22. May, 2018

The Marshall Islands are a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines. It consists of 29 atolls, together containing around 1200 smaller island spread over an area of the size of Mexico. The people of the Marshall Islands are of Micronesian origin, which is traced to a combination of populations that emigrated from Southeast Asia in the remote past. First Islanders probably settled around 1000 BC by Mayo/Polynesians. Later it was visited by Spanish navigators, German traders and American whalers. The islands were governed by Japan from WWW1 to the end of WWW2. After almost four decades under US administration as the easternmost part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands attained independence in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association. Current president  Hilda Heine is much concerned with the future of the Marshall Islanders and the dangers of rising sea levels.

Such a vast archipel of atolls and smaller islands is almost impossible to describe comprehensively, so I shall here focus  on two major environmental issues: rising sea levels and the aftereffects of nuclear testing (extracted from a number of sources and articles). Starting with a brief description of some of the better-known settlements.

Majuro Atoll, the capital, has a population of nearly 25,000.  Supermarkets and roadside family stores provide a wide variety of products and services. Majuro, home to the majority of the Marshallese population, is a town of 19,000 on a 30-mile ribbon of land that’s never more than 2,000 feet wide. In almost every corner of Majuro, you can hear or see the ocean or the lagoon. Its commercial importance is seen in the lagoon, where tuna ships and cold-storage freighters drop their anchors. Here the rising sea levels and storms have also taken their toll. Human graves and tombs washed into the sea, crumbling sea walls, and residents who continue to live with the ocean lapping at their door.

Rongelap Atoll is a coral atoll of 61 islands with a total land area is 8 square miles (21 km2). It encloses a lagoon with an area of 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2). It is historically notable for its close proximity to US hydrogen bomb tests in 1954 and was particularly hit by fallout from the Castle Bravo test. Twenty people remain from the more than 300 who lived there prior to the test.  Most inhabitants were removed by US Navy to the Atol Kwajalein, where the US had located their command center for nuclear tests (see below). Three years later when Rongelap was declared safe they returned home.  In the years after the tests, many islanders suffered from thyroid gland cancer, miscarriages, and mutated fetuses. Only in 1958, the remaining inhabitants moved to Majuro.

Runit dome, 1000km Nw of Majuro. Is a  deep crater  with a  concrete dome op top  called the ‘tomb’ by the Islanders,  containing the  radioactive debris of 67 nuclear tests, still leaking  through underwater channels 

Kwajalein Atoll is leased to the US military and is the target point for intercontinental ballistic (non-nuclear) missile testing. Since 2000, Kwajalein has become one of five preferred target location for Pegasus missiles. Entry to this area containing 97 separate islands is heavily restricted and virtually closed to non-military visitors. 1/3 of the income of Marshal islands comes from leasing the atoll to the US  ballistic missile project and employment offered to islanders.  Kwajalein functioned as refuge island for Rongelap not so far from Bikini  Atoll. This occurred several days after the nuclear bombing on March 1, 1954. 84 islanders were then evacuated to  Kwajalein after being stripped naked on the beaches and tested with Geiger counters.  Many islanders infected themselves by picking up white foam dropping on the beaches looking like washing powder. Coconuts and other fruits were infested with radioactive isotopes. Compensation claims continue as a result of US nuclear testing on some of the islands between 1947 and 1952.

The threat of rising sea levels and storms On the climate top in Bonn chairman Fiji warned that through rising sea levels the lower islands of Maldives and Marshal island areas were in acute danger to become permanently immersed and uninhabited in the coming 30 years. Occasional storms  and floods are part of life on a coral atoll, but since 2008 they’ve occurred with alarming frequency. As sea levels rise around the islands, bigger waves will flood farther inland than ever before. If enough of these waves hit in succession, flooded saltwater will intrude the islands' freshwater supplies. According to new studies of USGS (The US Geological Society), salt water is now penetrating drinking water resources.  The low-lying atoll nation is in a state of emergency, experiencing a drought that could see fresh water run out for capital Majuro in three months. It is also vulnerable to rising sea levels, with “king tides” regularly flooding homes.

The Marshall Islands have an average height of just 2m above sea level. That is much higher than in  Holland, the country where I live that lies below sea level and where the Dutch already started building dikes in the 17th century. The Marshall Islands are deprived of these technological facilities,  a reason for many inhabitants to emigrate to the USA were already  20.000  seem to have found jobs in the chicken farming industry. Islanders still have the right to emigrate to the USA and many inhabitants now take single fare trips from Honolulu to the US.

Underwater world  In the northwest, Bikini Atoll’s largely undisturbed waters, used as a ship graveyard after World War II, are now a popular wreck dive site.  Other sites, in particular  Majuro atoll, have been recommended for scuba diving. Near Majuro atoll the coral reef at Kwajalein Pass seems to teem with marine life and steep drop-offs. Scuba diving or snorkeling is what most of the mere 5,000 tourists a year that visit the Marshall Islands do. Most want to see the vast variety of fish, some are in it for wreck diving. The largest wreck and the only diveable aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Saratoga, is found on the bottom of the Bikini Atoll lagoon. The lagoon within the atoll is said to contain abundant marine life because no fishing is done here.

In 2011, the Marshallese government established a 772,000-square mile shark sanctuary in the islands, about four times the size of the state of California.  According to officials it is the largest shark sanctuary in the world  that encompasses the entire nation.  Regulations include a complete prohibition on the commercial fishing of sharks as well as the sale of any sharks or shark products. Its zero retention stipulation requires that any shark caught accidentally by fishing vessels must be set free.

Go before it is too late. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global sea levels will rise between 26 and 98 centimeters (10 and 38 inches) by the year 2100, which some scientists consider an underestimation.  Either way, it’s conceivable that the entire population of the Marshall Islands—some 80,000 people whose language, and traditions are tied to these atolls—may soon be forced to leave their home. Scuba divers could help these islands, their inhabitants and culture to survive, by providing some financial support to build fortifications against the rising sea.  Some say that the best way to experience and enjoy the beauty of this atoll empire is to travel by boat to one of the 1,200 isolated outer islands away from the urban centers of Majuro, Kwajalein, and Ebeye. Residents of these islands still live mostly off the land, fishing and harvesting bananas, papaya, coconut, taro, and breadfruit. Life on the outer islands is relaxed, and most have no phone, internet or tourist facilities.

 

Sources and links:

https://scubadivingresource.com/destinations/pacific-south-pacific/marshall-islands/ 

http://www.justgottadive.com/dive_resources/travel_articles/diving-marshall-islands-bikini-atoll-shark-pass#.Wv8G-DSFOvE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJuRjy9k7GA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4fdxXo4tnY

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_testing_at_Bikini_Atoll

http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/22-things-know-go-marshall-islands/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/marshall-islands-concrete-dome-holding-nuclear-waste-could-leak/news-story/52169e48cdfe041682e9e6c5b103fd6d

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runit_Island

25. Mar, 2018

Plastic products have flooded the world, in take-away restaurants, aircrafts, airports, supermarkets, just name it.  Practically everything seems to be packed in plastics bags and covers, consumed on plastic plates, with plastic forks and knifes  or drunk from plastic bottles and cups.  But there is much more: plastic piping, raincoats, clothing, wraps, cotton tabs, adhesive tape and toothbrushes….

Left: Ocean polluting  top-scoring countries 

Anger and disgust of those protesting against plastic in the past two decades have had practically ZERO impact. Its production is still rising and has almost tripled in last decades. The arguments of protestors are already known by the producers but have been insufficiently coordinated to become a serious threat to the plastic producing economy. Two probable reasons why it has proven to be so difficult to get rid of plastics is that they also have a good side and that alternatives have not yet been sufficiently worked out.

The good  Plastic is made from a byproduct of crude oil, a nonrenewable resource. Although it has only really existed for the last 60-70 years, it has transformed in that period everything from clothing, cooking and catering, to product design, engineering and retailing. Plastics manufacturing is a major part of the chemical industry, and some of the world's largest chemical companies have been involved since the earliest days. Plastic was initially seen as a gift from heaven: it was light, cheap to produce and suitable to pack almost everything.  It is widely used in transportation, computers, aircraft,  building,  the sanitary industry, in the material used for wound closure, transplants and for storage of blood. Plastics are light, corrosion resistant, strong, increase the quality of food packages, improve health, and ideal to conserve materials. One of the great advantages of many types of plastic is that they're designed to last - for a very long time. In summary: its societal benefits are found in three broad application areas: (i) energy-saving uses, (ii) uses that conserve materials, and (iii) uses that assure consumer health and safety.

The bad.  The bad part of plastics is that because they are so light they can travel long distances by wind and water and that plastic bags in particular pollute our land and water. They litter our landscapes, get caught in fences and trees, float around in waterways, and can eventually make their way into the world's oceans. Second in littering come plastic bottles. A million plastic bottles are sold around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% in coming years. Plastic drink bottles are made from a polymer called PET, which  chemicals xylene and ethylene, are extracted from crude oil.

The big six drinks companies that produce  PET  (including the Coca-Cola  company) so far have done  very little to stimulate recycling their plastic bottles.  A Guardian investigation this year established that consumers around the world buy a million plastic bottles a minute and plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.

Polluting countries top five. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are the top five polluters, according to a report from the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. In these Asian countries, only about 40 percent of garbage is properly collected. Across Asia, trash is often still piled up in communal dumps where the lighter parts are swept up by the wind and cast into the ocean. Plastic bags are commonly found in waterways, on beaches, and in other dumping sites across China. The good side is that more strict Chinese limits on ultra-thin plastic bags significantly reduced bag-related pollution nationwide during the past year. The country avoided the use of 40 billion bags, according to government estimates. A survey however also found that nearly 96 percent of open food markets throughout Beijing continued to provide bags. The policy exempts the use of plastic packaging for raw meat and noodles for hygiene and safety reasons. Even with mounting interest in banning bags in stores, China’s booming delivery industry  is expected to continue to present an increasing  cause for concern in the future

Our Oceans and marine life  The oceans absorbed 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic trash in 2010, with China leading the list of contributors, according to a report on plastic waste published in the journal Science. Plastics debris in the World's come from tourists, sewerage overflows, landfill sites near coastlines, illegal dumping and accidental industrial spillages. If waste practices don't change and economies and populations continue on their present trajectories, the mass of plastic likely to flow into the oceans each year will just about double by 2025, the researchers projected.

Fish and other sea animals can ingest large pieces of plastic that clog their intestines or can become entangled in plastic and suffocate, studies show. As the plastic breaks down to smaller pieces, it can be ingested by smaller invertebrates that are the base of the food chain. If a plastic bottle and its cap get into the ocean, it will probably eventually make its way to a part of the ocean like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it may be eaten by a bird or sea turtle. In addition, much larger particles like ghost nets, buoys and plastic cables dumped from fishing boats have recently been found in much greater quantities in the GPGP than before. 

Is there a solution? A number of quoted arguments

- Waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW) is the process of generating energy in the form of electricity and/or  heat from the primary treatment of plastic debris

-Today’s waste-to-energy plants are sophisticated and clean; they demonstrate that controls can be put in place to appropriately manage emissions and byproducts

-Urging supermarkets to stop using plastic packaging saving billions of pounds of investment in recycling has failed to resolve the world’s plastic proliferation crisis.

-Recycling of plastic bottles is considered one way to get out of the labyrinth of the negative impact of plastics on the environment. 

-But: even though recycling is sold as a flagship green practice, recycling itself isn’t an environmentally innocent process. The collected bottles need to be washed, which causes water pollution and requires even more electricity

-Incineration: there’s a real possibility that some of those microparticles will be entrained into the air and they will be carried around and we will end up breathing them.”

-If plastic is incinerated, it may release highly toxic chemicals, called dioxins, and even more carbon dioxide than if it were landfilled.

-Biodegradable plastic is plastic that decomposes naturally in the environment. This is achieved when microorganisms in the environment metabolize and break down the structure of biodegradable plastic. The end result is one which is less harmful to the environment than traditional plastics.

-The real solution is avoiding disposable packaging altogether. Bottled drinks are low-hanging fruit for change because they are so easy to replace with reusable drink bottles.

-This approach of preventing waste before it happens is called zero waste. Because most environmental impacts are embodied in the manufacturing of the product, we need to prevent environmental harm before it happens. This is a far superior approach to just treating symptoms of the problem, as we’ve seen recycling unsuccessfully try to do for many years.

 

Sources  and links

Andrady AL, Neal MA (July 2009). "Applications and societal benefits of plastics"Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci364 (1526): 1977–84. 

https://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/04/bpa-free-does-not-mean-safe-most-plastics-leach-hormone-disrupting-chemicals/

http://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic

http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-06/a-satellite-photo-shows-dive-spot/9512638

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ocean_Cleanup

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodegradable_plastic

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873019/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/12/supermarkets-stop-using-plastic-packaging-former-asda-boss-andy-clarke

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27442625

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-42264788

https://america.cgtn.com/2015/02/27/indonesian-communities-fight-waste-dumping-in-rivers

https://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/4-radical-solutions-to-packaging-waste.html

http://www.eco-business.com/opinion/heres-a-solution-for-the-global-plastic-and-energy-crises/

https://news.sky.com/story/the-queen-bans-single-use-plastic-on-royal-estates-11247482

http://www.audubon.org/news/these-5-countries-are-biggest-plastic-polluters         

http://www.trendingpackaging.com/the-most-common-eco-friendly-alternatives-for-plastic-packaging/

http://www.bpf.co.uk/packaging/why-do-we-need-plastic-packaging.aspx

queen bans plastic

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/katie-patrick/21-reasons-why-plastic-bo_b_12848918.html

 

 

3. Feb, 2018

In a couple of weeks it’s time to get ready again for my annual trip to the Bahamas and to enjoy some warm sunshine to burn away the blues of this exceptionally grey and wet winter. The plan is to stuff my gear in two suitcases, weighing not more than 10 and 23 kilo’s, if  I follow  the  baggage limits  of  Delta airlines.  No diving bags or backpacks, but two Samsonite rollers,  a smaller carry-on  suitcase with  the fragile camera parts and lenses, and a larger check-in  suitcase  with the camera housings, maintenance kit, domes, 5mm wetsuit, regulars fins, mask, snorkel and personal items.

Left: map of the Bahamas with the major shark sites marked as  yellow dots (Tiger beach, north of Grand Bahama, Bimini at the left, and Cat island at the lower right at the edge of the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean)

This year’s trip will my 7th in a row of visits to the Bahamas. Two  years ago I started to document my addiction to these beautiful islands and their magical sharks in a number of blogs. That was on 24 April 2016, Oct 9 2016,  February 9 2017 and March 3 2017 respectively.  I’m afraid that much of this article might be rumination of older stuff, with little news for those that have read the earlier blogs.  Never mind, since I  find it always it pleasant to unload my preoccupation with an upcoming major diving event and try to insert some new material.

The trip  Easiest and most economical are flights from Amsterdam to Nassau with a  stop-over in Atlanta. Nassau is the ideal hub for local airlines like Bahamas AirSky Bahamas, and Western Air  to visit Bimini, Grand  Bahamas (West End) and Cat island. These islands are presently the top three for UW photographers in search of big sharks.  Winter is the best season to meet tiger, lemon and Caribbean sharks at Tiger Beach, north of West End, as well as the great hammerheads at Bimini.  Spring is  best  for the oceanic sharks  at Cat Island (see also the map above)  These locations can also be visited with a live-aboard, like I did six years ago with  Jim Abernethy’s Shear Water, crossing the Gulf Stream from Palm Beach to Tiger Beach (see also  Jeb Corliss recent impression of this site taken with a new 360 deg. camera). But  I now prefer the more comfortable resort-based operations,  using day trips to reach the nearby shark sites. 

Baiting and more The sharks from the Bahamas are always willing to pose for photographers. Sharks don’t do that spontaneously. Just like doggies, they appreciate little snacks, in particular bits of tuna, grouper or even mahi-mahi handed out by dive master from his metal box. We should not call this feeding but baiting, it’s not the quantity  than counts but the incentive quality. Unlike feeding,  baiting will not  interfere with  the normal feeding behavior of sharks and not lead to a shark frenzy.  Nor are there any signs that baited sharks may endanger diving  or non-diving visitors in the vicinity.

Wild animals tend to lose their natural fear for humans, once they have learned that they bring not danger but something tasty. For example food  is also effective to  attract very shy predators like  wolves. In the new documentary  film Jane Goodall describes how after her initial frustrating attempts to make contact with the chimpanzees in Gombe,  placing some bananas in their territory did the ‘trick’ and made  it much easier  to approach the chimps from  a  very close distance. Later she discovered that she had to restrict the supply  to prevent the chimps from scavenging and becoming too obtrusive.  There is also a negative side  of wild animals getting too familiar with or coming too close to humans. One is that  they may become an easier prey for hunters or poachers (just think of the tragic faith of  two socks the wolf that befriends officer John Dunbar in the film Dancing with the Wolves).

Another example of (un-intended) ‘baiting’ of predators are wild boars or even  grizzly bears scavenging through garbage boxes at the outskirts of  towns  or villages. Probably a sign of their shrinking territories by the ever-expanding human settlements. Then there is the constantly growing number of tourists visiting beaches adjacent to territories of the Great Whites in Australia, which may lead to potentially  dangerous interactions, when these apex predators mistake surfers for their natural prey.

Shark bites and tourism  In our crowded cities  many vulnerable pedestrians or  cyclists are hit daily by motor vehicles. Recent statistics  show that more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road  traffic crashes. But such accidents normally  receive much less public  attention than  an occasional shark bite, because they are regarded as an inevitable  part of modern society.  In contrast,  certain media are still obsessed by reporting  bites or even 'nearly bites' of sharks. Just type the word shark bite on Google to check out for yourself.  Sharks do not feed on humans, but may indeed accidently bite an  arm, leg or foot of someone swimming with no protection in deeper water, or when a diver gets too close to baited sharks. Two years ago a  Dutch producer of adventure documentaries was bitten in the shoulder when he moved into a bunch of baited Carribean sharks at Bimini, but later proudly showed his injuries to the media. Which of course contributed to his reputation as the brave shark man. Unfortunately, not only risk seakers but also the greater number of tourists arriving  in the Bahamas with cruise ships may increase the probablity that someone gets bitten by a shark.

Bahamas two-step That said,  let’s  now look at some more pleasant sides of  the  shark trips. A new option of some scuba operators is to combine two trips in succession to different islands with different sharks.  After three days of  shooting hundreds of pictures of tiger or lemons sharks, one  tends to get saturated.  It is then great  to move to another  location of the Bahamas visited by an entirely different species. There is only one restraint, the season. End February is ideal (also weather wise)  to combine Tiger Beach  with  Bimini.  End March is OK  to ‘do’ Bimini  (end of great hammerhead season)  with Cat Island (start of Oceanic season).

Last year we did a combined Bimini/Tiger beach trip in February with Sean Williams of Neal Watsons crew from Bimini. This year  the same type of operation is run  in reversed order (Tiger beach--Bimini) by Vincent and Debra Cannabal of  Epic diving. An airline called Flamingo Air now runs daily  flights with  a twin engined Beech99 aircraft between Bimini and Grand Bahamas. Overall, the local flights at the Bahamas are pretty safe, except that this Beech99 had a crash landing at South Bimini in August 2016 caused by  the right wheel collapsing during landing, luckily  with no injuries. So better carry your rosary with you on these  flights (-;

What lens and combo With so many different sharks at a close distance, conditions are optimal for nice shark portraits. But for each type of shark there is that very specific moment that will make your shot unique, and to match the ideal image you might already have in your head.  Although perhaps not the most spectacular species, I always find the Carribean shark a great target because of if its elegant torpedo shaped body (see the front page for example).What camera lenses  should one take along on a Bahamas trip?   For shark snapping that would  be a wide-angle or fish-eye lens.  I normally take the Ikelite D7200/Tokina 10-17 combo and the smaller Olympus EPL5/PT-EP10. On the Olympus set I use either the  8mm Lumix Panasonic or  the Olympus F1.8  8 mm lens with extension ring.  I further use the less bulky 5 inch and 4 inch  mini domes,  and the  same set of Ikelite sub strobes DS 161  on both combos. The  strobes are connected via electrical cords with  the Ike housing.  On the Oly housing I use fiber cords triggered by the internal flash after fitting Ikelite optic converters  # 4401.1 on the strobes. The reasons why I still have the old EPL5/PT-EP10 combination are that  it  is light and small, and  that  I cannot yet see the advantages of the more sophisticated models in the Olympus OM-D range. My little Oly is ‘multipurpose’ since I can also use it for macro shooting with a 60 mm Olympus lens and +5 Subsee diopter screwed on a 4 cm extension tube (not for sharks!). With sufficient sunshine, I take both camera’s down  to the sharks.  I use the Ike with strobes to start with,  and leave the Oly with filter on the flat sea floor for ambient light shots at the end of the dive. There is a risk though that a tiger shark  at Tiger Beach may steal your camera on the sea floor;  such things have happened before! 

13. Jan, 2018

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow    

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row

Bob Dylan (1965)

 

Stories of legendary sea creatures such as mermaids have existed since ancient times. Mermaids share much with  the sea and river nymphs, with one exception that nymphs don’t have fish-like tails but legs. Both mythical creatures have always fascinated writers and pictorial artists. Not only physically –they are almost always young, beautiful, long-haired and enchanting- but also for their mysterious and contradictory characters. In some legends mermaids appear as  dangerous, fatally  attractive, or even as agents of evil. In other, they are loveable and sweet but tragic because of their unfulfilled, often doomed romantic ideals.

Left: William Waterhouse, Mermaid

Perhaps even more important is the mermaids two-sidedness, fluctuating between two extremes: sweetness, purity, and love on the one hand and monstrous cruelty, when offended. Their unpredictability perhaps also contributed in creating their image of autonomous  ‘free spirits’: independent and untouchable  creatures of the sea.

Why is mankind  so fascinated by mermaids? Is it because we  once lived in the sea in a distant evolutionary past, when our feet and hands had not yet evolved from primitive caudal and pectoral fins? Looking at mermaids we perhaps recognize traces of our own ancient past and the essence of our own existence.  Some might say  that mermaids and nymphs are ‘nothing but’ male projections of  dreamlike female creatures. Symbols perhaps of both men's idealization and fear of women.  Mermaid tales  often circulated among sailors deprived of contact with women for long periods while they traveled across the big oceans, sometimes even mistaking manatees for mermaids. The two sides of mermaids, loveable and frightful,  also  fit  with the two faces of  the sea: sometimes peaceful and then cruel and dangerous. 

Even in modern times  the mythical mermaids have a strong appeal to the world of commerce and advertisement.  Mermaids have even have become a role model for transgender girls and women. Just like like ’mermaiding’ is now a form of modern escapism, with monotails scoring high as ‘must haves’ for  owners of private swimming pools Women can now even join mermaid schools where they are trained in breath-holding, free-diving and swimming with the awkward and potentially dangerous tails. Professional mermaid models are often capable to hold their breath for three minutes, allowing underwater photographers to shoot along  while the  model changes pose, occasionally interrupted for short gulps of air form a hookah regulator. Hannah  Frasar (alias  Hannah Mermaid) is such a professional mermaid star that combines mermaiding with ocean ecology activism. Sadly, some of the less fortunate and probably also less experienced models have paid for mermaiding with their lives and drowned. Possibly trapped by the clumsy tail, resulting in panic and inability to reach the surface.  

Transformations of the mermaids image. The earliest  classical visions of mermaids  were negative, and very different from the modern more positive and romantic vision of the mermaid as a tragic heroine. Just remember how Odysseus the hero from Homers epic poem the Odyssey escaped the Sirenes, notorious for their enchanting but fatal singing that lured sailors  to jump in the deadly currents. On the advice of the sea-witch Circe, Odysseus instructs  his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast while approaching the island of the Sirenes. This is how he and his crew survived the deadly birdlike sea nymphs living on a nearby island on the rotten remnants and bones  of the male victims of their deadly songs.  

Only recently, in the 19th century, romanticism transformed the negative image of the mermaid, when her unstable and capricious character became a virtue rather than a dangerous trait. Most of the mermaid ballads had their roots in Ireland,  Danmark, and Germany. Not only romantic writers and poets but also painters like Arthur Rackham, John William Waterhouse, and Gustav Klimt found their inspiration in the tragic and mystical side of mermaids and sea nymphs. Here follows a selection of the most famous tales from that romantic period.

Irish mermaids The beautiful songs of the Merrow-maidens, sea-fairies from Irish folkore, were meant to lure men to them – just like the Sirens of Greek mythology.  The Irish were suspicious of these sea fairies, who could be violent or friendly by turns. Tales of violence (such as pulling the arms and legs off of their victims) were not uncommon. Interestingly,  merrows were only able to live in the sea with a special magic cap  called a cohuleen druith. Sometimes the merrows became married with men from the land.

The little mermaid  (Den lille havfrue) is perhaps one of the most famous and saddest  Danish fairytales (written by Hans Christian Andersen) about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to marry her human lover,  a prince she had once observed while swimming along the coast. The story is full of tragic episodes. The price the little mermaid has to pay for having legs (by drinking a magic potion)  is  the constant pain as if she is walking on sharp knives  when she walks or dances with her prince. The little mermaid will die with a broken heart when her lover marries the princess, and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

Disney’s famous  Hollywood movie version of the little mermaid named Ariel had a happy end but met mixed criticisms.  Some  felt that ‘Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.’ But others described her as ‘a .. denatured Barbie doll, despite her hourglass figure and skimpy seashell brassiere’. Ariel even seems to have become a role model for transgender girls.This raises the question why? It cant be the wish to change her sexual identity because the mermaid remains a female even with legs, but now better equipped to please her male idol. It was her love for the Prince that made her wish to change from  humanoid to human. 

Ondine  Even more dramatic is the mermaid ballad of the beautiful water-nymph Ondine, a  folk-tale written by the French poet Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. His story must have also inspired Andersen in his little mermaid writing.  It starts with the prophecy:   if a nymph ever falls in love with a man and bears his child, she will begin to age like a mortal woman, losing her eternal youthfulness and everlasting life.   The sea nymph Ondine (=little wave) has no soul. Only by marrying a man and bearing a child she can obtain a soul. After falling in love with a  handsome man,  Ondine gets married and gives birth to their son. From that moment on her beauty began to fade,  a reason for her husband to return to his first love Princess Bertha. On meeting her former lover again on the day of his wedding to Bertha,  Ondine speaks her curse: ‘You pledged faithfulness to me with your every waking breath and I accepted that pledge. So be it. For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep, that breath will desert you.’ So her lover was doomed to stay awake forever, or sleep and die by suffocation. A respiratory disorder that results in respiratory arrest during sleep is also known as  Ondine's curse

Loreley and the Rhine maidens The ballad of Loreley was composed in 1801 by  German author Clemens Brentano.  It tells the story of the beautiful Lore Lay who, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and drowning her lover in the Rhine. But rather than sentencing her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way to her destination, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. When she is up the rock, she thinks that she sees her love in the Rhine and falls to her death; the rock still retained a murmuring echo of her name afterward. Lore Lay then becomes the legendary of a siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracts shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the poem „The Lore-Ley“,  in 1824. The Lorelei ballad was set to music in 1837 by Friedrich Silcher and is today one of the most famous  German Rhine songs.

The  Rhinemaidens are the three water-nymphs  who appear in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner probably was inspired by the Loreley saga in creating the  Rhine nymphs. They are the guardians of the Rhine gold and act essentially as a unity, with a composite yet elusive personality. Their initial attributes are charm and playfulness, combined with a natural innocence; their joy in the gold they guard derives from its beauty alone, even though they know its latent power. However, this veneer of childlike simplicity is misleading; aside from proving themselves irresponsible as guardians, they are also provocative, sarcastic and cruel.

 

Sources and links:

De zeemeemin. Vincent Kouters. NRC 12 Januari 2018.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid

http://www.loreley-info.com/eng/rhein-rhine/loreley-song.php

http://ingeb.org/Lieder/ichweiss.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mermaid

https://archive.org/details/rhinegoldvalkyri00wagn

 

 

 

20. Dec, 2017

Underwater caverns, caves and tunnels come in many varieties – from freshwater springs to volcanic island walls and limestone coasts, to Antarctic  icebergs and coral reefs. Many of these locations offer scuba divers enclosed spaces with a mysterious although potentially dangerous attraction. Deeper caves  are  not for the weak hearted divers, and certainly not for the claustrophobics.  It depends of course on  the amount of confinement:  the shallower caverns in general have sufficient orientation points, often with patches of blue at the entrance or end, or  light beams breaking through crevices and  holes in the ceilings. But penetration in the interior mazes of  deeper tunnels and caves is a different story:  more for the brave, well trained adventure and risk seekers.

Types of caves Seawater caves come in two varieties, littoral caves  and submerged land caves. Littoral caves are created by erosion:  the constant action of waves attacks the weaker portions of rocks lining the shores of oceans.  Many of these can be found along the coastline of  Mediterranean and its smaller islands. Related to these  littoral  caves are the  tunnels and caverns found  in coral reef formations in the open sea, where movements of the sea have caused openings, passages and crevices  in the  more fragile  parts of limestone beds or dead coral.   An example are the caverns of Fury Shoals and Shab Claudia in the southern  Red Sea. These caverns and swim-throughs  have become a hot spot for  UW photographers  eager to capture  the light beams breaking through cracks and holes of the ceiling of the caverns (see picture on the frontpage).

Submerged land caves Other underwater caves were originally  land caves that  became partially  or completely submerged through rising sea levels over thousands of years. Most of these caves are formed in limestone rock where calcite (calcium carbonate) is the main mineral. Here nature’s scenario followed five big steps that reflect the coming and go of successive periods of climate change: 1) acid rainwater dissolves the limestone, carves caves and tunnels deeper below  and  subsequently fills  the network of caves and passages   2) water drains out of the cave through lowering sea level and/or tectonic lifts,  3) stalactites and stalacmites are formed in the now dry caves by leaking rainwater, and 5) rising sea levels through melting ice submerge  the caves again with salt water. Caves with ceilings higher than sea level were partially flooded, leaving some remaining air space.

At some locations underground  river systems entered the caves and tunnels with sweet water, mixing with  high density  lower salt water layers. An example are  the  Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula where the spectacular underground rivers formed a vast labyrinth of passageways and tunnels, flooded with crystal clear water. Some of the partially air filled cave ceilings became too thin to hold their own weight, collapsing and creating sinkholes or natural windows as entrances to the underground river system.  In these sink holes divers can experience the halocline, the boundary where the shallower fresh water on the top mixes with the sea water below resulting in amazing mirror and light effects. It is said the Cenotes were once used by  the Maya Indians for sacrificial offerings. Recently the worlds-longest-underwater-cave-system of 347km (216-mile)  was identified at the Yucatan peninsula. This connects the Sac Actum cave with the Dos Ojos tunnel complex. Probably this once was the Maya's metaphorical underwater world to which the cenotes formed the entry. 

In the Yucatan cave systems the sweet water of the underground rivers  mixes with the salt water layers. But other caves, for example in Florida, contain only sweet water produced by underwater rivers. Florida’s best diving caves are hidden in the northwestern corner of the state in Ginnie springs. This complex of  caves and tunnels  is fed solely by freshwater springs that flow through mazes of limestone passageways. The springs have the reputation to offer strange sights of underwater chambers—fossils, stalactites and sunlight beaming in from holes in the cave ceilings.

Grand Bahama has the second largest underwater cave system in the world, with over 32,000 feet of mapped tunnels (see Bens cave). The caves were formed during the last Ice Age when the sea level was much lower, leaving most of the Bahama banks that are now covered in water high and dry. In the subsequent meltdown the sea level rose again and  the caves were reclaimed by the sea. Another  notable example of a submerged  saltwater cave  is the Cosquer Cave  located in the south of France near the Calanques of Marseille. The entrance to the cave is located 37 m (121 ft) underwater, due to the Holocene sea level rise. The cave contains some miraculous prehistoric rock art engravings. It was discovered in 1985 by and named after diver Henri Cosquer, but its existence was not made public until 1991, when three divers became lost in the cave and died. During the glacial periods of the Pleistocene, the shore of the Mediterranean sea was situated several kilometers to the South and the sea level up to 100 m (330 ft) below the cave entry.

Hazards,  apparatus and training Good buoyancy control, trim and finning technique help to preserve visibility in areas with silt deposits. This counts for all caves including the more friendly and shallower caverns. As said, penetrating in the deeper caves and  tunnels is more for technical divers trained in procedures to survive in the  dark and dangerous submerged  labyrinths. Often a guide line (permanent or temporary)  between the dive team and outside of the flooded cave ensures that divers follow the correct routes.  Regular cave divers carry redundant equipment: for almost every piece of equipment they carry a spare. This is to make sure that if something undergoes failure, there's a replacement to take over and allow a safe return to the surface. It could include extra lights,  an extra mask,  regulator,  safety line, or a piece of equipment that ensures a diver's survival, like an oxygen tank. Many cave divers use side mounted cylinders that facilitate switching tanks and crawl through narrow passages. Rebreathers  are sometimes used for longer bottom times and to avoid bubbles. Cave divers are also trained to control situations like  getting out of air, avoiding stress and panic, navigating with  zero visibility, swimming back to the entrance of the cave. Helping  and freeing  a buddy that gets entangled in a  safety line etc.

The friendly caverns More shallow and divers friendly caverns have become a ’special’ for UW photographers*. They require shooting with natural ambient light with your ISO cranked up (say to 6400), large apertures and possibly also lower shutter speeds.  Here  UW photographers try to capture the light beams breaking through gaps in the ceiling, preferably cutting the interior in diagonal angles like cathedral lights.  A  diver on  the background,  perhaps aiming  a torch could be an interesting subject to  fill up the scene. The major concern in caverns  are divers getting too close to the floor kicking up silt, which means the end of visibility.  A snooted strobe can be fine to create a special lighting effect, for example to light up a colorful  branch of soft coral at the entrance of the cavern, without affecting  its background.

Sources and links:

 The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer by Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin (1996) Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York ISBN 0-8109-4033-7 English translation by Marilyn Garner from the French edition

Exley, Sheck (1977). Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival. National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section. ISBN 99946-633-7-2.

*Underwater Photography Masterclass. Alex Mustard.  Ammonite Press, 2016, chapter  Chapter six.

https://filipinocavedivers.com/2013/05/23/how-are-underwater-caves-formed/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_diving

https://vimeo.com/92945642

http://www.underwaterdynamics.com/training/equipment_cave.php