Monday, July 20, 2009 – Inian Passage
Woke up to clouds and chill in a beautiful landscape in the Icy Strait. The morning consisted of breakfast, then a dive briefing, and then we suited up for our first dive.
The Icy Strait
Humpback swimming past the Nautilus
Dry Suit Diving and Equipment Malfunctions
Alaska water is cold. Very cold. A normal wet suit won’t do the trick, so we each (all 20 divers) schlepped a kit full of cold-water gear to the northeastern most state. I’m fortunate because Eric Cheng kindly loaned me his fantastic dry suit, which means I didn’t have to go with a rental or (almost as bad) buy one of my own. So I sported some quality gear underwater. The fish approved.:
- Dry suit
- Dry suit underwear
- Dry suit booties/socks
- Ankle weights
- Dry suit gloves
- Wrist and neck seals
- Dry suit hoses
- Mask, fin, snorkel
- Underwater camera equipment
- Etc, etc, etc
For many of us this was our first major dry suit dive, so there was much running around trying to get gear assembled and figured out. It’s a slightly stressful thing – to dive with unknown equipment. We become attached to our own gear and therefore introducing new elements throws off a well-established routine. Many of us were instructors, though, so we calmly adjusted and accepted the differences, with the underlying knowledge that we’d establish the same routine with this gear as we had with all others – it just took time.
For me, it also took a series of equipment difficulties: First, I was diving with a steel tank. This is 10 pounds heavier than the aluminum tanks I’m used to. Second, when I connected my pride-and-joy titanium regulator to the tank and turned on the air, the first stage seemed to fall apart. This makes no sense when the regulator is only two years old and I took everything for a test run in the pool two weeks ago, but it just goes to show that you can never predict equipment malfunctions. This particular malfunction meant disassembling the hoses on my first stage and reconnecting them all to a rental piece. Third, I couldn’t seem to remember how to access the Nitrox setting on my dive computers – either my Eric’s primary or my Suunto backup. (The Suunto, by the way, seemed to be running low on battery juice. Nice.). I recalled eventually but this was after many buttons were pressed and many options scrolled through. Fourth, my low pressure inflator seemed to have a seat issue, so a small but steady stream of air escaped from my tank and into the atmosphere. Not enough to seriously affect my air levels, but enough that – on top of everything else – I was slightly frustrated.
I took comfort in the fact that everyone else was experiencing some level of equipment nuttiness, so I was certainly not alone.
Dive #1: Dogpile
Our first dive was supposed to be a site called “Susan’s Hooters” (I can’t make this stuff up, people), but when we arrived the current was so strong that we reverted to another less current-filled dive called “Dogpile”. After we overcame the initial shock of the cold water, the majority of the dive was spent fiddling with gear, testing buoyancy, and occasionally looking at the marine life. 10 minutes into the dive I found myself alone on a wall of tall, wonderful, cold-water anemones. Of course we’re not supposed to dive alone so this worried me for a bit, but then I figured other divers would eventually pass by and I’d pick up with them. It was probably only 5 minutes total but in the cold every thing seems twice as long, eventually though I found some friends to continue along the dive.
The great thing about dry suits is that they’re dry: seals around the wrists and the neck keep the water out and the body warmth in. The bad thing about dry is that they’re dry: if you have to pee there’s nothing you can do. (If this is already TMI, stop reading and continue to the next paragraph) Now, let’s just all agree that peeing in a wetsuit is gross and shouldn’t be done. Ew. Ick. Yuck. Especially in those god-awful rentals. Double yuck. But let’s also agree that we’ve all done it and in times of extreme situations it’s good to have the option. An option you don’t get in a dry suit. Of course we all hydrated prior to starting the dive which is why, fifteen minutes into the dive, I realized I had to “go” and there was nothing I could do. Because in addition to the 45-minute dive we had to wait for all divers to get back on board the skiff, retrieve the anchor and the buoy, get back to the Nautilus, remove the dry suit, remove the dry suit underwear, and get to the room to pee. This entire process took at least an hour and half from start to finish – and to realize you have to “go” ten minutes into it is no fun. The boat has a term for this emergency: Code Yellow, which means that everyone on the skiff should step aside and let the code-yellow emergencies off first. I swear my bladder has never been in such agony. That’s the last time I hydrate before a dry suit dive.
Shannon and I went kayaking with Anat, Peter, and David while the rest of the group took a zodiac tour of the area. The sun had begun to shine through just a little so we did have some nice light as we paddled toward a tiny cove near the boat. Anat made friends with a tiny sea otter playing the kelp, and we all watched as whales coursed by in the distance. The Icy Strait is a passageway for many humpbacks so they roll through, sometimes often, with their loud spouts of water and flaring tails.
Anat, Peter, and Shannon – master kayakers
Nautilus from the water
Shannon, Anat, Peter and Dave
Kelp, and the kayakers in the distance
Of course Alaska is picturesque and beautiful – even in the chill, overcast weather – but what I love more than anything is the quiet. No horns, no alarms, no cell phones, no talking. Just the occasional snort of air from a sea lion as it surfaces to see what we’re doing or the burst from a whale spout in the distance.
Me, watching and listening for whales
Dano took us out for a zodiac tour, cruising us down a quiet back canal past a tiny little fishing house tucked into a bay with no access but by boat before taking us out into the ocean to Sea Lion Rock where – as the name implies – loads of steller seal lions live.
Off to the sites
Sea Lion Rock
Big man on campus
Getting up close and personal
Shannon and the sea lions
Mama and baby seal lions
Then we passed the Nautilus and continued into the strait to see if we could spot any whales. “One thing I’ve learned about whales,” said Dano, “Is that you can never chase them. But if you sit quietly in one place eventually they’ll come nearby.” We zipped to the outside of the canal way where we could see spouts in the distance but, as Dano predicted, the whales had gone out to the ocean by the time we reached the spot. And of course as we looked over our shoulders we could see spouts close to where we’d already been. So we sat for a bit and just enjoyed the quiet.
Sea otter and cormorants
Whale blow on the right (see the little vertical cloud) and the Nautilus on the left
After our zodiac trip I was cold to the bone and didn’t relish the idea of getting in the water for the second dive, so I played the “I’m On Vacation” card with myself to rationalize staying topside. Instead, Shannon and I were inspired by the cormorants and seagulls diving on a distant baitball so we grabbed two kayaks and paddled about a mile out. Of course when we got there the baitball has dissipated and the cormorants and seagulls resting on the nearby rock had been scared away by a bald eagle. Life could be much, much worse!
Skiff leaving the Nautilus
Shannon Kayaking to the far-away rock
Eagle over the cormorant rock
Kayak, Nautilus, and a whale blow
Memorable Moment #1
A few whales spouted off in the distance, but nothing close to our rock so we just sat and enjoyed the silence of Alaska. After forty-five minutes on the water we decided to head back to the boat. On the return trip Shannon kayaked about 20 feet in front of me, suddenly there was a huge burst of water and whale noise. 30 feet from Shannon’s kayak a humpback surfaced from the dark water. “Holy Shit!!!!!” We both said, before bursting into laughter with shock and joy. The whale back arched just before it dove and disappeared below the waterline, swimming away from us toward the mouth of the straight. We just continued to laugh at the exhilaration of the unbelievable moment. That was a big, big, CLOSE humpback.
The Nautilus has an exceptionally skilled crew: Captain Mike and his first mate Greg. Dano and Tim the dive masters and Stephan the dive master in training. Bayou the assistant, Kathryn and Meg the hostesses, and Enrique the fabulous, fantastic cook. He puts together some amazing meals, baked goods, and desserts. I don’t know how these dive boats entice such delicious chefs on board but as a passenger it’s a wonderful experience and of course we never go hungry. I decided to give it up to the good of vacation and diet later. Bring on the cookies.