26 January 2010

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO & 2000-YEAR-OLD BRAIN CORAL

Seaweed “garden” and detail of the ancient Brain Coral


It’s day 4 of a trip to Tobago, where I’ve just completed dive #3 towards my open water diving certification and my first opportunity to see the 2,000-year-old Brain Coral which brought me down here.

The real test for me started on Sunday with my first SCUBA dive outside of the reassuring confines of a swimming pool. SCUBA is one of those things that I doubt I ever would have tried without a motivator like the OLTW project. The sheer vastness of the oceans and the physiological wrongness of breathing underwater kept me happily on the shores (or on the surface, snorkeling, at least). Until now. The Brain Coral is the first underwater subject my list — a welcome tip from a biologist in London who happened to vacation here a couple years ago — and so here I am, overcoming a fear and working to advance my project in the process.

(Next on the underwater list: 100,000-year-old clonal sea grass in Spain, and another species of coral in the South Pacific over twice as old as the Brain Coral.)

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to start my training at home in NYC, thanks to Robert Elmes who supported OLTW by generously purchasing SCUBA lessons for myself and my sister Lisa (whom you may remember from the excursion to find the Clonal Spruce.)


DIVE #1
A baby step. We started on the shore and made our way down into a bit of reef after a skills review – removing your respirator then clearing it and breathing again, taking off your mask and replacing it, exhaling sharply through your nose to clear all the water back out, towing the limp instructor back into shore, etc.)

DIVE #2
The following day we got into the dive boat and headed out of the bay around to Little Tobago Island for my first real dive. I took some preemptive Pepto lest seasickness or nerves get the better of me. After the initial grip of fear (Robert reports my eyes were wide as saucers when we first rolled back-first off the boat and into the water), I was able to stop thinking so hard about my breathing and stat to look around. The visibility was around 20 to 30 feet, which I was told wasn’t very good…until I got in the water today.

DIVE #3: THE CORAL
Today was my first trip to the coral and my first time shooting underwater. I was still nervous, though not nearly as much. The dive was far more difficult today, however. The water had been churning and particles floated everywhere, casting a yellowish haze. Anything beyond 5 feet in front of you seemed to lose its clarity. It was rough going with the currents, though diving was far more to my liking with a camera in hand. The last stop on our dive route was the coral. It loomed in the low light, larger than that I had imagined – I’m told about 18 feet across and I’d venture to guess (water distorts your sense of scale) around 14 feet tall. It looked like a moon from an old science fiction movie, a little ragged around the edges (about a decade ago it was attacked by a school of fish which have since moved on, apparently), and imperfectly round, like it had been hurtling through space for a while. (I was also reminded to the Llareta, which, albeit terrestrial, shares some similarities of form.)

I don’t know if it’s the pressure of all that water, the swimming, the psychological hurdles, or all of the above, but each dive leaves us spent. So I leave you this evening with a max depth of 57 ft and total dive time of 133 minutes… and the plan to go back out their tomorrow in hopes of making more photos in better conditions.

3 comments:

Luna said...

Hello Rachel.
I read about you in CNN's article this week. I think your photo adventure has a great subject, photographing the Earth's oldest organisms and making them accessible to millions of people is awesome.
Thank you. Oh, and I'm very proud that the Brain Coral in my tiny home is featured.
I hope you don't mind, I wrote about your photography project and CNN's article on my blog.
Good luck with your future projects.
Luna

Sara said...

Hi Rachel,

I'm a geologist and study coral growth as part of my PhD project at the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution joint program and just came across your blog. I love what you are doing - amazing idea! I saw this coral on my first open water dive when I lived in Trinidad and it was one of the reasons I got into oceanography.

I was wondering - do you know how the coral was dated? ie. how the age of 2000 years came about?

Thanks!

Sara

rachel sussman said...

Sara - thanks for your comment. Please email me directly at me@rachelsussman.com, and hopefully I can help.