Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the vortex

You streamline yourself and adopt a head-down position. All of a sudden you feel yourself being sucked into it, like an insect caught in a cup of freshly stirred tea. The adrenalin kicks in… you look all around you… streamlined torpedoes sleek and gleaming, rush up close and veer off around you. You relax, you are being carried down the vortex, faster and faster – you readjust your heading to make the most of the aqua-dynamics.  You go deeper and deeper, rushing headlong to 30-odd metres in depth. You relax your breathing – you realize you were hoovering up your air. You breathe again, and then you are at the end of the line. You are at the bottom of the pen and you flip onto your back… your senses heightened, your eyes dart around as your brain tries to unscramble the information and establish where is up and where is down. And there it is… a white mirror in the distance, the surface is visible through the air bubbles you expelled in your last breath – you are once again orientated and the spectacle is something to behold. A cyclone of huge tuna fish – some as heavy as 300 kilograms in weight - swim round and round in the pen.  That is what creates the vortex I have just described. Perhaps one can call it ‘extreme’ diving. The dive was organised by Watercolours Dive Centre's Underwater Naturalist Club
This is the experience you get if you go diving in a tuna pen. 1,500 Ferraris of the sea; all racing round in the same direction and there is you, all clumsy (no matter how good a diver you are) and slow compared to these bad boys. Imagine looking at a fish, in its own environment and there’s you, trying to use its wake to swim in formation with them. They speed past like lightning and they come within inches of touching you, yet they veer off and leave you to your business.
Diving with tuna has to be one of the best diving experiences I have ever had. You chug along outside of St Paul’s Bay and pull up to a pen which is just off the tiny islands of St Paul. If you are clever enough, you kit up first and you make sure that you are one of the first buddy teams into the water. Tank open, regulator in, inflate BCD, hand before mask, giant-stride and one big splash later you are in the sea. You float over to the pen and one of their divers hands you a rope and you haul yourself over the rubber and slap onto the rubber edging. Literally like a seal, you flop your way across; and into the water at the other side.
A quick ok with my buddy Ben; and down we went… an un-dispersed (as yet) school of blue fin tuna awaited. You deflate and descend, but it’s not mayhem from the word go. If you stay towards the outside of the pen, the vortex dissipates, it is only when you join the scrum of fish towards the middle that you can start to feel it.  A word of caution though, if you are on the outside, near the net,  you are also in the area where the stragglers swim. Some are a bit blind and might not see you in time to dodge.  You can tell them a mile off – their eyes, instead of alert and bright, are foggy and clouded over. They do not swim straight and they are slower – keep well away.
Once you realize that these fish will avoid you (almost) every time , the fun begins, you start to swim with them and as I have explained already, you get the ride of your life when sucked into the vortex.
But there is more fun ahead. Ever played chicken with a 300-kilo fish that is hurtling straight towards you? No? Well, be prepared. Even though you know it will break off, it is absolutely nerve-wracking the first time you do it. Hand to face, press mask down and off you go, you spot one and you fin as hard as you can, it looms larger… oh my God it’s not going to break-off. You prepare to curl up, and as you do, it tilts, one blast of its tail – and off it goes… you can breathe again, you smile and you realize that this is not something you do every day and not many people ever get to do in life.
If your breathing is good enough, and if you do not get motion sickness, you really should go right down to the bottom and look up – what a sight! I just lay there on my back for about four minutes and watched this microcosm go by. Do be careful though, it might be a bit too much for some as the constant swirling image may bit a bit too much. If you do get dizzy, just go to the net and chill out. Do also be careful lying on your back on the net. It is all too easy (as I found out) for one of your hoses to get caught up in the net – I lurched like a turtle on its back a couple of times, figured out what happened and allowed my buddy to sort me out.
There is only so much you can do, but another adrenalin rush involves cutting off the tuna. If you swim across them, you do honestly feel that they will mow you down. But then the mind registers…  being suspended in the water makes no difference to them. You steel yourself and cut across… it is like driving against motorway traffic. What a rush! Check out this video by Jason Fabri, who organised the dive: 

Do’s and don’ts
Do check all your gear. Check it again once you get into the pen.
Do take your time going down. Find the vortex and do not fight it. If you do want to get out, swim across to the side – like you would with a current.
Do be careful, it is easy to get tangled in the nets.
Do not settle on the nets with your buddy on the bottom. Take it in turns.
Do head to the side of the net if you feel dizzy. Do not stay in the shoal if you are disorientated.
Do try and ‘surf’ the vortex.

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