Jan 14, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 10

Photo of the Week
Sand Tiger Sharks on the USCG Cutter Spar, Olympus Dive Center, North Carolina 2009.
Visit www.evolutionunderwater.com to view more images.

Just a Few Words First
     Mid January is upon us and I continue to look out my window here in Beaufort, NC, awaiting winter to arrive. But, what I see is bright warm sun beaming through the louvers and not the signs of winter. Born and raised in the more northern latitude of Long Island, NY, I'm accustomed to cold, rainy and snowy days this time of year. This beautiful weather however, distracts me from my work and makes me eager to go diving. It has been more than a month since I have last dived and I hope this streak won't last.

     Since I have nothing fresh to report in my diving activities, I will substitute stories of my all time greatest dives. I have been very fortunate in my lifetime to have experienced some amazing moments under the water and would like to share them with anyone who will listen. 

     Also within this blog, I have included a Photo Tip of the Week since a certain reader, who I won't mention, complained that I skipped it in the last read. 

     If you haven't already, please sign up for my Dive & Photo Newsletter here. I should have a new edition out in a few days. Within the newsletter you will find stories and current events in diving and marine conservation and updates on what is happening in my part of the dive world. Here is a copy of the premier edition.

     Just a reminder to all of you who are planning on attending the Beneath the Sea Dive Expo in New Jersey this March, I will be presenting and conducting a photo workshop on wreck photography. Click here for more details.

     Hat's off to all you divers out there who have managed to get wet in the last month for I envy you at this time. I'll hope to be joining you soon. Enjoy!

-Mike Gerken

Mike's Top Ten Dives

    For the last few months, I have been scratching out on a pad next to my desk a list of my top ten dives and have found the endeavor to be much harder than I originally thought, especially, since I stopped keeping a log book a long time ago. At first, I had a list of about 20 dives, but after much debate and 'X' marks all over the page, I managed to narrow it down to ten. Then the dilemma of placing them in order from 10 to 1 started. By the time I was done the scratch pad was barely legible, but I got it done. The task of creating this list was an enjoyable one since it required rummaging through my memory banks of nearly 3-4000 enjoyable dives, bringing back so many great memories.

    The dives in this list span back 30 years; as long as I have been diving. "What will the marine ecosystem be like in the future?", I often ask myself.  With hard work and dedication to stewardship of our oceans and waterways, we can improve and continue to yield not only great diving, but sustain life for us as we know it. The task before us is a daunting one, but if you are like me you will rise to the occasion and thrive on a challenge. At the present age of 44, I get excited when I think of what the next 30 years of diving will bring. There is no pessimism here.

No. 10
The Wreck of the USS Perry
The USS Perry in 1942.
(Courtesy of NavSource.org)
     While living and working in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia from 2003-until 2008 on board the Truk Aggressor II and later the M/V Odyssey, I had the pleasure of vacationing in the neighboring island nation of Palau, also in Micronesia. While there, I began to hear stories about a fairly new discovery off of the southern most island of Anguar; the USS Perry. The 'Perry' was a WWII destroyer that had the distinction of being present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942, a day that has lived in infamy. She was reported to have shot down between one and four aircraft and an unconfirmed sinking of a submarine on that day. The USS Perry was sunk on September 14, 1944 on the east side of Anguar Island when she struck a Japanese mine during the US invasion of Peleliu, which is one of the Palaun Islands.

     The wreck was discovered in 260' of water on April 29, 2000 by a surviving crewman of the 'Perry' and a dive team from Fish n Fins dive center in Palau (read link for a more detailed history).  Due to it's extreme debts and isolated location, it didn't get dived very often. The fact that the currents in the area are notoriously strong where she sank only add to the lack of divers getting to the wreck.

Map of the Palaun Islands.
(Courtesy of Major Frank O. Hough)
     At that time, one of the dive operators in Palau who were set up to take divers to the 'Perry' was Sam's Tours in the town of Koror.  I approached two of the staff who dealt with the 'Perry' dives, Kevin Davidson and Matt (whose last name is eluding me) and explained I worked on the Truk Aggressor II and was looking to dive the 'Perry'. They indicated to me that they didn't go out there too often, but were due for a visit. My timing was perfect.

     As luck would have it, within 48 hours, I found myself on board one of Sam's boats with Matt, Kevin and one other diver (who I did not know), speeding through the Rock Islands on my way to the east side of Anguar. Running at a speed of 25 knots, it still took about 90 minutes to reach the resting place of the 'Perry'.

     As we rounded the north side of Anguar and headed south Matt and Kevin were anxiously waiting to see if the buoy that marked her position was still afloat. The strong currents that prevail often pull it under. After a minute or two, both yelled out with excitement that they could see the mooring buoy. We pulled up to the float and it was as simple as tying off to a mooring line that connected us to a wreck that laid 260' beneath us. No painful process of trying to hook the wreck would be required and with a light current, diving would be manageable.

     For the next twenty minutes we meticulously donned our gear, being sure to check and re-check everything. There can be no room for error on this deep dive. We each had twin 80 cft tanks with trimix, one steel tank (I think it was a 100 cft) with nitrox for ascending to and from the wreck and one tank of the same size with pure Oxygen for decompression. The water temp was approximately 82 degrees top to bottom, so I wore a 3mm 1 piece suit.

Artist rendering of the USS Perry.
(Courtesy of ©Fish-n-Fins.)
    Kevin, myself and the third diver, would dive today while Matt would stay topside to watch the boat. We rolled over the side and for the next three minutes the three of us descended down the line, hand over hand waiting to get a glimpse of this WWII relic. At about 180', as my eyes began to adjust to the lower light levels, I could finally make out the wreck 80 feet beneath me. The visibility was approximately 70 feet horizontally but the vertical was considerably better. At around 240' I let go of the anchor line and began swimming across the current, down the length of the USS Perry, starting on the stern section. The Perry, today lies heavy on her port side and is split in two with the break at around 1/3 the way back from the bow. This forward section is on a near 45 degree angle from the rest of the ship.
I'm holding on in the current
while Kevin snaps a few photos.
(Courtesy of ©Kevin Davidson)

The USS Perry with fully loaded depth charge racks; see below.
(Courtesy of navsource.org)
     With a bottom time of only 15 minutes, seeing the entire length of 315' of the 'Perry' would be pushing it.  We decided we would explore in more detail the aft section only. The first thing that caught my eye on the 'Perry' was a fully loaded depth charge rack on the stern and the large starboard propeller projecting out from under the ship. Kevin Davidson, an accomplished underwater photographer, asked me to pose by the prop for a photo op. I happily obliged by holding on to the blade so the current wouldn't pull me away.

Here I am swimming over the rack of
depth charges on the USS Perry.
(Photo courtesy of ©Kevin Davidson.)
    Soon after, we began to swim down the wreck exploring some of the cracks and crevices. The one thing that I was surprised to see was how poor of condition the wreck was in. At a depth of 260' wrecks have little surge to contend with and tend to stay intact much longer than those that sit in shallower water. I expected to see a ship that was more sound. The 'Perry' looked as though it was melting in one direction from the starboard side
to the port side, which is the direction of the prominent current. For 60 years, this strong current slowly and surely wore the ship down. I had never seen a wreck that received so much wear and tear primarily from current.

     About 10 minutes in to the dive, I looked at Kevin and indicated it was time and to head back to the anchor line to begin our ascent. We both looked at each other and shrugged after looking around for the third diver in our team. He was gone and without telling us. There was no time to do a search for him further up the wreck. We would have a look around on our way back.  After a few more minutes we still did not see him and with more than 45 minutes of decompression time accumulated it was time to head up.  We could only hope that we would see find him ahead of us on the anchor line.

     For the next 20 minutes we made our way slowly and surely up the line stopping at 130' for 1 minute and then every ten feet thereafter for our obligatory deco stops.  Finally, after looking up from 90 feet or so I could make out the third diver in our team silhouetted in the sun at 15 feet. That was a relief I thought. Diving to these depths in open ocean is nothing to take lightly.

    After a total of around 50 minutes (if my memory serves me right) I could finally break the surface and enjoy the heat from the tropical sun once again. Once all  were back in the boat the first thing the three of us did was give a tongue lashing to the guy who disappeared on Kevin and I.  Once we saw how much air he had in his twin set of doubles we kind of figured it out what went wrong without him having to say a word. His tanks were bone dry. He breathed his bottom gas down to zero at some point and had to head up immediately since switching to nitrox or Oxygen would have been fatal at deep depths. The lesson I learned here was, never do a technical dive with someone you do not know. Someone poorly trained or poorly prepared becomes nothing but a liability for you and the team. The only way to know if they are capable is to have dived with them under less extreme conditions or through a thorough interview process.

    Regardless of the mishap, diving the remains of a survivor of Pearl Harbor, at a depth of 260' in open ocean, was for sure one of my top ten dives of all time. On a scale of 1-10 for adrenaline pumping it scores a 9.5.

To learn the complete history of the USS Perry visit here and here.

Photo Tip of the Week

     I received a Facebook message recently from a dive enthusiast asking me what to do with his camera when descending and ascending from a dive with current. I wanted to respond with a short answer by telling him to simply use a lanyard, but then it occurred to me that using lanyards for your photo/video gear is a little more involved than a sentence answer.

     The first time I took an underwater camera beneath the waves was about 18 years ago when I rented a Sea & Sea Motor Marine from my local dive shop on Long Island. I was on a dive trip on a liveaboard in the Bahamas and on my last dive. I was about to climb the ladder to get back on the boat and clipped off the camera to my BC before doing so. Well, at least I thought I did. I let go of the camera, grabbed the ladder and headed up. After getting my gear off I went to un-clip the camera and guess what? It was gone. I searched the bottom under the boat for twenty minutes only to learn that this camera floats. Ugh! Now it was really gone. (Sadly the crew didn't lift a finger in assisting me.)

     That was the last time I ever used a lanyard for any of my gear. Today, I do every dive without a lanyard and so far to date I have never dropped or lost my rig. By holding my camera in my hands, firmly, at all times, I know exactly where it is. I'm not suggesting lanyards are bad to use for everyone. I'm just saying I don't like them.

     Lanyards are also problematic for other reasons. Some of them are made of coiled stretchy rubber or retractable line that does nothing but get tangled in everything and gets in the way.  Others have metal snaps on them that when stretched out and released will snap back at you like a mini missile and put a nice chip in your dome port. Not fun.

    I witness time and time again divers on my boat, the Midnight Express struggle with lanyards as I have just described. If you happen to be one of them please don't be offended, but heed my advice. Often a diver will climb on to the ladder on a choppy day with camera attached to them by a long stretchy lanyard. 9 times out of 10 that darn thing gets hung up on the rungs while they are trying to navigate the ladder safely back to the deck of the boat. I hold my breath nervously when I see someone with one hand try to unhook themselves and with the other hand hold on to the ladder while being thrown around like a mechanical bull. If you have to use a lanyard, unclip the gear from your body first, stow the lanyard away properly and then head for the ladder. This technique may save your equipment from damage not to mention your physical well being.

Simple and inexpensive lanyard. 
Sorry gear junkies, no hi-tech gear required.
    The lanyard I use while diving is an all in one tool that does not get hung up and is very useful for the crew to haul a camera out of the water from the swim deck. I'd seen these used for the first time while working on the liveaoards in Truk Lagoon. This system will work on any type of boat and I guarantee the crew will like it.  The best part about it is it costs a few dollars in hardware from the dive shop and hardware store. I have a short length of braided nylon line threaded through a 1/4" rubber hose. On each end there is a brass thumb snap. Each clip attaches to the eye's on the handles of my camera housing. When I jump in the crew will lower the camera to me using this handle to lower it. It keeps the camera and strobes level, making it easy for them to handle the rig and reduces the possibility of your camera getting damaged. Once in the water, I detach the handle and clip it off behind me out of the way on a D ring. Now it doubles as a lanyard if I need it. Since the handle is short and semi rigid, it never gets tangled in anything and I don't even know it's there. If I need it in an emergency, I reach around and recover it easily enough. Otherwise, I do not use it again until I'm ready to pass the camera up to the crew after the dive is over. The crew can recover the camera with the use of one hand and not two. It is safe, cheap and very effective.
   Happy shooting.


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Anonymous said...

Hey Mike, Great blog. Deep dive. Although a trip to South Africa is my 40th Birthday wish, Truk and Palau are on my wish list. I use a lanyard system on the exact same tray (and similar housing) as shown above. I double clip to both my right and left d-rings and the camera rests flat in front of me. I get off the boat by unclipping one, handing up and then unclipping the other when I am sure the mate has it. However I should add that you are right, this can be cumbersome and is difficult at times, especially in rough seas, at night or if I have a slung 80 or large stage bottle on. I think the most important part of all of this is that I have my camera, lens, housing, and strobes all insured in case I do drop it and lose it (which is also good for accidental flooding). It costs a few hundred dollars a year but it well worth the price when you consider I am going in the water with somewhere in the ballpark of $5,000 in camera and equipment. Now that I think of it I must be crazy going in with that much gear at that cost!!! I am going back to my $800.00 point and shoot system.

Joe Eiche

Mike Gerken said...

Whatever works for you Joe. That is what is important. As long as I don't have to untangle you from the ladder buddy. Enjoy life and don't worry about the cost. Leave this life with a smile and lots of debt

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