck through Komodo National Park attracts them in large numbers, and divers can simply drop down to the shallow bottom, hook onto a rock, and watch the show. Komodo is only accessible for a few months a year, however when the conditions in Komodo turn bad, divers can head to Raja Ampat, Papua, where mantas are also known to gather (although not in the same numbers as Komodo). Manta Ray Threats Both the oceanic and reef manta are currently considered vulnerable by the ‘ICUN Red List of Threatened Species’. Due to their size, only the largest of marine predators can cause them any real problems. Tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks and orca are known to prey on mantas, and smaller sharks and other predatory fish are known to attack them. Most manta rays bear the scars of such attacks, however, very few attacks prove to be fatal. The main threat to manta rays comes from fishing. In the past, commercial fisheries have targeted manta rays for their meat, and they were once captured in Australia and California for their liver oil and skin. While the flesh is edible, it is not said to be a particularly pleasant meat when compared with other fish. Unfortunately, their gill rakers have recently become a trend in Chinese medicine, and each year thousands of Mantas are killed throughout the Indo-Pacific purely for these gill rakers. Since 2011, it has become strictly prohibited to fish for manta rays in international waters, however these laws are often ignored. They are frequently caught on lines accidentally as the currents that attract them to food also attract other fish, which the fishermen are following. Although it is up to individual countries to dictate their own laws on manta ray fishing, most countries have chosen to favour bans, especially in areas where diving and eco-tourism is high. Mexico, the Maldives and the Philippines have all introduced manta fishing bans in areas of high tourism. How to Help the Manta Population Just like the spots on a whale shark, every manta ray has its own unique markings that separate it from the rest. The black spots that appear on the underside of the manta are unique, and by cataloging them, we can track the movements of each manta in the database. If you have a camera, and can get a relatively clear image of the underside, then you are encouraged to upload it to www.mantamatcher.org. Using this data, scientists can track the migration paths of the mantas, and this data could prove vital to future protective measurements. Who knows. Maybe you will find a new, unregistered manta ray, which you might get the name! ‘Essential Manta Ray Facts’ was written by Mike Photo credit: Blue Planet Scuba, Big Island Divers, Manta ID PalauContinue reading
An Introduction to Wreck Diving
PADI and other dive agencies generally have a similar structure when it comes to diver education. You begin your diving career as an Open Water Diver, taking your first underwater breaths and seeing all the amazing life that normally inaccessible to us land dwellers. Then you progress to you Advanced Open Water (or equivalent) and focus on improving what you already know – better buoyancy control, navigational exercises and so on. But what next? After your Advanced Open Water, the educational structure gets far less linear, and it is up to you to choose where diving will take you. Naturally, many divers will take their Rescue Diver program, as it does make better divers, and many divers may wish to follow the professional path and become certified as a Divemaster or Instructor. More recently, most diving agencies have started offering speciality courses, where the diver can pick and choose to follow whatever interests them the most. One of the most popular speciality courses available is the Wreck Diver course – a program designed to teach you to safely penetrate underwater wrecks. What is Wreck Diving? Wreck diving is exactly how it sounds – diving into a wreck. Be it the wreck of a ship, submarine, aeroplane, or any other man made object that some how ended up underwater. The historical factors around some of these shipwrecks is the reason why some people want to get into diving in the first place, and with with their eerie corridors, jagged edges, crumbling structure and often a tangled mass of nets, it is easy to see why wreck diving tends to appeal to the more adventurous divers out there. Although exciting, wreck diving (or any other form of overhead diving) offers new challenges and new hazards to the diver, and it is essential that anyone considering entering such an environment is not only properly trained, but also properly equipped. What are the Hazards of Wreck Diving? This short list will highlight some of the hazards of wreck diving, and how to avoid injuring yourself on them. Overhead Environment. Anytime you penetrate a shipwreck, you are in an overhead environment. This means you can no longer access the surface by swimming up. Should an emergency happen during the dive, you must first exit the wreck before ascending to the surface. One of the most important aspects of wreck diving is that you and your buddy can keep calm in any situation. Proper gas management can help minimise risks, as can following your certification level. Most basic wreck certifications allow the divers to a maximum of 40 metres from the surface. This means if the entrance to the wreck is 15 metres below the surface, you will have 25 metres allowance to explore inside the wreck. Following this rule greatly increases your chances of getting out, should anything go wrong. Before entering an overhead environment it is important you evaluate the state of the wreck. Over time, metal will fall apart, and it is not unheard of for wrecks to break up and fall apart. This is not only true of physically entering the wreck, but also covered areas outside the wreck that form a swim through. Loss of Direction. Many divers associate getting lost underwater with cave diving, however, a large wreck can be just as much as a labyrinth as any cave, and with other hazards present, they can be even more dangerous. Just like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail through the woods, we always leave a trail for us to find our way out, although we don’t use pebbles or breadcrumbs. Instead, we use a reel, which we use to set up a line to follow on the way back out. A properly set up line should always start from outside the wreck, where you have direct access to the surface, and should be tied off to something that will not budge. From there, the line is unraveled into the wreck, and tied off at any junction or when it seems to be getting too long. It is important the line does not accidentally snag in a small area where the diver cannot fit through -this is called a line trap. The diver laying the line should be the first one in, and the last one out. Should any major problems occur during the dive and you need to exit, you simply leave the line where it is and follow it out. If possible, you can return another day to collect it. Sharp Objects. Wrecks are usually made of metal, and over time, the water surrounding the wreck will erode it, and sometimes it will form jagged edges. These jagged edges can cut and damage not only your equipment, but also you and even your guideline! To avoid damaging yourself or your equipment, you must be very aware of how much space you take up inside the wreck, and take care not to crash into anything. You should keep everything tucked away to avoid snagging and cutting anything -especially hoses such as your alternate air source or pressure gauge. You can help protect yourself from sharp edges by covering up and wearing a full length wetsuit. Gloves are also recommended as you may need to touch the wreck in order to lay your line or stabilise yourself. Entanglement Hazards. Most wrecks you will encounter are completely covered in fishing line and ghost nets. This is because wrecks make great artificial reefs, and fishermen soon learn that they can catch a lot of fish around them. Although fishing tends to be banned on wrecks commonly used for diving, it is often the fishermen that find them in the first place, so they are already covered by the time divers get to them. Inside the wreck, entanglement hazards can still present a problem. Most wrecks you can actually penetrate are modern, and are full of electrical cabling that you can easily get snagged on. Even the line you lay can become an entanglement hazard if it way laid too loose. Before considering any wreck penetration, you should make sure you have at least one cutting tool -preferably two – and you can reach it with either hand. Loss of Visibility. As previously mentioned, most wrecks you will dive on are made of metal, and over time that metal will erode. Covering the floor of most wrecks is a very fine layer of particles, which is known as silt. Stirring up this silt is not the same as stirring up the sand. It will instantly block out all light, and the finer the silt, the longer it will take to settle on the bottom. Being in a ‘Silt-Out’ is comparable to covering your mask in parcel take and trying to find your way around. Sure, you might see some light, but good luck trying to work out where it is coming from. Your main safety net here is the line, which you should always keep within arms reach. If a silt out happens, simply grab the line and follow it back out of the wreck. You can avoid silt-outs all together by paying attention to your buoyancy. Make sure you are not touching any of the surfaces, and pay special attention to your fins. The classic flutter kick has no use when penetrating wrecks, as the up and down motion will drive water to the bottom and will stir up the silt. Your best option is either the frog kick, or modified frog kick, as these propulsion methods direct most of the water behind you, rather than up and down. Watch your Depth. While the entrance of a wreck may only be 12 metres or so, a couple of staircases can easily lead to far greater depths. The deeper you are, the faster you will use your gas, and the shorter your no decompression limit is, not to mention throwing narcosis into the mix. It is very easy to go too deep during any dive, but especially a wreck dive when you loose many references you would normally have outside the wreck. A good way to avoid this is to set depth alarms on your dive computer. This way you will get warnings anytime you approach your maximum depth. Is Wreck Diving Dangerous? Yes and no. Any form of scuba diving or free diving can be extremely dangerous if you ignore the basic rules, however if done properly you have nothing to fear. Before beginning any wreck diver training, you should already be very comfortable in the water, and be able to do multiple tasks at the same time without losing control of your body positioning or buoyancy. Task loading can be a big part of wreck diving, and you should have all the basics down to second nature before you begin taking on more complicated tasks. Where is the Best Place for Wreck Diving? It doesn’t really matter where you are from, there is amazing wreck diving all over the world. Both Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia and Scapa Flow in Scotland are frequently named as the best wreck diving locations in the world. Scapa Flow might be a bit too challenging for newer divers, but experienced divers can see some of World War I’s greatest wrecks. If you prefer easier diving, and Micronesia is out of your range, you might want to visit these other famous and easy to access wrecks. SS Thistlegorm – Ras Mohammed, Egypt USAT Liberty – Bali, Indonesia SS Yongala – Queensland, Australia Obviously there are many, many more, however these famous wrecks tend to be high up on many wreck divers bucket lists. Do you have any exciting wreck diving tales you would like to share with us? Maybe a secret wreck you know of that you want to world to see? Let us know in the comments section below, and we will be sure to get back to you. ‘An Introduction to Wreck Diving’ was written by Mike Photo credit: Michela Di Paola & Aquaworld.comContinue reading
Is Scuba Diving Dangerous? 8 Tips for Safer Diving
You often hear non-divers citing their reasons for not learning to dive, and often one of those main reasons is because scuba diving is dangerous. Their diver friends will often disagree, normally falling back on cliché comments such as “you are more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark” or “more people kill themselves driving to work than scuba diving”. There is often a habit of divers being too blasé about the dangers of scuba diving, and frequently divers may try and push others into taking up the sport who may not really want to participate. Is Scuba Diving Dangerous? Although in recent times scuba diving has an excellent safety record, it has not always been this way, and diving can be both extremely safe and extremely dangerous. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the participant. Sticking on a tank of compressed air and submerging yourself for an hour or more underwater can never be risk free. Equipment can fail, pressure related injuries happen even to those who abide by the rules, currents can get extremely strong in the blink of an eye, and things may happen that are out of your control. That being said, if you follow all the rules properly, you should never be in any real danger, however if you ignore these basic rules, you will drastically increase your chances of having a serious accident. Here are my top tips for keeping yourself as safe as possible while scuba diving, so hopefully diving will be a life long hobby for you. 1) Plan the Dive, Dive the Plan! The saying that sounds cheesy to all divers, yet all divers seem to say it. Planning is an essential aspect of all dives, whether you took part in the planning process or not. If you just rock up at a dive centre and sign up for a couple of fun dives, you probably will have no part in the planning aspect of the dive, however that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. Your dive master will talk with the others on the boat, and discuss where the best site would be to suit everyone on board. They will know how deep they are going, and how long they will stay down for. Before each dive, the dive master should then inform you of what the plan is, and most importantly, what to do if something goes wrong. If your dive master does not provide you with any pre-dive information, it is time to find a new dive master or dive centre. 2) Check your Equipment is Working Properly If you think back to your Open Water Course, you hopefully remember something along the lines of ‘begin with review and friend’. Yep, its that sentence that makes no sense whatsoever, yet is so important. Conducting your pre dive safety check is a vital part of scuba diving, and something you should never skip, regardless of experience. I have seen many divers jumping in with half empty tanks, forgotten weights, LPI hoses not connected, and closed cylinder valves. Almost all of these could end in disaster for a diver in adverse conditions. You don’t need to follow exactly what you were taught in your course, you just need to hit all the important parts of the check. Is you air on, and is there enough of it? Do your second stages function properly? Do you have enough weight? Do you have all of your important accessories such as SMB, knife and computer? You should always do your pre dive safety check in front of somebody else, and don’t forget to actually watch your buddy do their check. After all, if they have any issues during the dive, it is you that will have to deal with it. 3) Assess the Conditions Like I said before, there are many aspects of diving that are beyond our control. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them though, and we can adjust our plan if needs be. Before descending, you should always check sea conditions. A boat captain will usually do this, however if you are shore diving, you may need to do this for yourself. If you can see any storms on the horizon, it is probably a good idea to cancel the dive. Ocean conditions can deteriorate rapidly, and getting back to shore during a storm can be extremely dangerous. If the current is too strong, you should think about cancelling too, as a strong surface current may be even stronger underwater, and there might be up or down currents that you cannot be aware of until you descend. If you do decide to dive, agree with your buddy at what point you will call the dive if conditions worsen. 4) Always use a Marker Ok, this may not be necessary on a small lake where boat traffic is not an issue, however in the ocean, some form of surface marker should always be used. The main types are an SMB (surface marker buoy) or a DSMB (delayed surface marker buoy). The difference between the two is that an SMB is used throughout the entire dive, while a DSMB is deployed at the end of the dive. Why are they so important? For a boat captain, it might be impossible to spot a divers bubbles, and surfacing in the direct path of a boat will only badly for a soft bodied human. Another reason is that if you do get swept away by a current, it might be very hard for you to be spotted on the surface. For better or worse, we are past the days of the 1980s neon wetsuits and BCDs, and nowadays scuba manufacturers have come to the consensus that divers look better clad entirely in black, which is extremely difficult to see from a distance on the ocean. Large, brightly coloured DSMBs have saved lives before, and I’m sure they will save many more in the future. 5) Follow Your Personal Limits During your Open Water Course, you will probably remember that you were limited to 18 metres, yet after only five more you could be certified to 30 metres. This may sound crazy, because it is… Some new divers may feel extremely comfortable the moment they deflate their BCD, while others may take longer. To say anyone can be qualified to dive to 30 metres unsupervised after only nine dives is just begging for an accident to happen. It gets even worse though, as with some agencies you can complete your Open Water Course, followed by a deep adventure dive, so you could be as deep as 30 metres with only five dives under your belt. I strongly suggest that instead of following the limits of your certification, you should instead follow your personal limits, and slowly expand them in the proper conditions. I have had customers who were Open Water divers with more than 500 dives, and I had no problem taking them on night dives or to 30 metres. I have also had rescue divers with 20 dives who could barely hold their buoyancy and would signal problem the moment any water seeped into their mask. Diving and selling go hand in hand, but selling increased depth limits without really having to put the work in is dangerous, and people are getting injured because their certification card tells them they can go deeper than they really can. Always start slowly, and go with what feels comfortable to you. Remember, limits are fluid – a 30 metre dive in the tropical, calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand is very different to a 30 metre dive off the coast of Scotland. 6) Know How to Communicate Properly One of the best things about scuba diving is that it is quiet, however although we cannot speak, we still need to be able to make ourselves heard when needed. Before every dive, you and your buddy should sit down together and go over all the essential safety signals. You should be able to properly communicate any problems while underwater, and there should never be a point where you are struggling to make yourself understood. It is not just hand signals you should understand either. Light signals are important for when it is dark, and sound signals are very important for low visibility conditions. 7) Always Check Your Gauges This is another thing experienced divers get complacent with. “I know how much air I use, I don’t need to check” is one of the most ridiculous and stupid comments I regularly hear divers saying, especially when it comes from the same people who forget to turn their tanks on or even check they have a full tank before the dive. Most serious dive accidents are caused by divers running out of air, panicking, and holding their breath all the way to the surface. The entire scenario could be avoided by simply looking at a gauge, which really is as easy as moving your eyes. You should check your air gauge every five minutes or less, and you should always know roughly how much air your buddy has. Don’t forget to check your computer either, or you may end up a lot deeper than you had intended. 8) Only Dive with the Best Equipment Scuba divers generally take great pride in their equipment. After all, it is expensive, and of course failing to look after it could result in death… By “only dive with the best equipment” I don’t mean the most expensive. I mean equipment that is properly looked after, cleaned after every dive, regularly serviced, and is up to the task you are throwing at it. If you don’t own your own equipment and will need to rent from a dive centre, always check the equipment before signing up. You can easily judge a dive centre from their equipment room. If the 5mm wetsuits look more like 1mm and full of holes, you can bet the regulators will leak just as much as that suit will, and probably to boat too. A company that is proud of its equipment will be more than happy to show you around and explain what they have in stock and their service history. A company that doesn’t want to show you obviously has something to hide, and that should make you wonder what else are they hiding? The ‘Take Home’ Message.. Diving can be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, it is you who is responsible for your own safety, and if you show poor judgment, you may discover diving is more dangerous than you could have possibly imagined. By following these simple rules, you can ensure your diving career will be a long and enjoyable one, and hopefully you will be a role model for others to emulate. Do you have any rules you like to follow while scuba diving? Or maybe any stories about when things when wrong? If so, we would love to hear from you. Leave any comments in the comments section below and we will be sure to get back to you. ‘Is Scuba Diving Dangerous? 8 Tips for Safer Diving’ was written by MikeContinue reading
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