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.
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An in-depth look into Cave Diving
Cave diving is a very unique diving discipline and indeed next level in many peoples books. If you have dived before and couldn’t care less about colourful fish and stunning corals, cave diving might be just for you. Time to prove the adventurous image your tinder profile paints of you by leaving your man cave and say hello to pitch dark waters! Unless of course, you suffer from claustrophobia or thalassophobia. That being said, cave diving can be stunning. Many cave systems contain water so clear, it looks like divers are flying through the air. Of course, to get there, you will likely have to squeeze yourself down narrow openings, which is half the fun! If you are jealous of Columbus or Neil Armstrong, this is your chance to redeem yourself and gain access to sights and places where perhaps no other human has ever been before. Can you think of any other sport that offers you this opportunity? Where can you Cave Dive? There are excellent cave diving spots all across the world where you can go cave diving and its potential locations are not limited to oceans with reefs or calm alpine lakes with high visibility. There are more underwater caves than meets the eye and new and exciting destinations are being discovered all across the world. Some of the most notable cave dives include: First Cathedral, Hawaii This cave diving site is known for its massive underwater tunnels and caverns. As you descend, you will find the “altar,” an area that features sunbeams that peek through from the surface. It is an ideal choice for those who fancy stunning visuals while cave diving, due to the tiny holes in the back of the caves that allow the sunlight to form a stained-glass window. Between the colourful corals and stunning seascapes inside the cave, divers are even likely to encounter turtles, lobsters, and sharks. Great Blue Hole, Belize An underwater limestone sinkhole that was formed thousands of years ago. It is the world’s largest natural formation of its kind and a popular destination for cave diving. The Great Blue Hole has a total of 11 colossal underwater caves with different depths and lengths. As you descend about 400ft, you will find massive stalactites, stunning corals, and oxygen-deficient caverns. The water is so clear that you can witness marine life, such as giant groupers, nurse sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and other tropical fish. The best time to visit is from November to April, but you should consider planning your trip in March to avoid the tourist season. Kuredu Caves, Maldives With over 60 dive sites, Kuredu caves are a paradise for recreational cave divers. The caverns feature massive, craggy rock formations. These underwater caves are home to marine life, including leaf fish, balloon fish, green turtles, manta rays, moray eels, butterflyfish, angelfish, and ferocious barracudas. You may spot sting rays once you go deeper. This cave system offers ideal diving conditions year-round. Cenote Dose Ajos, Mexico Also known as two eyes cenote, this cavern is one of the most sophisticated underwater cave systems in the world. You will be impressed by the massive stalactites with some bats hanging upside down and fierce stalagmites creeping up from the bottom. The marine life includes freshwater shrimps and numerous species of tiny fish. The best time to visit is from October to December, and the peak tourist season starts from January to March. Where to Learn Cave Diving? If you want to learn cave diving, chances are you are a special kind of thrill seeker. Perhaps the sense of exploration you get is what truly excites you. Before you decide on where to learn cave diving you mustn’t confuse this with a cavern dive. A cavern dive takes place in the first part of a cave, where you can still see a light source behind you. As soon as you don’t see any more light, it becomes a cave dive. Much like other types of diving, cave diving is regulated. One must have a certain amount of logged dives before you can start training. In general, an advanced open water certification is required at the very least. While some of the skills can be completed in regular diving locations you should conduct your training at an actual cave-diving site to really get a feel for the sport. It may also inspire you to get to the next level. While there are many cave systems around the world the Mexican Cenotes in Yucatan are probably the most popular destination to learn cave diving. The following popular agencies offer cave diving courses and training: TDI, RAID, PADI, SSI. How is Cave Diving Dangerous? Cave diving is considered ‘technical diving‘ and should not be done by untrained divers. It has an unusual and unique set of risks, but like other extreme sports, such risks can be mitigated with the right training and exercise. Precaution, education, proper certified training and knowing one’s limits are vital to becoming a veteran cave diver who lives to grow a fluffy white beard. The most common dangers are obvious and only really happen to unqualified or amateur divers: Getting lost Running out of air Scuba gear malfunctions Becoming stuck or trapped However, there are other aspects of cave diving that outlines exactly how dangerous it is: Torches breaking on the ascent Reels breaking or being snagged/tangled Scuba masks damaged Navigational problems Overhead environment – emergency surfacing is not an option Poor visibility Cave Diving Hazards The hazards of cave diving may be evident to many people, yet there are still occasional accidents and even deaths, which can be attributed to the victims not fully understanding the risks of cave diving. Getting Lost: It is different than traditional diving, where you can swim back to the shore or the boat when you’re getting lost. In cave diving, getting lost can easily result in death. Loss of Visibility: Most caves are formed by a kind of erosion, and often, the eroded material ends on the cave floor. And that can affect your visibility to see your friends, your reserve gas supply, or losing orientation points to return to the cave entrance. Equipment Malfunction: Equipment malfunction can be very dangerous and could result in a diver running out of gas. So it’s crucial to check your equipment and know-how to deal with the most common malfunctions. Currents, Surge, and Surf: Some caves are complex and can carry strong currents, especially sea caves and coral caves. Currents, surge, and surf can push you further into the cave or make it more difficult to exit. Cave Diving Equipment Some of the most crucial pieces of a cave diving gear are: Drysuit: A drysuit is needed when diving in cold water. Get a drysuit with pockets to carry your safety equipment. Mask and Fins: Most cave divers prefer masks made of black silicon skirts; they’re lightweight and help your pupils to dilate. You also need robust and flat-bladed fins to reduce the potential for entanglement. Tanks: There will be two tanks held together by steel bands and connected by the manifold, that have two outlets and can be turned off or on in case of any problem. LED Lights: You will need LED primary lights and two back up lights of 1000+ lumen. Make sure to buy lights that are designed specifically for cave or technical diving. Timer: A timer is essential to calculate the number of decompression stops during ascending during the end of the dive according to the standard decompression table. Sharp Knife: A short and sharp knife should be attached to your harness to help you free yourself from entanglement in the guidelines or other equipment. Slate or Wet Notes: Wet notes are a better alternative for cave diving. Keep it in your pocket just in case you’re in trouble. Surface Marker Buoy: If you’re learning cave diving, technically, you need an SMB. It must be the type that can expand into the water using the exhaust from the regulator you have. Cave Diving Qualifications As a rule of thumb, you must have your Advanced Open Water course certificate or other courses where you become certified to dive to a recreational limit of 130 feet (40 m.) You have to be an experienced night diver and you will also need a Cavern certification or a similar that shows you have experience in an overhead environment. Search our list of dive schools and find the perfect dive centre to learn cave diving. Cave Diving Gear Setup Picking a specific cave dive set up is really dependent on personal preference and the size of the cave systems you want to explore. Different divers will recommend different styles (twinsets, side-mount diving, etc.) One should educate himself about the essential equipment first to devise about what makes a good set for a particular dive. It’s more than just attaching a snorkel to your dive mask. Your life may depend on it. The Sidemount Configuration: Allows for maximum adaptability, divers can secure and separate air tanks whilst underwater and this is crucial if you need to navigate through small spaces. Technical divers mainly use this configuration because of the flexibility it offers. Twinset Configuration: With a twinset configuration, this allows only for a standard setup. Considered unnecessary for side mount configurations and offers very limited flexibility. Cave Diving Deaths With all the hazards, it may not be as shocking to hear that 161 American cave divers have died during their expeditions in the past 30 years. However, 87 of those casualties were completely untrained cave divers. Many of them lost visibility due to silt and ran out of breathing gas. Even though the technology has improved significantly over these three decades the hazards remain unchanged. It is inherently dangerous, albeit a beautiful environment.Continue reading
The Top Sea Dragon Facts You Must Know!
A macro dream for many divers, the elusive and spectacular Sea Dragon is a must-see for many keen underwater photographers and Scuba enthusiasts. These unusual looking underwater critters have a very specific geographical location, making them a must-see for divers visiting Australian waters. What is a Sea Dragon? The Sea dragon is a small fish from the Syngnathidae family, closely related to pipefish and seahorses. As with its brother the Seahorse, the Sea dragons name comes from its mythical counterpart the ‘Dragon,’ and spotting a Sea dragon whilst scuba diving is certainly a magical experience. Their ornate appearance lives up to its namesake as they camouflage perfectly to their leafy or kelpy environments with their small, leaf-like fins and colourful bodies. Where are Sea Dragons found? There are 3 different species of Sea dragon and they are all found in Southern, South Eastern and Western Australia. The Weedy Seadragon is also known as the “Common Sea dragon” or “Phyllopteryx Taeniolatus”. It’s more intricate relative The Leafy sea dragon or Phycodurus eques and a very recent discovery, The Ruby Sea dragon, Phyllopteryx Dewysea. Sea dragons are specialists within their habitats; Weedy and Leafy sea dragons reside in kelpy reefs and seagrass meadows. Whilst Ruby Sea dragons live in sponges at much greater depths, their incredible camouflage keeps them protected from predators such as larger fish, crustaceans and sea anemones. Where to Dive with Weedy Sea Dragons? To find a weedy sea dragon, you will need to dive on either the southeastern or southern coast of Australia. The most common of the three species, these guys are native to Sydney and can be found in Botany Bay, which has the largest number recorded in one location. You can also find them an hour’s drive from Melbourne, off the Mornington Peninsula or in the beautiful Jervis Bay, New South Wales. Where to Dive with Leafy Sea Dragons? A rarer spot than the Weedy, Leafy seadragons are found off the coast of Fleurieu Peninsula near Adelaide at specific dive spots, such as Rapid Bay and The Bluff. They can also be found at multiple spots on the Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island. Where to Find the Ruby Sea Dragon? You probably won’t! The third sea dragon species was only discovered in 2014 when a tissue clippings’ DNA didn’t match the existing species. This extremely rare and elusive species was filmed by an underwater remotely operated vehicle at depths over 50 metres in Western Australia. Far beyond the limits of recreational diving. When to see Sea Dragons? Sea dragons breed in the early months of the Australian Summer, from October through to January. This is the best time to dive with them as during the mating season you may be lucky enough to witness their wonderful courting dance. After reaching sexual maturity at one or two years of age, The sea dragons sway and present their beautiful colour and weedy appendages for their mate in an iconic ritual. At a certain moment, the Mother passes up to 250 bright pink eggs to the Father for him to carry on his tail and fertilize. They attach to a region on his tail called a brood patch, which supplies oxygen to the eggs. This display is a videographers dream but should be very sensitively observed as not to alter their natural behaviour. The Father then incubates the eggs for up to nine weeks, following this beautiful display it’s possible to see a solitary male Sea dragon swimming along with these jewels encrusted on his tail. Give him some space, only 20 of these newborn Sea dragons grow to full maturity as they are such fragile and tiny creatures. From hatching, the babies are completely independent. For the first 2-3 days after birth, they are sustained by their yolk sack and will then hunt tiny zooplankton and baby shrimp. What does a Sea Dragon eat? Sea dragons are toothless carnivores without stomachs, they eat almost constantly covering wide areas whilst searching for prey. They use their long pipe-like snouts to suck up larval fish, plankton and their favourite food, mysid shrimp. These shrimp feed off red algae that thrive in the shade of kelp forests. Interestingly, Sea Dragons themselves are rarely eaten by their natural predators due to their highly successful camouflage. The Ruby Seadragon’s red colouration masks its presence in the deep waters where red wavelengths of light cannot penetrate. As its body doesn’t reflect any light, it is virtually invisible to prey and predators. Like-wise the Leafy Seadragons appendages blend so seamlessly within the kelp forests it is often missed by larger fish. Sea Dragon Threats The Leafy Sea dragon is listed as ‘Near Threatened,’ by ‘ICUN Red List of Threatened Species’ whilst the Weedy Sea Dragon has been listed as ‘Least Concern’. Although there have been many organisations pushing for the status of both species to be reclassified due to recent surveys and reports showing dwindling numbers. Research carried out by the University of Technology Sydney shows that the Kelp forests that the Weedy Sea dragon depends on, has been thinning out in sites that they are commonly spotted in, particularly in South Sydney. This is due to industrialisation, water pollution and sedimentation. Similarly, the Leafy Sea dragons biggest threat is that to its habitat and both species are popular as illegal capture as pets. Seadragons are extremely sensitive to change in water depth, temperature and pressure meaning they seldom survive outside of their natural habitat. In fact, Melbourne Sea World Aquarium is one of only three aquariums in the world to breed Weedy Seadragons in captivity, with two breeding successes to date. How to Conserve the Seadragon Population! Vote for more marine protected areas! Boat anchoring and mooring can be detrimental to Seadragons natural habitats, stricter enforcement and zoned areas for mooring can help to conserve and protect their homes. Those within Australia can vote for governments with policies increasing the zoning of protected marine areas. Those out of Australia can sign petitions, and share information on social media. Pollution has a huge impact on natural marine habitats, your plastic consumption and what you throw down the sink has an important role in the general health of our oceans. Be mindful of cleaning products with abrasive chemicals, switch to natural remedies or phosphate-free soaps and detergents. Never pour fat and cooking oils down the sink, allocate a jar to collect your used fats and dispose of it as a solid waste when full. You can help conserve the Seadragons, by providing information about sightings. Scientists use this data to increase the general understanding of distribution, habitat requirements and management priorities for this lesser-known species. New South Wales based Underwater Research Group ‘URG,’ have adapted software to identify Seadragons by their ‘fingerprints,’ or markings found on the side of their bodies. You can e-mail your photographs or information about sightings to urgdiveclub.org.au, you may even have a Seadragon named after you! Photo Credits: Richard Wylie via National Geographic Indo Pacific Images Our Marine SpeciesContinue reading
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
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