Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The annual cull?

 The Spot the Jellyfish campaign announced that annual fried egg jellyfish migration has hit Malta again.
Hundreds of the Cotylorhiza tuberculata have been spotted and reported by the public, especially around Comino, the north coast of Gozo, Wied iz-Zurrieq and Marsascala. Testimony to the precise timing of the occurrence of the fried egg jellyfish swarms, the species is also known in Maltese as tal-lampuki in reference to the dolphin fish, which is caught at this time of year. It is also known as the qassata, a traditional Maltese pastry. Despite its size, the fried egg jellyfish is innocuous and its occurrence is short-lived, normally extending till the start of October at most.
Last year, thousands of the creatures were fished out of the water by boaters and bathers alike, who feared that they might be stung by the qassata, as it is known locally. The truth is that these creatures do not sting and are benign. Their stingers do not aggravate human skin and they are harmless.
Interestingly enough, juveniles of mackerel are frequently observed sheltering amongst the purple-tipped tentacles of the jellyfish. According to the Jellyfish Campaign (, the size of fried egg jellyfish are nowhere near the staggering dimensions of those observed in September of last year. Sightings of the fried egg jellyfish received so far make up 5 per cent of the over 300 jellyfish sightings reports received so far.
Underwater, these beautiful creatures are bright yellow with vivid purple spots on them. They are quite harmless and you can actually handle them with minimal risk. But hundreds and thousands of them were fished out of the water, looking like brown lumps of goo. And this is human nature. People look at these creatures and automatically assume the worst – we kill first and ask questions later with the usual “Oh my how ugly it is”. Don’t kill them. They are harmless.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Out of air

It’s something which you have trained for a few times; that horrible sensation of a hard regulator where you pull for a breath, and it seems to just dry up. It takes a second to register, then you realize, the next breath you take will be even harder and you will have to surface.
Fortunately, I was well prepared for it. My mum came over to Malta for a holiday and she decided to try out the Discover Scuba Diving Course, organized by Watercolours Dive Centre.  We did the pool work and there were about four others who were starting their Open Water course. I decided to join and catch up on some skills, so I opted for a small five-litre tank. We spent about 20 minutes in the pool, swimming around and doing a few basic skills. After that, it was time for the real thing with an 8-12-metre dive near the Dive Centre in Valletta Harbour.
Mum managed superbly! I entered with a good enough supply of about 80 bar, but after a good 40 minutes of frolicking about, that had gone down to 20 bar. I realized that we were headed back towards shore, so I was not in the slightest worried. Besides, we were only at about eight-metres, so I knew I could safely surface at any time.
Slowly but surely, we got to within about 100-metres of the shore. I pulled for breath, and the regulator felt hard. I knew I was very close to it finishing, so I was ready for it. It’s a very odd sensation. Even though you have trained for it, it still catches you by surprise and takes the brain a minute to register. You check you air gauge and sure enough, just as you were expecting it reads zero. I must emphasise that I was in very shallow water and I was fully expecting this to happen at any time. I was buddying my mum, and had already communicated that I was low on air. We were all in a group and I knew that I was really close to the surfacing point. I gave the out of air signal, told her to buddy with the rest of the group, pointed one thumb skyward and kicked for the surface.  Hand above head, to make sure there’s no obstructions and you break the surface. The first thing you must remember to do is to depress the valve on your BCD deflator and blow air into it so you can stay afloat. I was more or less at the shoreline and the rest of the dive team surfaced within a couple of minutes of myself having surfaced.
It’s not the nicest sensation in the world, but I’m glad it happened. It allowed me to experience an out of air situation in a controlled environment when I could expect it to happen. Now I really do know what to expect in the future. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ear lock !

I really wasn’t expecting it, but this dedicated divers’ blog has had 157 visits (and counting) in one month of being online. I am quite impressed, to be honest. However, I would like to appeal to all of you out there who are reading this blog to join in the discussion through the comment section. I would like this place to become an exchange of stories, ideas, experiences, knowledge and more. I want it to become relevant as a discussion board for people who have dived in Malta, or plan to do so at some point in the future.
And so, on the headline topic – ear pain while diving, inability to equalize and the horrible sensation once you surface. I recently did two dives in one day in Gozo, the Billinghurst Cave and a boat dive in San Dimitri, the next bit of headland past Dwejra. I will soon publish blog articles about both once I have the pictures. The first dive was fantastic, but the second became mighty uncomfortable as I could not equalize beyond the 18-metre marker.
San Dimitri is a beautiful dive, fantastic for underwater topography and marine life, and so I managed to carry on with the dive at half the depth of the party, hanging around above them at the mentioned depth.
It hasn’t happened to me that often. I was fine, equalizing as I went, but once I got to 18 metres, I just couldn’t equalize my left ear. I kept on getting the whining sound and it literally felt like my inner ear wanted to explode. I tried ascending to 12 and then 10 metres, and it cleared up, but as soon as I got down to 18 metres, the same happened again.
As mentioned, I carried on the dive at a safe depth and eventually surfaced for the boat ride back. It literally felt like I had a pair of chimes in my left ear, and as time passed, it began to hurt like mad. This, of course, brought on a crushing headache. To be frank, I was worried, and I asked Jason – an experienced diver in our crew – what his assessment was. He simply said, don’t equalize on shore, don’t stick your fingers in your ear and take a decongestant once you get home.
It seems I was lucky, my ear just wouldn’t equalize and the eustachian tube (in the inner ear), which links the ear to the throat became irritated and swollen as a result. This created the false ringing in my ears and the pain and noise is similar to what people with sinus problems experienced. After getting off the ferry and driving home, I immediately took a cold and flu tablet and the pain stopped within 20 minutes (and it was indeed painful).
I decided to wait it out and was fully prepared to go to the doctor’s at some point, but then, about two hours later, I stood up and ‘POP’ it went. Back to normal, perfect hearing and no chime ringing.  But it could have been worse.

Diving Ear Pain
Ear pain occurs during the descent portion of a dive as the diver drops deeper underwater. As the diver descends in the water, water pressure increases on the external surface of the ear drum (tympanic membrane). To counterbalance this pressure, the air pressure must reach the inner surface of the ear drum. To do this, the Eustachian tube will open and allow the pressure behind the eardrum to equalize with the outside pressure of the seawater in the ear canal. But, if the Eustachian tube can't open, then as the seawater pressure in the ear canal increases, the eardrum is forced inward, inflaming the eardrum and causing pain. If the pain is ignored and the diver drops deeper, the pressure will continue to increase and the eardrum may burst (rupture). Cold seawater will then rush into the middle ear causing nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

Monday, August 2, 2010

It has to be wrecks

It has been announced that the government and the Malta Planning Authority are in discussions over the scuttling of a new wreck which is set to become a diving attraction.
No details have been given of where the planned site is to be, or which wreck is to be scuttled – but so far, so good. An Environmental Impact Assessment is due to be carried out and this is imperative.
While the authorities need to look at diversification in the scuttling of wrecks, so as to maximize Malta’s diving portfolio, this can never be done without conducting a serious study of the underwater environment. 
Many people think that underwater simply means green slime, sea grass and rocks. While this is part of the description, there is so much more and it is all intertwined into complex bio-systems. The decision was announced along with a measure to protect four sub-marine environments, with particular attention to be paid to the seabed posedonia fields. Again, many look at the plant with disgust – the alka that Maltese people love to hate, whether it is in the water or whether it is preventing beach erosion, lack of understanding makes people look at the plant as a pest of some sort.
Not only does posedonia encourage fish and other sea life to feed and breed around Malta, but as mentioned, it is essential in preventing sandy beach erosion and sustaining life. Ignorance is a dangerous thing.
In scuttling a new wreck, the authorities will be giving the diving industry another boost. We have one of the best diving products around – probably the best in Europe. The season can go on for almost 12 months of the year, given our mild climate and we do have a diverse marine environment – a far cry from the ‘dead Med’ which is a saying amongst the international diving community.
Malta is blessed with ‘natural’ wrecks such as the Blenheim bomber, the Beaufighter, the HMS Stubborn submarine and the Polynesian. But these wrecks (among many others) are located in very deep water which requires specialist training and equipment. To complement them, there are other natural wrecks in shallow water such as the HMS Maori and the Carolita, but by far, the mainstream of tourists head to the artificial wrecks which were scuttled specifically to become underwater attractions. These, apart from the botched MV Xlendi, are all brilliant sites in 30-40 metres of water and are accessible to most diving tourists.
The bulk of them are situated in the North – the P29, the P-31, the Rozie. All are shore dives and all are very popular. But the authorities do run the risk of congestion. There might be two schools of thought, but most divers agree that if the dive site is overcrowded, it does take something away from the enjoyment of the kitting up process and the dive itself. Perhaps a good site would be Zurrieq, to complement the gem of a diving site which is the Um el Faroud. The authorities should steer away from scuttling the new wreck in harbor waters. 
Visibility is not good and overhead traffic always poses a danger to scuba divers. A dive entry point need not be a beach. All that is required is a good solid handrail (or a platform to jump off) and a good ladder to get back up. The site which is chosen could be anywhere at all – as long as it is safe, accessible and does not cause harm to the underwater environment. There are also a couple more pointers which the authorities should consider – a shaded area and the provision of fresh water to wash kit on the spot.
 One can guarantee that divers would pay to use the water service – salt wreaks havoc on kit – the quicker it is cleaned the better.

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