In times of devastating hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, destructive bush fires spreading across the north-west of the US and a president of one of the most powerful nations in the world still claiming climate change to be a hoax, it’s more important than ever to raise as much awareness as possible to science-based facts and self reflect on what options every single individual has to support our unique and badly endangered ecosystem. As a diver, no matter wether you’ve just done your first certification or you’re a ‘pro by heart’, you should act as an ambassador to and protector of our oceans.

One of the most important facts for divers and non divers to understand, is that this sport does not interfere with nature on a higher level than any other sport practiced outdoors such as hiking, skiing or mountain climbing. Diving might even have a smaller footprint than those mentioned above – from your very first stage of training, a dive instructor should provide you with guidelines and techniques on how to preserve the seascapes and in what manner to interact with the dwellers there, whereas there is no mandatory briefing before people set out on their first hike ever or ski down a slope. Mountain climbing instructors do not necessarily have to provide information on how to protect the stretch of land they’re practicing on. Dive instructors do.

Ocean deoxygenation and coral bleaching

Ocean deoxygenation describes the loss of oxygen from the ocean. While studies show that during the 20th century oxygen levels were continuously decreasing due to surface warming, there is a prediction of a further loss of 3-6% of oxygen concentrations in the 21st century. Warm water can’t hold as much oxygen as cold water, so when the surfaces of the oceans heat up due to climate change it causes a direct loss of oxygen. But hand in hand with a rise of the surface temperature comes a change in density of the now warmer water. The cold water from below is way thicker than warm water from the surface, which makes it more complicated for the two layers to mix up. In the end this doesn’t only leave us with the heated up surface water, which can’t hold as much oxygen as it used to, it also brings along a malabsorption of the narrowed amount of oxygen from the surface layer.

The process commonly known as coral bleaching is induced through increasing water temperatures. The collaboration between corals and algae is a rather special one. The corals have very high light requirements, which emerge from the symbiosis with the algae, which live in the cells of the coral and also provide them with their rich colors. The metabolic waste produced by the coral serves as fertilizer for the algae and in return they receive part of the vegetational photosynthesis products. A lot of coral subspecies depend on this as main nutrition as plankton alone can’t feed them sufficiently. Certain circumstances, incl. high water temperatures, can cause coral to reject the algae, and therefore loose their color and suffer death by starvation.

Shark and Whale diminution – and the impact on our climate

It’s no secret that the numbers of big marine predators like sharks are constantly decreasing. But recent studies from different marine conservation organisations display a new consequence. With the shrinkage of predatory fishes through fishing and fining, the biomass of smaller fishes and zooplankton expands tremendously, which produces more CO2 in general and decimates a fair amount of the important phytoplankton through nutritional consumption by said fishes. Phytoplankton, as proved in multiple studies, nowadays is responsible for 70% of Earth’s oxygen.

Whales are enhancing the growth of phytoplankton in a completely different way – by feeding at a depth of up to a few hundred meters and defecating at sea level they transport essential sources of iron and other nutrients across layers of water that otherwise wouldn’t mix. The phytoplankton at the surface thrives on this nutritional diet and therefore multiplies and absorb more CO2.

As divers, we should all try to display exemplary behaviour when interacting with the environment and living organisms above and underneath the surface and engage in our local diving industry to support diving with a minimal damage – e.g. by installing buoys where possible, so boats won’t have to drop the anchor.

For those who want to take the extra step towards a compensation of carbon dioxide released in regards of their (remote) dive holiday check out

https://www.atmosfair.de/en or for tips on personal cuts in rewards of reduced CO2 emissions https://www.carbontax.org/whats-a-carbon-tax/.

So while North America starts to evaluate the damage Irma has caused on its horrific way across the Caribbean Islands and onto mainland Florida, I hold my breathe and pray for the vast underwater landscapes and its inhabitants, that had to endure this powerful storm without any kind of protection. Hopefully those precious marine sanctuaries are still in a position in which they’re capable of rejuvenating themselves and won’t suffer too much from the damage they had to withstand.

-by Nina Berti Sep 2017

 

Sources

Keeling at al. 2010

IPCC 5th Assessment Report

https://www.nabu.de/natur-und-landschaft/meere/lebensraum-meer/02888.html

http://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/save-the-plankton-breathe-freely/

https://www.sharks.org/blogs/science-blog/sharks-in-decline

https://theconversation.com/how-overfishing-and-shark-finning-could-increase-the-pace-of-climate-change-67664

Photos: The Ocean Agency

Four months of hard work and a lot of fun are coming to an end. My divemaster internship in Panama Dive Center (PDC) finally ended and I will soon be a certified divemaster, a new Pro member! The enlightenment does not go as far as to having a white bright aura around me but it feels really great. Yes, I made it! Four months of learning, swimming, diving, dealing with clients, filling tanks, loading up boats, fixing equipment, workshops, practical skills and much more, all of that at the rythm of the divemaster song – despacito, suave suavecito, pasito a pasito!

I arrived as a recently certified Advanced Open Water diver with hardly 30 dives and still not completely confident about how to set up equipment and will leave as a divemaster with 115 dives and ready to guide, assist in courses, fix equipment and much more. Anything I could say would not make justice to the experience. Four months learning from great professionals in their day to day work, being part of it. Joy, fun, laughters, but also occasional frustration and exhaustion. All a person can ask for a truly unforgetable experience. This has been a long, exciting, challenging and very fun process that could only be possible thanks to all the wonderful crew that I had the chance to work with.

I am truly grateful to Camilo and Sabina, the owners of PDC for giving me the opportunity of being part of their team, sharing the passion of their lives with me and creating a very personal experience. Camilo has been my mentor during this 4 month journey across the wonders of professional diving. A lot of what I know now about diving is thanks to him. He has always performed with endless patience, optimism and great vibes and his trust in me has always been immense, which I really appreciate. If you end up in the right place with the right people, like I did, any 3 week divemaster course will never get even close to the quality of this experience. I have had not one but four professionals from whom to learn. My success in the course is not only the result of the great work of Camilo, my main instructor, but also de work of the entire team of PDC instructors: Sabina, Kim and Sofie. I have had the chance to watch their outstanding professionalism and learn from it every single day during these 4 months, both at the dive center and in our playground, the underwater world. Moreover, I shared this very enriching experience with another lovely divemaster trainee, Anais, and a team of other fantastic students – Lu, Katrin, Nina, Ari and Ani, that collectively made this experience worth a thousand regular courses. I have learnt something from every single one of them. I will remember Sabina for her oustanding teaching and organizing skills;  Kim for her rigorous and methodical work and her great humor; Sofie for her contagious enthusiasm and craziness; Anais for all her support and cheerful attitude during all our exercises and time together; Ani for her creativity and help 

and every single one of them for their valuable and unique ideas, opinions and ways of working, apart from all the fun we had together! And of course, although not a member of PDC, I also owe my success in the course to my girlfriend and PADI scuba instructor Alba. Not every one is as lucky as I am, having an instructor at home during his training! She is one of the best instructors I have met and I have learnt a lot from her, apart from benefiting from her continuous support and love.

From our fun scenarios for the Emergency first response course where someone would for example fake electrocution, to our assistant role during fun dives. From our Rescue exercise number 7 – which took quite some time until we performed it at demonstration level, namely, despacito, suave suavecito, pasito a pasito, to almost drawning during our swimming skills! Equipment exchange, discover local diving, search and recovery, night dive, discover scuba dive, snorkel guide…a looooooong list of tasks, tests, exercises that challenged us, exhausted us and most important, made us all laugh and enjoy. I am leaving a group of life-lasting mentors and friends.

I will miss Coiba and its wonders. The long boat rides under a burning sun or under a stormy apocalyptic sky, either of them equally amazing. The exciting dives under a strong current that brought to us the magic of the sea in all its splendour: hugeschools of jacks, snappers, barracudas, grunts, stingrays, eagle and devil rays… The more relaxing dives and all the wonderful reef inhabitants: gigantic moray eels, octopuses, frog fish, sea horses, triggerfish, and all the colorful fish like the moorish idol, the barber fish, parrot fish, angelfish and all the different kinds of puffer and porcupinefish. The unforgetable encounters with the lazy white tip sharks, the elegant turtles and the impressive humpback whales breaching the surface and delighting us with their magical songs. Pure, concentrated awesomeness.

I will also miss Santa Catalina. The beautiful Estero beach, the quietness and clean air, the sound of the waves at night and of the birds in the morning, the ‘carros’ bringing loads of veggies and fruit, the mango and avocado trees, all the coconuts we used to pick up on the beach, the multiple pot luck dinners we shared with friends, the surfers riding the waves…four truly unbelievable months!

It is over now and the only thing left is to wish a similarly amazing experience to all newcomers at PDC. Enjoy it. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the experience. Take from them and give back! Thank you all PDC members for an awesome time!

Humpback whales are easily recognized because of their enormous size, their majestic whale songs and their stunning aerial acrobatics, often breaching the water despite their large bodies and landing with a tremendous splash. A fully grown humpback whale weighs more than 5 adult elephants and measures up to almost 20 meters in length, the size of a big bus. Humpbacks possess a massive tail fin called fluke and unusually long pectoral fins (1/3 the length of their body!), which they use for navigation through the world’s oceans. The only known predator of such huge animal is a pack of very hungry killer whales.

Humpbacks have a very diverse diet consisting of krill, plankton and small fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel. Humpbacks do not have teeth but baleen plates, with bristles attached to them that prevent small prey from escaping but allow water to easily pass through. Since they don’t have teeth they have to swallow their preys entirely. The way they hunt is a real spectacle. They use a technique known as bubble net fishing. This involves a group of humpback whales swimming around their prey in a circle, blowing bubbles around their prey in order to herd the fish into a tight ball and creating  loud vocal sounds to scare the fish to the surface of the water. Then, the humpbacks slap their fins against the water to stun the fish and immobilize them. Finally, the whales will swim up with an open mouth and engulf thousands of small fish in just a single gulp, using their baleen bristles to separate water and debris from prey and their tongue to push the water out of the mouth and to swallow their prey.

Humpback whales feed mostly during the summer feeding season, building up blubber (fat) reserves that they will use during their migration and mating season. They make huge annual migrations from summer feeding grounds near the poles such as Alaska and Antarctica, where they enjoy cold nutrient-rich waters, to warmer winter breeding waters near the Equator where they mate and bear offspring. This means that the visiting humpback whales that we can see in Coiba have travelled thousands of miles all the way from Antarctica, making this the farthest migration of any mammal! Moreover, during this long migration and their time in Coiba, they will be fasting, hardly feeding and living primarily off of the blubber reserves acquired during the feeding season! Their time in Coiba is mating season so here they either breed or, in the case of pregnant females, they give birth. Females produce a single offspring once every 2-3 years. The average gestation period is 11-12 months. This means that a female humpback in Coiba will get pregnant one year and then migrate back to the South Pole while pregnant. Once there it will be feeding for a few months and will then migrate thousands of miles still pregnant and fasting  back to the safer warm waters of Coiba, to give birth to her only calf! The mother will nurse the calf for about a year, with calves drinking up to 600 L of her mother’ s milk in just one day! A calf will continue growing until approximately the age of 10, when they reach full adult maturity.

A humpback’s song is beautiful, unique and can last for a long time. Imagine that you are underwater and all of a sudden you start to hear a very complex and loud mixture of low-pitched moans, whines and howls. You look around trying to find the source. The sound wraps around you but you cannot see where it comes from, and you know this orchestra is the work of one of these huge fellows which is perhaps a few miles away from you, since their magical songs can travel for great distances through the ocean. Can you imagine it? Believe me, it is a truly unforgettable experience. And it is even more amazing given the fact that humpbacks do not have vocal cords and are unable to breath through their mouth, so all their sounds are produced by pushing air out of their blowhole. The songs are still surrounded by mystery. We still don’t understand the impressive humpback’s ability to produce songs of such complexity, and we are not certain of the purposes behind them. Typically one population of male humpback whales will sing a variation of the same song. Because whale songs are sung exclusively by males, it is believed that the song could be a mechanism for mating used by males to show off their vocal abilities and appeal to females. If this is correct and you have the chance to hear a whale song, think you are listening to one of the most complex acoustic mating rituals in the animal kingdom. However, female humpbacks have very rarely been recorded approaching a singing male whale and male humpbacks do not exclusively sing during mating season. Therefore, some scientists believe that there has to be another purpose behind their songs. Perhaps songs act as synchronizing symphonies guiding the migration of groups of whales. We simply don’t know.

At one point these amazing creatures were considered highly endangered due to excessive hunting and commercial whaling. Since then they have made a huge comeback thanks to protecting laws and a general increase in environmental awareness among the public. Most populations today  and are no longer considered a concern from a conservation standpoint. However, they still face a number of threats from humans such as entanglement in fishing gear, harassment by whale watchers, boat collisions, overfishing that compromises their feeding grounds, and water and noise pollution as well as other environmental impacts on their habitat. Entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris is known to occur during long migrations. Shipping channels and coastal developments may displace whales, discouraging them from breeding in an area that they would normally use. The population migrating in Central America is among the populations still at risk. Do not be discouraged, a lot is being done to improve their situation. I only ask you, if you want to see whales, wherever that may be, make sure you look for responsible operations that follow adequate guidelines for whale watching.

-By Rodrigo Villarino