The Sensual Sea
Story and Photographs by Doug Perrine
In the game of evolution, the winner is the organism that dies with the most copies of its genetic code replicated in successive generations. Nearly all creatures more advanced than bacteria use sex as the most effective method of accomplishing this goal, although some utilize other methods of reproduction as well. Sex is the most important progress in life on earth since the advent of multi-cellular organisms. Sex is the means by which genes are reshuffled, creating the variability upon which natural selection acts. Without sex, the only source of variability is mutation, which occurs naturally at a rate of one in every million or so replications - way too slow to produce the explosive adaptive radiation that covered the continents with dinosaurs, and later mammals, and filled the seas with 25,000 species of fish, plus marine mammals, marine reptiles, and innumerable species of sexually-reproducing invertebrates.
Sex creates variation from which nature can “choose” the fittest combinations. This allows a species to become fitter, and adapt to changing environments. Sex is more important than survival. Survival without reproduction is a genetic dead end, while reproduction followed by death leaves offspring to continue the genetic line.
It is no wonder then, that many animals will abandon their normal caution in pursuit of sex. It is also no surprise that predators, including humans, have learned to take advantage of this indiscretion. Three-spot damselfish rarely leave the shelter of the reef, except in early morning when they may dance a meter above the reef at the peak of a spawning loop. This is the moment when they are most likely to vanish into the jaws of a trumpet fish. Male sea turtles are so reluctant to abandon a female, once they have mounted, that they will endure severe injury by other males attempting to displace them. Knowing this, fishermen capture pairs of turtles by swimming to a mating couple and tying a line around the female’s flipper. The male holds on tight as she is pulled over to the fishing boat.
Predators may target eggs rather than parents. Whale sharks appear during mass spawnings of fish and corals to vacuum up eggs and egg-eating plankton. For some organisms, including salmon and most octopus and squid, sexual reproduction is soon followed by death, allowing the parent to put all of its resources into the survival of the offspring. After mating, with certain death on the way, a female octopus has no further use for a male, and may have one for her last meal, to give her additional strength to see the eggs through to hatching.
Some species, like humans, have adapted sex to purposes other than reproduction. Dolphins use sex to reinforce social bonds, establish dominance, and for recreation. They do not restrict their sexual activities to those approved by humans. Typical dolphin activities, if performed by humans, would be classed as gang rape, child molestation, incest, sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, and promiscuity. Sex is so casual, scientists quip, that to a dolphin, “It’s like a handshake.”
This broad spectrum of sexual modes and partners is common among marine mammals, including manatees, sea lions, and seals. Among the most mysterious is the humpback whale. Humpbacks migrate to breeding grounds where they give birth, and presumably mate. However, there is not a single reliable recorded observation of humpbacks mating. I have perhaps come as close as anybody to witnessing this arcane event. I have often seen humpback whales engaged in what appears to be courtship. On three occasions, I have seen couples where one member had the penis extended 2-3 metres outside the body (it is normally hidden). In two of these cases, however, both partners turned out to be male.
Given the many different organisms that reproduce sexually, we should not be surprised that evolution has produced many variations on the sexual process. In many marine organisms, gender is not as clearly defined as in our own kind. In turtles, crocodiles, and some shrimp, there are no X and Y chromosomes that determine the sex of the offspring. Instead, gender is determined by environmental factors. In sea turtles for example, sex is determined by the temperature of the nest. High temperatures produce all females, low temperatures produce all males, and median temperatures produce mixed nests. By our tampering, such as removing shoreline vegetation or moving nests to shaded or unshaded hatcheries, we may be skewing the sex ratios of populations. Certain beaches in Florida where eggs were collected and incubated in Styrofoam coolers may have produced only males for years. Climate change may eliminate males from some populations altogether.
Other creatures change gender during their lives, or may be both male and female at the same time. Nudibranchs are simultaneous hermaphrodites. During sex, they perform male duties at one end, and female duties at the other. Afterwards, both partners crawl off to lay a ribbon of eggs. Some flatworms, also simultaneous hermaphrodites, have reproductive dynamics that give males the edge in producing more offspring. When two meet, both rear up, evert their dagger-like penises and stab at each other. The winner of the duel punctures the loser’s body wall and injects sperm, fertilizing the loser’s eggs.
Some hermaphrodites are less simultaneous than others. Hamlets (small seabasses) play one sexual role at a time. A spawning pair circles around until one member releases eggs, and the other sperm. Then they reverse direction, and roles.
Many larger basses, such as Nassau groupers, are sequential hermaphrodites, changing from one sex to the other during their lives. Most sex-changing groupers are protogynous i.e. maturing first as females, and later becoming male. However some females never change sex, and some males may not pass through a female stage. Nassau groupers are normally solitary. Annually, they swim many miles to join spawning aggregations. They spend days to weeks preparing for the main event, gathering in tens of thousands, flashing different colour patterns at each other. On the final evening, males abandon their normal diagonal brown stripes in favour of a black & white “tuxedo”. Clusters of males surround individual females, which dash to the surface, releasing their eggs into a cloud of sperm.
Some groupers are simultaneous hermaphrodites when young, but switch to male later in life. In some cases, the males maintain harems of hermaphrodites. The hermaphrodites mate only as females with the harem master, but may also mate as males with each other. In other cases, the harem master is also a hermaphrodite, and mates only as a male with its concubines, but may mate as a female with the harem master in another territory.
Many parrotfishes and wrasses are also protogynous sequential hermaphrodites. The terminal phase is often a “supermale” that is larger, more colourful, and more dominant than initial phase fish, which may also include males. Sexual dynamics vary between species. Supermales are often sex-reversed females, but in some species, initial phase males may also progress to terminal phase. Some species have several alternative life history patterns.
In the Caribbean blue-headed wrasse, only terminal-phase males have blue heads, while initial phase males and females and juveniles are all yellow. Supermales dominate spawning, as they are able to maintain spawning territories along the perimeter of the reef, which attract females. Initial phase males participate in group spawning and also sometimes spawn as “sneakers” or “streakers” - dashing in to release sperm just as a female is spawning with a supermale. Initial phase males, however, have lower reproductive success than terminal males. The number of available territories is a function of the circumference of the reef, and the number of terminal males is in direct proportion to that figure. The overall ratio of males to females in each population is also a function of the size of the reef, and can be mathematically shown to optimize the reproductive potential of the population. The mechanism by which the gender of each fish is determined is unknown. In other wrasse species, gender is socially determined - it depends upon the sex ratio already present in the population.
In anemonefishes and in the parasitic isopod Anilocra (segmented “bugs” that attach to the heads of reef fish), sex determination is by chemical control. Both are protrandrous (male first) hermaphrodites. The largest and most dominant fish in an anemone is the female. There is usually one male, and some smaller non-reproductive fish. The female exudes a pheromone that prevents the male from changing sex. If the female dies or leaves, the male becomes a female, and one of the juveniles becomes a male. Likewise in Anilocra, the large visible individual is a female, which exerts chemical dominance over much smaller males which also live on the host fish. If something happens to the female, one of the males takes her place.
In some organisms, the two sexes start out as different individuals, but merge into one body. In deep-sea anglerfish, spoon worms and parasitic barnacles, the male starts out life as a free-swimming larva, follows a chemical trail to the female, enters her body, and is absorbed, becoming little more than a clump of sperm-producing cells. Spoon worms boast the animal kingdom’s greatest disparity in male and female body sizes. An eight-centimetre female can contain a male only one to three millimetres long. By contrast, most angelfish and butterflyfish lead boringly conventional sex lives. Both sexes look alike; most mate for life and are rarely seen more than a few metres from their mate.
Some sea creatures maintain conventional sexual identities, but reverse the normal parental roles. In most damselfish, jawfish, cardinalfish and seahorses, the eggs are brooded by the male (in the mouth for jawfish and cardinalfish). In one species of frogfish, the female lays eggs on the side of the male’s body, where he cares for them until they hatch. Male seahorses have a ventral pouch where the female deposits the eggs for brooding. A different type of role reversal occurs in one type of mantis shrimp, where females aggressively pursue males, sometimes injuring them as they strike them with their claws.
Some brine shrimp have dispensed with males altogether, and form all female “Amazon” populations. Sponge shrimp colonies are mostly female, but, like bees and ants, produce a few drone males to fertilize the queen’s eggs. As with social insects, the queen shrimp is the only one that reproduces. The worker castes are all sterile females.
Many sea creatures ensure successful mating through elaborate behavioural rituals, costume changes, and communication via visual, audible, chemical, and electrical signals. Neon-like colour patterns shift over the bodies of unicornfish, squid, and cuttlefish during courtship. The foghorn-like booming of toadfish trying to attract a mate and the songs of male humpbacks in breeding season can be deafening underwater. Small reef fish often swim ritualized “dance” patterns and/or flash bright patterns hidden under their fins. Stone crabs scratch the striated “fingerprints” on their claws to “telegraph” the opposite sex, while fiddler crabs raise a brightly coloured claw and wave it around. Flashlight fish, like fireflies, blink lights to coordinate their night time reproductive activities. Deep-sea fishes most likely use bioluminescence for sexual communication - some skates can apparently signal each other in the dark for sexual purposes using electrical impulses. Females of many species release pheromones that attract males. Whales, dolphins, manatees, turtles, rays, and sharks are among the organisms where a female in heat can attract a “rowdy group” of males, which may seriously injure each other while competing for access to the female.
Reef squid compete for mates more safely using colour displays. A male will often display one pattern on the side of his body facing the female he is courting, and another pattern on the opposite side, directed toward a competing male. Male Right whales do not fight for mates like sperm whales and humpbacks, but rather compete to produce the most semen - the more the better to wash out the seed of the female’s last mate and replace it with their own. This “arms race” has produced the largest gonads in the animal kingdom. The two testes can weigh over a ton. The penis is also a natural wonder, perhaps the longest on earth, but relatively narrow and flexible. It looks like an aircraft refuelling hose with an internal guidance system, able to locate and connect with a moving, and often resistant, target that is out of sight and 10 metres or so away from the whale’s head is quite remarkable. Successful copulation may depend on the presence of other suitors who restrain the female, then may take a turn afterwards.
Sharks may injure their mates as well as their competitors. Sharks utilize the more advanced reproductive strategy of internal fertilization and live birth. They do not merely spawn, or release gametes in the vicinity of their partner like most bony fish, but actually mate. The male shark has two penis-like organs, called claspers. However, he has no appendages equivalent to hands with which to grasp his mate. He uses his teeth for this purpose, often inflicting deep wounds on the female. Internal fertilization is also practiced by rays, chimaeras, marine reptiles, mammals and a few types of bony fish.
Most invertebrates are spawners, but some practice crude forms of internal fertilization. Cephalopods use an elongated arm or tentacle to slip a sperm packet inside the female’s mantle, which is probably a wise strategy, given the female’s predilection for cannibalism in some species. Some barnacles use a penis (the longest in the animal kingdom in proportion to body size), to squirt sperm into their neighbour’s shell.
In some corals, all polyps in a colony are of the same sex. Male colonies release sperm at the same time the female colonies spawn eggs. Other corals are hermaphroditic. During spawning, each polyp spits out a bundle that looks like a big egg, but is actually a bunch of small eggs and sperm all packaged together. The package opens at the surface, and the gametes go looking for “partners", but miraculously avoid fertilizing each other. Releasing eggs to the currents is called “broadcast spawning”. Some types of corals and sponges are broadcast spawners, but others are brooders, with the males releasing sperm into the water, and the females drawing it into their body cavities to fertilize their eggs. Broadcast-spawning corals and sponges need to coordinate their releases. It is believed that the actual release is a chain reaction, triggered by chemical signals from the first individuals to go off, but that the preparation is prompted by a variety of cues, including lunar phase, water temperature, tide level, day length, etc. A mass spawning can look like an underwater blizzard. In some areas multiple species coordinate their spawning on the same night, overwhelming the ability of egg predators to consume the vast amounts of material released.
While sexual reproduction is dominant among most creatures large enough to be visible to the naked eye, asexual reproduction is also important. Fragmentation - reproducing from broken bits - is an important method by which corals, sponges and other creatures can recover from a disaster and repopulate an area after a storm. Some corals and anemones can clone themselves by budding and/or fission. Some sea stars can reproduce either sexually (by spawning), by fission (splitting down the middle), or by autotomy (casting off a part which then regenerates the rest of the animal). Some can grow an entire body from a single cast-off arm. Sponges are the regeneration champions. In laboratory experiments, sponges have been ground up in a blender, then strained to separate the cells, and the cells were able to reform themselves into a new sponge!
In the sea, sex is all around you all the time. Dawn and dusk dives are generally preferred by subsea voyeurs as many reef fish spawn at these times. However, it is a rare dive where some type of reproductive activity is not occurring. Even clear seawater contains substantial portions of gametes and larvae, sometimes to the dismay of those who have personally discovered the connection between the spawning of the sea thimble jelly and the malady known as “sea bather’s eruption”. It is no wonder many divers describe their underwater experiences as highly sensual - they are actually swimming in a sexual soup!
Essay and photographs by Eirik Grønningsæter
The ocean has been looked upon as pristine, wild and impossible to deplete because of its abundance. However, during the last 50 years or so, collapses in fish stocks worldwide combined with an increased knowledge about our ocean, have led to several alarming discoveries.
The marine ecosystem is complex and difficult to understand, but there are clues we can use to monitor it. Seabirds are easily visible, and thus relatively straightforward to study. They are also completely dependent on the ocean. If the seabirds struggle, we can be pretty sure that the ocean is struggling, too. Seabirds are therefore perfect indicators of the health of our oceans, and at the moment, it does not look good. This essay is a celebration of the seabirds of the North East Atlantic.
“Oscars of the Ocean”- the NOGI Awards
By Hillary Hauser and Bonnie J. Cardone
The legendary father of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau received one, as did two astronauts, Scott Carpenter and Kathryn Sullivan, a former dive store owner (Mel Fisher) who found the fabulous treasure of a Spanish wreck, the man who made a blockbuster movie about a supposedly unsinkable ship James Cameron, another man (Howard Hall) who makes award winning underwater documentaries in 3D, and the inventor of the Newtsuit, a revolutionary deep diving system Phil Nuytten PhD.
All in there are over 200 NOGI recipients, including founder of Ocean Geographic Society, Michael AW (NOGI Arts 2013) — these are all people who have made significant contributions to the dive industry in four different fields: Arts, Sciences, Environment, Sports & Education and Distinguished Service.
When one thinks of what NOGI stands for today – excellence in work related to the ocean – exploring it, studying it, photographing it, preserving it – it is ironic that NOGI stands for New Orleans Grand Isle, and the NOGI statuette that was first made was spawned from the awards given to the spear fisherman who got the biggest grouper, biggest barracuda, biggest shark, biggest fish in the New Orleans Grand Isle Scuba Diving Tournament – (a three day spearfishing orgy started by Jay Albeanese and Louis Cuccia in 1959). This contest pulled in scuba divers from all over the world, who got on boats and sped out to Louisiana’s offshore oil platforms to start spearing everything big. The event was an extravaganza that featured parachuting exhibitions, the inevitable posing for photos beside mammoth fishes bigger than their captors, and prizes ranged from sports cars and cash to trips to exotic places like Aruba. “Wednesday’s fishing proved that more and even bigger fish are still in the Gulf, and also brought forth certain species that had not been speared on the first day,” trumpeted the October 1959 edition of Skin Diver Magazine.
Of course, these were the early days of diving, before anyone had any idea of man’s impact on the ocean. In those early days, spearfishing was a natural part of going underwater. One year, Jacques Cousteau spent several days with these spearfishermen in Louisiana, both on and underwater. He is quoted as saying how fortunate the contestants were, “to have such an abundance of fish!”
Weaving itself into this spearfishing gala was the Underwater Society of America, which was founded in Boston on February 22, 1959. At its first convention in Houston, Texas, on August 20 that same year, the Underwater Society handed out statuettes identical to those given to the spearfishermen – but for another reason: outstanding contribution to scuba diving.
These were the first NOGI statuettes, which were described in Skin Diver magazine, as being, “richly carved from wood and symbolizing all diving…the underwater equivalent of the movie Oscar and the TV Emmy.” They were hand carved by the renowned artist Vero Puccio, from Honduran mahogany. The first people to receive NOGIs for contribution to diving were: Carl Hauber, the Underwater Society of America’s first president; Chuck Blakeslee and Jim Auxier, founders of Skin Diver magazine; Eugene Vezzani, chairman of the World Championship (a spearfishing tournament) finance committee; and George Youmans, chairman of the convention at which those first NOGIs were awarded.
The NOGI spearfishing tournament was discontinued decades ago. The NOGI Awards, however, have been presented without interruption for over 50 years. Once the province of the Underwater Society of America, they have since been awarded by The Academy of the Underwater Arts & Sciences (AUAS), which was formed by Harry Shanks and Mary Edith “Mel” Lillis in 1993. Now, the AUAS is an international, multi-disciplinary, non-profit organization dedicated to recognizing pioneers and leaders who have had a global impact on the exploration, enjoyment, safety, and preservation of the underwater world. AUAS is committed to supporting its members as they pass on the stewardship of the sea to future generations.
The NOGI Awards are presented during the annual NOGI Gala, which is held in conjunction with the annual DEMA show every year. The DEMA host hotel is normally the AUAS-NOGI host hotel, and for 2014, this will be the Westgate Hotel (former Las Vegas Hilton), located directly beside the Las Vegas Conventional Centre, where the DEMA show is taking place.
The NOGI is given in four categories:
Arts: Filmmakers, painters, photographers, sculptors and other artists who bring the majesty of the underwater world to people everywhere;
Science: Explorers, inventors, doctors and scientists whose work helps us understand, enjoy and protect our precious underwater realm;
Sports/Education: Outstanding athletes and teachers who make scuba diving a safe, enjoyable and accessible activity for all who love the ocean.
Distinguished Service: World-renowned, as well as quiet achievers, whose contributions help the global diving community and the sport, as well as the health, well-being and understanding of the ocean.
In 2013, the AUAS Board of Directors added a fifth category in recognition of those who have made significant and specific contributions to the understanding of the ocean and its creatures - Environment,. The first recipient of the NOGI Environment award was G. Carleton Ray PhD, a world-recognized polar diving explorer and an authority on marine mammals (particularly walruses), who was on the team that wrote the U.S. Marine Mammal Act. Dr. Ray was also on the team that drafted the U.S Coastal Zone Management Act.
While most people receive just one NOGI, several have gotten multiple NOGI awards. Those with three are: William High (Sports & Education 1964, Science 1991, Distinguished Service 2006), and Andreas Rechnitzer (Science 1968, Distinguished Service 1989, Sports & Education 1999). Those with two NOGIs include: Eugenie Clark (Arts 1965, Science 1987); John Cronin (Distinguished Service 1985, Sports & Education 2001); E.R. Cross (Sports & Education 1975, Distinguished Service 1992); Glen Egstrom (Distinguished Service 1969, Science 1981); Hans Hass (Science and Distinguished Service, both 1998); Nick Icorn (Distinguished Service 1974, Sports & Education 1986); Mel Lillis (Sports & Education 1963, Distinguished Service 1994); Jack McKenney (Distinguished Service 1977, Arts, 1988); Bev Morgan (Arts 1990, Sports & Education 1995); and Chuck Nicklin (Sports & Education 1975, Arts 1986).
Father and son recipients include: Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Distinguished Service 1966), Philippe Cousteau (Arts 1977) and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Science 1993); along with Chuck Nicklin (Sports & Education 1975, Arts 1986) and Flip Nicklin (Arts 1994). There has been one set of identical twins, Bob and Bill Meistrell, who shared a 2006 NOGI for Sports & Education. Six husbands and wives have been winners, some separately: Jefferson Davis (Sports & Education 1981), Helen Turcotte Davis (Sports & Education 1983); Dimitri Rebikoff (Arts 1966), Ada Rebikoff, (Arts 2000); Ron Taylor (Sports & Education 1966), Valerie Taylor (Arts 1980); Paul Tzimoulis (Arts 1969), Geri Murphy Tzimoulis (Arts 2001). Some husband and wife teams have been honoured together: Jim and Cathy Church (Arts 1985); Chris Newbert and Birgitte Wilms (Arts 2003); Mort and Alese Pechter (Distinguished Service 2003).
Mary Edith “Mel” Lillis was the first woman to receive a NOGI (Sports & Education 1963). Eugenie Clark was the second (Arts 1965); Zale Parry, the third (Distinguished Service 1973); and Sylvia Earle, the fourth (Sciences 1976).
The NOGI statuettes have had several incarnations. The dark Honduran wood gave way to molded from polywood. In 2005, the celebrated ocean artist Wyland (NOGI 1998) created the beautiful Lucite statuettes given today.
NOGI Enters a New Era
Today, the headquarters for the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences has been moved to Santa Barbara, California. AUAS President is Hillary Hauser, who won a NOGI for Distinguished Service in 2009 for her work as co-founder and Executive Director of Heal the Ocean, Santa Barbara, California, and Executive Director is Bob Evans of Force Fin, who won a NOGI in 2005 for Sports/Education for his innovative equipment design and furthering of the sport of diving. Hauser and Evans are spearheading a revitalizing of the AUAS Board, and preparing for the “best NOGI Gala ever” in Las Vegas on November 20, 2014. During this Gala, the 2014 NOGI winners, all of them distinguished, wonderful people who have contributed mightily to the underwater world, will be inducted into the society of NOGI Fellows. They are:
ARTS: Richard Ellis – a distinguished artist whose marine life paintings are exhibited all over the world, author of many books, research associate in the American Museum of Natural History's division of paleontology, special advisor to the American Cetacean Society, and U.S. delegate to International Whaling Commission from 1980 to 1990.
DISTINGUISHED SERVICE: Lad Handelman – founder of two premier offshore underwater contractors, Oceaneering International and Cal Dive International, which pioneered much of the deep-diving technology that has become industry practice today, including saturation diving, the use of remote-operated vehicles and one-atmosphere diving suits. Also co-founder the Marine Mammal Consulting Group (MMCG) in Santa Barbara, California.
SCIENCE: Dr. Richard Vann – venerated diving physiologist with numerous publications (43 Refereed Publications, 61 non-refereed publications, numerous dissertations, abstracts and web-based training materials) and major contributor to Diving Action Network (DAN).
ENVIRONMENT: Bill Macdonald – long-time film producer with a focus on educational programming on watershed awareness, and producer of the series “Sea Pulse,” which includes “Our Synthetic Sea,” featuring the problem of marine debris with a focus on the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which won an award for excellence at the Santa Cruz Environmental Film Festival.
SPORTS/EDUCATION: Mike Hollis – CEO of Oceanic, Aeris, LavaCore and Pelagic Pressure Systems, who started his career as a commercial saturation diver working in the oil fields, who applied his knowledge of physics to start Pelagic Pressure Systems, which produced the DataMax, the first electronic dive gauge before developing 300 different dive computers and introducing two new rebreathers – the “Prism” for tech divers and the revolutionary “Explorer” for the recreational market.
The NOGI Award has a rich history that has evolved from shooting fish with spears to shooting fish with cameras. It has evolved with technology, the understanding of diving physiology, the exploration of parts of the sea never thought possible, and the appreciation of all sea creatures. Today, the brotherhood of the NOGI is tight, and the appreciation is high between NOGI Fellows who have dedicated their lives to the ocean and to the perpetuation of knowledge and love for all things in it.
Exploring a Time Capsule - Cuba
Essay & Photographed by Michael AW
If Christopher Columbus was alive today, the only place he would recognise on our planet would be Jardines de la Reina, “the Gardens of the Queen”, an archipelago of a thousand low-lying islands embraced by lush mangrove swamps. In his exploration of the Americas, Columbus discovered this magnificent outpost and named it in honour of Queen Isabella of Castile (the country that later become Spain). Since its establishment as a national park, Gardens of the Queen, has become Cuba's oldest and largest protected area. Strictly prohibited from any development, the Gardens have not changed since the time of Columbus. However, the great explorer could not have possibly seen the garden’s incredible splendour, as its secrets are largely beneath its wave.
Embargoed by the world’s most powerful country since 1960, Cuba became our planet’s biggest time capsule. Even HAVANA, THE COUNTRY’S CAPITAL, IS SURREAL like a freeze-frame from a Federico Fellini movie. Instead of googling on smartphones and tablets, children are found playing ball games in the street; you won’t find women ogling at the shop windows of Mui Mui and Prada either but they are often seen in curlers, hanging their laundry on balconies. There are no shopping malls in Cuba, no McDonalds, no Porsche or Audi showrooms but every so often, a 1952 Buick rattles past with a for sale sign in its back window.
Nothing is hidden and there is very little in way of advertising; there are no neon signs, no cinematic screens, no billboards on the highway, and the streets in the city are cleaner than those of Singapore! With trade sanctions, its rusty wheels clamped by revolution, Cuba’s economy has been frozen for over 50 years. Cuba is one of the last four remaining communist regimes in the world. But in recent years, the Castro administration, Fidel and his brother Raúl, have found solutions for the three big problems of the free world: free health care, free education, and lately free enterprise. I read about a Cuban that found a buyer for his crumbling mansion for $150,000 – bringing in as much as he would otherwise make as an average worker in 625 years!
Without a doubt, the nation is on the verge of change; the certainties of globalisation evident in the restlessness of its youth who dream of fast cars, smartphones and a new life in the West. To the ordinary folks, the impression of Cuba is tenuous, somewhat like Forbidden City - a scary place to go. Not many people have visited Cuba, let alone explore the Gardens of the Queen. For me, it is these paradoxes that make Cuba a titillating destination and the lure of a marine park declared by Fidel Castro, a diver himself who mandated Gardens of the Queen be preserved for posterity. Imagine a place that has never been fished commercially, no industry of any form, and then imagine exploring an underwater time capsule.
I was told that getting to Cuba would not be easy. With the on-going embargo, you can neither fly nor sail from the Miami, which is literally a stone’s throw across the water. In an AUSTRALIAN – Travel & Indulgence guide published on July 2012, it was reported that Cuba is not for the faint-hearted as the contradictions, misinformation and primitive infrastructure makes independent travel a real challenge. That itself was misinformation. It took me just five minutes on Google to learn that it is possible to fly into Havana on nonstop flights from Amsterdam, Cancun, Mexico City, Madrid, Toronto, Madrid, Frankfurt and Moscow! If you happen to be a resourceful American, you can also hop on a chartered flight from Los Angeles and Miami as well! I found a better option. I booked a Virgin Atlantic flight online, picked up my travel card (permit to enter Cuba) at Gatwick Airport, London, and flew nonstop into Havana.
Staying at the Hotel Parque Central, literally, I was beamed straight into the Time Capsule Central. Havana has more than 700 buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries; the "finest surviving Spanish complex in the Americas," inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. Many of the city's heritage buildings have been converted for remarkable uses: Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Plaza de Armas houses the City Museum, while Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras in Plaza de la Cathedral is now the excellent Restaurante El Patio. At Plaza de San Francisco, the colonial structures including Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis and Fuente de los Leones (Lions Fountain), is modelled after a fountain at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Havana is the cultural hotspot with some of the Caribbean's best art galleries, museums and a thriving local music scene. But I was not in Cuba for the art and history, I left the next morning at 4 am on a six-hour road trip across the island to Jucaro, the departure port to Jardines de la Reina, Gardens of the Queen.
Remotely located 95 kilometres off the south coast of central Cuba, the ’Gardens of the Queen spans 2,168 square kilometres. Declared as an IUCN Category II National Park, it is regarded as the last jewel of the Caribbean islands. The reefs of the Gardens are unscathed and boast the largest preserved (and least studied) coral reef system of the entire Caribbean - perhaps the world. This is the “Pearl of the Antilles” documented by science as the most biologically rich and diverse in the Caribbean. It is home to crucial nesting sites for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and has the healthiest fish density comprising the endangered Nassau and Goliath groupers. It is also reputed to harbour an amazing diversity of shark species - Silky, Caribbean Reef, Blacktip, Lemon, Nurse, Great Hammerhead and Whale Sharks – sentinel species indicative of a healthy ecosystem. Resilient coral reefs and robust populations of sharks and other finfish have led marine biologists to described Gardens of the Queen as a “window to the past”, a time capsule conjuring comparisons to what the Caribbean may have looked like 50 to 100 years ago.
On my five-hour journey to the marine park, I chatted with Noel López, a resident dive specialist with Avalon Diving – the one and only government controlled “joint venture" Cuban-Italian operator allowed to conduct scuba diving activities in the national park. The Castro government mandated a limit of 1,000 divers per year. Noel has been with Avalon since its inception 16 years ago. I have no doubt he is the local expert and he was to be my guide to this underwater Utopia. Noel stirred my imagination with promises of 200-kilogram Goliath groupers, three-metre crocodiles in the wild, tarpons by the schools and a huge number of sharks. A total of 80 sites await my exploration. He literally promised the encounters - “for sure we will see them”, he enthused. Noel’s talk about how Cuba’s marine and coastal resources have thrived during the five decades of isolation where neighbouring countries have suffered from mass tourism, fishing and rapid economic development. In the Queen’s Garden, coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves abound together with lush biodiversity providing shelter and sustenance to more than 200 species of valuable food fishes, crustaceans, molluscs and sponges. Adrenaline charges through my blood in anticipation.
On a halcyon blue sky morning, I back rolled from a nondescript fibreglass boat and was instantaneously transported back in time to an aqueous realm I have never seen before - not in my 32 years of diving all corners of our world. My first impression: the water is distinctively blue, the reef is like an untouched forest of the Amazon, mazes of never-ending foliage of sea fans, sea whips, sponges, soft corals as far as the eye could see. And then there are the sharks … a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, some two metres long, many greater than three metres swarm around blithesomely among enormous groupers; taking centre stage is a pair of Goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara) about 150 kilogram. I am in seventh heaven, in a neighbourhood of fishes in numbers and diversity I have never ever seen in the Atlantic. My consciousness expands to digest the monstrous enormity of a cinematic atmosphere, bigger than James Cameron’s Avatar battleground. In the distance, near the shallow reef edge, almost impalpable to the eye, I see millions of yellow snappers, jacks and creole fish darting around a slopping meadow of peachy coral trees and sea fans. Noel would later reveal among the crevices, a healthy thriving population of humongous crabs and lobsters.
After more than hour of savouring the luxuriant underwater playground, I return to the boat with a grin bigger than Bozo the clown. Then this thought occurred to me: the US embargoed contributed to this! Of course, it is distant, 80 kilometres from the main island, and inaccessible for most local commercial fisheries but it is mainly the protection rigidly enforced by government against poaching, that has allowed the park to flourish, free from any human battering. It is also indirectly the result of trade sanctions that have vetoed foreign investment for commercial development, greed from commercial fishing licences, and the influx of mass tourism - capitalistic curses that have caused mayhem in Australia, Micronesia, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand and even the remotest islands of the South Pacific.
The protected mangrove wetland, sea grass pastures and coral reefs are in splendid condition thus for marine scientists and naturalists, the Garden of the Queen is like an aquarium in the wild, the fish pond of the Atlantic. Though like everything else in Cuba, the Institute of Oceanography in Havana is dilapidated, hardware is deteriorating, and it’s very astute, well-trained scientists are grossly underpaid. But with recent changes, collaborations with USA NGOs and scientific institutions are now possible. David Guggenheim (PhD), from Washington DC, directs the Cuba Conservancy’s program with the mission to established and sustained collaboration between Cuba and the United States ensuring locally supported marine research and conservation programs. The fundamental of David’s program involves significant collaboration between Cuban and American scientists as well as conservation experts.
The two weeks in the marine park, I dived the inner and outer reefs, bays and channels among fertile coverage of mangrove islands. Of course between the mangroves, I managed some exhilarating face to face meetings with crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus). They are wild and curious but my wingman, Noel Lopez is ‘King of the Swamp’! I swam within the archetypal mosaic of mangrove forest to find massive colonies of orange cylindrical tunicates dangling from underwater roots, and juvenile barracudas congregating in small schools along ethereal corridors. Snorkelling the seagrass pastures, I saw healthy signs of burgeoning life. The patch reefs, fringing reefs and reef slopes teem with exquisite invertebrate coverage, abundant fish life - notably, sharks and large groupers are in exaggerated abundance!
One late morning, Noel showed me the ‘crown’ of the Gardens of the Queen: a shallow reef with expressive forest of tall Elkhorn corals -nearly 90% are alive rising to reach for the sky. They are in fact reaching for sustenance from the equatorial sun. Nestled beneath the canopy of Elkhorn branches, I found schools of yellow snappers in astounding densities. Crabs, lobsters, and long-spined urchin were also found in respectable numbers. Noel whispered that in twilight hours, Giant Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) lurk among the shadows of the Elkhorn forest to feast upon unsuspecting Tarpons. I made a mental note to return!
The technique of putting a shark into a state of paralysis is mostly done by inverting the animal. This state is commonly referred to as Tonic immobility (TI). A shark can often remain in this state for up to 15 minutes before eventually righting themselves and swimming away. TI is extensively used by research scientists when tagging sharks in the field, to minimize struggling by the animal and reduce the possibility of injury to both animal and human. In other parts of the world, I have seen TI used on Lemon Sharks, Tiger sharks, Leopard Sharks, Black-tip and White-tip sharks. One of the highlights at Gardens of the Queen was watching Noel immobilise a Silky shark in blue water. Noel first discovered the technique when he placed a juvenile Silky upside down with a little twist to its tail. Slowly, his technique improved and now he helps scientists researching on sharks. The animal does not suffer; it simply rests in a stupor, allowing scientists to study these magnificent creatures without having to use an invasive approach.
To watch Noel putting a 200 kilogram shark into a trance with just a little twist of its tail in blue water is a sight to behold. I have watched him stroke a three-metre long Silky with such care and gentleness; it was as though that shark was his child. It warmed my heart. Had Noel López lived in the west, he would undoubtedly be a media celebrity, renowned as the man who stroke sharks. For now, Noel López remains a dive guide who happens to be an excellent underwater photographer; perhaps the most inspired in the world. When you are born and bred in a country sanctioned by the world’s biggest economy for five decades, you have to be very resourceful to take up the challenges of shooting underwater. Noel owns the only SEACAM Nikon F100 film camera housing that is modified to house a current digital SLR. He did the conversion and he shoots as well, if not better than many of the wannabes in the west.
We get so little information in the media about the natural history of Cuba, that everything I saw was new for me. The most startling thing about Cubans was that, contrary to the popular pack journalism exposé, they are not stumbling in despair or despicable drug dealers portrayed by garb American dramas. Though there is some truth in that, it was half a century ago.* Today, Cuban has no luxuries and staples are tight, but they are proud and resourceful, making do with very little. I have seen far greater desolation and anger in Miami, New York, Bangkok, Chennai and Rome.
I learned that Castro was very astute about conservation. As a scuba diver and former spear fisherman, he is more aware than most politicians about the marine environment. He banned spearfishing (because it targets the larger reproductive fishes), the harvesting of live coral for souvenirs, and has helped make the spiny lobster fishery sustainable, which in turn helps not just the lobster and the fishermen, but also creates a valuable export product. To date, his government has established 51 Marine Protected Areas. Most are off the more remote southern coast. Cuba's wetlands are in great shape with the most extensive mangrove forest in all of the Caribbean Antilles.
Though Cuba’s marine environment is preserved in a time capsule, but at many levels, it is at a critical juncture. Of immediate threat are the lionfish - an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Lionfish are beautiful but destructive to Cuba. They first arrived in the Gardens in 2009, multiplied like rabbits and they are now everywhere, gobbling up all other ornamental reef fishes. The economic situation will also be precarious as when the Castro is gone, succeeding administrations may allow for massive investment from the USA and China, predicted to pick up from where Fulgencio Batista* left off.
For now, the Gardens of the Queen is largely comprises of relatively untouched reefs, representing “a time as it was before”. If these strict regulations persist in place, it is unlikely to become overcrowded, and without doubt, the Gardens will remain one of the last few underwater Heavens on Earth. As of now, the Floridian reefs benefit from the Gardens of the Queen by having ocean currents deliver larvae of fishes, lobster and conch. The ocean critters cross freely between the US and Cuba with no respect for American laws and embargos. For me, I just could not resist the beauty of the ‘Gardens’, the effervescence, and spirited complexity of the people, the mojito and rumba, and the exuberant beat permeating every facet of Cuban life. I made reservations to be back next year even before I left.
About diving the ‘Gardens of the Queen’
The marine park is only reachable only by live-aboard or staying at the “floating hotel”, also managed by Avalon Diving. It is essentially a big barge converted into a convenient dive resort anchored in the channel of a mangrove forest; it can accommodate up to 20-25 people. Each day, divers are transferred to dive sites with light, speedy boats. Avalon is also licensed to operate a catch-and-release fishing camp but limited to only 500 visitors per year.
* In the 1950s, Havana served as "a hedonistic playground for the world's elite", producing sizable profits from gambling, prostitution and drug for American Mafiosos, corrupt law-enforcement officials and their politically elected cronies. In fact, drugs (be it marijuana or cocaine), were so plentiful at the time that one American magazine in 1950 proclaimed, "Narcotics are hardly more difficult to obtain in Cuba than a shot of rum. And only slightly more expensive." In a bid to profit from such an environment, Batista (then dictator president) established lasting relationships with organized crime, notably with American mobsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, and under his rule, Havana became known as "the Latin Las Vegas." Batista and Lansky formed a friendship and business relationship that flourished for a decade. During a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in the late 1940s, it was mutually agreed that, in return for kickbacks, Batista would give Lansky and the Mafia control of Havana's racetracks and casinos.
Heaven Above, Paradise Below
By Matthew Smith
For me one of the most wondrous parts of any dive is the moment that the water engulfs my mask as my head slips below the surface. I think it is the anticipation of the unknown, of what lies beneath, the transition from one element to another and the thought of what alien creatures I might encounter that makes it all feel so magical. And that is what inspires me to take above-and-below pictures. I try to convey to the viewer that magical feeling in an image. It is also the best way to communicate to a non-diver - marry a wet, unfamiliar world with a dry, familiar one.
I view my above-and-below images as a single landscape photograph; a composition that complements both the above and below elements. I prefer brooding and atmospheric skies over blue sunny mid-day skies. I undertake many location scouts with my snorkel gear on. Whilst doing the scouts, I take reference pictures so I can plan how to make my final image when a suitable location has been found. A final image in my portfolio is often a well-researched and planned affair.
In addition to the visual components, there are some technical issues. To create an above-and-below image, you are basically creating a window into another world where light and focus behave differently When compared to the “air” part of the image, the underwater part will generally be darker, less contrast and saturation so underwater strobe lights are a must, especially on those dark and stormy days, at dawn and dusk. Wide-angle lenses are essential if you want to achieve an image that is sharp all over, though great effects can be made using a standard or short telephoto; the rule is to experiment.
If I were to give one useful tip when creating an above-and-below picture, that would be to use of a bigger dome port. The bigger the better! It helps to blend the two worlds by pushing the water line meniscus further away and makes it less conspicuous in your image. The large dome also increases depth of field, aiding sharp focus both above and below, near and far.
I have always used Aquatica housings for all of my underwater photography -their ingenuity, tough build and quality is exceptional in every circumstance.
“Your Move” – American Crocodile, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba – DSC2129
So for this shot, I am deep in a Cuban saltwater mangrove, snorkelling in about two metres of murky water and looking at a wild, two-and-a-half meter long American saltwater crocodile through my viewfinder. My photography has led me into a few interesting situations in the past, but this takes the cake. I was trying to stay as still as possible, and was mumbling profusely to myself, "Focus, frame, get the shot, and get out." It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life!
Nikon D810 Nikkor14-24 F2.8 Lens, Aquatica AD810 Housing
“Sailing” – A Portuguese Man of War (AKA Bluebottle), Bushrangers Bay, NSW Australia – 302_1026
During strong summer, due to the north easterly winds, the east coast of Australia sees huge armadas of Portuguese man-of-war siphonophores (Physalia Physalis or “Bluebottle”) washed ashore. Often mistaken as a jellyfish, each individual Portuguese man-of-war is a colony of four different types of organisms living together in a symbiotic relationship - a floating city of animals if you like, each one with its own important job to support the colony.
This image was taken in a place called Bushrangers Bay in Shellharbour NSW. I had noticed that the man-of-wars often get trapped in the bay, making them slightly easier to photograph in their natural environment. I wanted to pick out the beautiful colouration and detail in the tentacles against the eerie darkness of a stormy early morning. The wild atmosphere adds testament to the lifestyle of this sailor of the open seas.
Lighting was the most critical component of this image, as I needed to retain the desired darkness of water yet pick out the details of the animal. This took a lot of experimentation with different techniques over several weeks. Eventually, employing the use of fibre optic snoots on my underwater flashes enabled me to pick out just the right amount of detail without over exposing too much of the surrounding ambiance.
Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing
“A Silky Encounter” – 2 Silky sharks, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba – DSC2545
An intimate moment between two silky sharks at Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), off the coast of Cuba. I had specially constructed a huge 18" dome port to shoot above-and-below images and in these rough conditions, this dome came into its own in this shot.
Nikon D810 Nikkor14-24 F2.8 Lens, Aquatica AD810 Housing
“Sun marbled Silks” – Silky Sharks, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba – DSC2608
Shooting these silky sharks off the coast of Cuba was an incredibly difficult task. Not because they were hard to find, but because there were often too many moving too fast! So to single one out for an intimate portrait was quite frustrating. It required a high amount of concentration; luckily this one slowed down and peered into my lens port just long enough for me to capture the shot.
Nikon D810 Nikkor14-24 F2.8 Lens, Aquatica AD810 Housing
“New Pennies” – Silver Bream, Bushrangers Bay, NSW Australia – 302_4496
I have learnt from diving in Bushrangers Bay, that large schools of bream circulate the bay early in the morning, especially during periods of hot weather. I tried several ways of shooting them over the course of a few weeks but decided this was my favourite way to portray them. This was taken using a standard Nikkor 50mm F1.8 lens behind an 18” dome port. The lens was set to F4 to create the soft tonal 50mm goodness in the above part, with my strobes turned as low as they could go, to stop blowing the fish out. Luckily for these guys, Bushrangers Bay is a marine reserve, or they would have been on a plate long ago.
Nikon D300s, Nikkor 50mm F1.8 Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing
Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing
“Crimson Tide” – Waratah Anemones, Port Kembla, NSW Australia – 303_0007
Nikon D300s, Nikkor 10.5 F2.8 Fisheye Lens, Aquatica AD300 Housing
About Matthew Smith
I have always had an attraction to the water and the tricks it plays on light for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my brother and I snorkelling in France and the Mediterranean Sea. I can clearly remember my first experience of watching shafts of sunlight weave and dance down into the deep blue, carved by the rippling ocean surface. I bought my first Nikon film SLR a camera in my teens to try and capture what I loved to see and I used it to shoot the coastlines of my home country of the United Kingdom. It wasn’t long before my curiosity and appetite for shooting the ocean meant I would have to get in and shoot underwater, so I saved and updated my camera gear and bought an Aquatica so I could explore further. As my photography skills grew I needed to travel more to get the images. Now residing in Australia I have the worlds biggest playground at my feet, the Pacific Ocean….. And I have truly fallen in love with it."
Review by Brett Lobwein
One of the most important attributes to enjoyable diving is comfort. We all know when we’re breathing comfortably, we’re diving comfortably. So, I spent this winter trialing the available regulators in the Oceanic range, searching to find the best regulators for my varied diving needs. Due to extreme comfort, increased ease of breathing, the great colour, and an awesome look, the FDXi 1st stage coupled with the Zeo 2nd stage is now my new regulator combination of choice.
After diving with the GT4, then the EOS, I find the Zeo the most controlled and comfortable breathing regulators of the range. The diver’s inevitable "dry mouth" feeling is almost non-existent, so no more nasty-buddy-breath post-dive! Then, with a combination of a swivel, M-Flex hose, and orthodontic mouth piece, the reg sits perfectly in my mouth, which means greater comfort both during and after my dive.
I personally enjoy the ability to control my air-flow and utilise a set of regs that are applicable for the varied water temperatures and depths encountered at Port Stephens throughout the year. Temps here range from 13-26°C with depths from 5-45m across the multitude and variety of dive sites.
The FDXi 1st stage with an over-balanced diaphragm lends to effortless ease of breathing. Moreover, having a first stage that is environmentally sealed means I have one set of regs for all my diving needs, wherever I decide to dive. The compact and lightweight construction of the regs with in-line design, is extremely beneficial when travelling to help minimize space and weight. So, having one set of regs that I can use both recreationally & professionally suits me and my budget.
Clearly, after trying many different regulators, due to the reliability, consistency, and unexpected comfort, the FDXi 1st stage coupled with the Zeo 2nd stage is now my new reg combo of choice.
VTX Review by Mark Miller
Having had the prototype demonstrated by Doug Krause at a previous DEMA show, I was keen to get my hands on this next generation of dive computers (my first computer being a second hand Edge for those old enough to remember).
The unit is less bulky in person than the product shots might suggest and extremely stylish, making it a suitable companion for both male and female divers – this is no ‘brick’ on your wrist. The VTX is supplied complete with all accessories and spare batteries in a tidy storage case.
OLED Display - these displays offer exceptional contrast and ideal legibility in any condition, and the VTX is no exception – the screen size and orderly display layout make this a clear winner, particularly for those of us who are not the young divers we once were. You can set brightness manually or use the auto function – we had to dial it down at depth (68m) as it was almost too bright. Reducing the display brightness also improves battery life, more on that later. Like modern rebreather computers, critical data is colour-coded for importance, which adds a nice uniform touch.
Most of the powerful technology features are not visible at first glance, and the list is long but key features include – Bluetooth, 4 Gas Mixes, a 3-axis compass with proper tilt compensation, Hoseless Air Integration, and full App control to name but a few.
The Bluetooth functionality allows for a growing range of features and functions via Apps for Apple, Android and PC platforms – from the usual dive logging, to remote control of all computer settings, with ‘Facebook sharing’ and much more to come. As the computer firmware is wirelessly user updatable, watch this space!
For me though, simplicity is the standout design element – the intuitive menu system (Logic) is a departure from previous designs and is a major step forward. The computer’s menus and setup can be navigated with ease, without opening a page of the manual (obviously not recommended!), resulting in an extremely powerful yet easy to use computer, without the clutter. The key information is easy to follow, yet extremely powerful.
Finally, the critical element on any dive computer: Battery life. Oceanic has chosen to go with the CR2 battery (Duracell provided), which offers around 30-40 hours life, which some might consider expensive on batteries, however with testing I found brand name lithium batteries lasted 30-35% longer, and ‘cheap’ ($4) non brand name batteries still lasting 25-30 hours with the auto brightness feature enabled. However, the easiest solution – rechargeables. A charger and two quality rechargeable CR2s can be purchased for around $33, meaning you’ll never be without power. It is worth noting it is extremely easy to change batteries with a simple screw-out battery door using a coin and the CR2 is the same battery used in the wireless transmitters, which keeps them standard and easily available.
Cyanea Mask Review by Dan Hart, Sunreef Mooloolaba
The Cyanea mask is a truly unique mask. Besides the obvious new user-friendly elastic strap, the vision and comfortable silicone skirt are fantastic.
I recently took this mask to the incredible Galapagos to use.
It was the talk of the boat with its funky new strap, great lens design and an array of awesome colours that appeal to both men and woman. There’s no denying it’s a visually appealing mask! It was lucky I brought a spare one with me on my trip, because everyone wanted to try it. And once they did, it was very difficult to get back!
So how does it perform when diving? This mask is so easy to put on and adjust to size with its ski goggle like strap. No more rubber pulling on your hair or difficult threading of a mask tamer. It has a very comfortable silicone skirt, which is perfectly suited to all sorts of faces – well and truly proven with all 14 people on the live-aboard trying it! The Cyanea fit everyone.
The clear lens is unbelievable; fogging is no longer an issue, even if you don’t use anti-fog. This is also a very light mask, making it perfect for travel, but just because it’s light doesn’t mean it’s not strong.
The Cyanea is a true leader in its field and I would honestly recommend it to anyone who wants a mask that will last and is super comfortable.
NEW Hollis SMS75
By Rubens Monaco
Hollis Training Director (Australia)
TDI/PADI Sidemount Instructor Trainer
As an avid cave diver/instructor, I have been diving side-mount configuration for over 20 years. In that time, I have tried and used rigs from various different manufacturers and, in their own way, they have all had their good points and bad points. When Hollis released the SMS100, it had some features that immediately appealed to me but it lacked the simplicity of a low profile side-mount rig. I immediately fell in love with the SMS50 when it was released because it met my cave diving needs as a streamlined, versatile side-mount harness, but it was too small for conventional diving.
So as most good manufactures do, they listen to their customers. When the Hollis SMS75 was released, it was clearly apparent that Hollis had listened and combined the best of the SMS100 and the SMS50 in a uniquely versatile, comfortable and streamlined side-mount harness.
Having dived the SMS75 for some months now, I have been very impressed with how comfortable the harness is. Its design is very low profile, but still provides ample lift capacity for 4 large cylinders at depth. Clips and rails are placed in the best possible spots to ensure that all cylinders and accessories are easy to clip and unclip, but more importantly, that everything remains streamlined whilst you are swimming.
For a traditionalist side-mount cave diver like myself, I have always shied away from multi-purpose side-mount harnesses. I have not wanted the extra clutter of padding and webbing that is required to allow the harness to be used as a side-mount, twin back-mount and single cylinder harness. As I am a cave diver, I always looked for a side-mount harness that was simple and lightweight.
The SMS75 meets all my expectations of a streamlined, lightweight side-mount harness, but its clever design allows it to still be a multi-purpose harness for other configurations. I have actually used the SMS75 with my Hollis eSCR Explorer Rebreather and my Hollis Prism 2 Rebreather and both units dive very well with this harness. Two main benefits are the fact that I have two rails to clip my bailout cylinders to, and the extra clips for other accessories.
I recently completed a weekend of diving in Mt Gambier. My weekend was spent in Tank Cave – a maze system full of low tunnels and slit-like passages. The perfect location to test a sidemount system! Having completed four very long dives over the weekend with the Hollis SMS75, there were some things that stood out for me from other harnesses I had used in the past:
- The bladder’s shape made it very easy to acquire a perfect trim without too much manipulation of cylinder rigging and lead distribution.
- The rounded rails make it very easy to locate and attach cylinder clips.
- The dump valve on top of the harness is very easy to use and air can be easily dumped from bladder without losing any trim in the water.
- The dump valve is also positioned inwards, meaning that it cannot be damaged if hitting the roof of a cave
- The use of bungees instead of clips behind the unit to attach accessories means that if something gets caught in a restriction (cave or wreck), it allows for some give and protects from major damage.
- I had no problems swimming with 4 x steel 100cf tanks and 2 x ali 40cf stage cylinders. The 40 lbs lift of this harness was ample.
In conclusion, Hollis has created a sidemount harness that not only meets the expectations of the purist cave/wreck diver, but has also designed a system that can be purchased by the novice open water diver, who can then grow into their diving and have a harness that is versatile enough for twin tank diving and can accommodate the rebreather diver as well.