Tag Archives: diving

Below the Surface

Diving in Kodiak water
Kodiak is a diver’s paradise with enchanting kelp forests inhabited by colorful and curious creatures.

I got my PADI diver’s license in 1980 while working on the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Since then, I have explored most of the premier diving sites of the world, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Red Sea, the Andaman Islands south of Burma, the West Indies, and the South Pacific. But few places are as rich in fish, shellfish and other marine wildlife as the coral gardens and kelp forests that surround Kodiak. A calm, sunny day in Kodiak waters is one of the most exciting dives a diver will ever experience.

There are many odd and colorful creatures in the ocean around the Kodiak islands. Besides the five species of salmon, there are several species of cod, herring, halibut, starfish in every color of the rainbow, sea cucumbers, octopi, shellfish, sea otters, several kinds of whales, and the giant salmon shark.

My first dive on Kodiak was off the shores of Fort Abercrombie. After a few minutes in the water, two curious sea lions approached me, poking at my diving equipment. On land sea lions are large and cumbersome animals, but in the water they are elegant and graceful. Their familiarity was both exciting and alarming. One little nibble on my rubber air hose could have had devastating consequences. But they soon decided that I was a rather boring playmate and left me and my equipment without harm.

In the 1940s and 1950s, new radar equipment revealed large hoards of king crabs in the waters around Kodiak. This discovery launched a boom in the fishing industry, and in just five years, Kodiak was transformed from a small fishing community to one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the United States. Annual catches of up to 100 million pounds were pulled from the waters around Kodiak and delivered to the canneries.

Commercial fishing of king crabs continued for 25 years. Then, in the 1970s, the population of king crabs dwindled. By 1982, the catch was so poor that fishing was stopped. No one knows for sure why the king crabs disappeared, but researchers believe that overfishing could be one of the main factors.

Pete Cummiskey, one of my good friends on Kodiak, is a diver and marine biologist who has been working with the king crabs since the mid-80s. I asked him to show me the crab pods. There is protection in numbers, so juvenile crabs group together in giant balls to protect themselves from predators. A large pod can have several thousand crabs.

One gorgeous but cold November day, we went out in Womens Bay in search of crabs. Earlier that year, Pete had tagged several individuals and attached transmitters to their shells. Pete lowered the receiver into the water and soon picked up a signal. We prepared for our dive.

The pod was about 90-120 feet down, engulfed in a dense cloud of sediment churned up by the crabs. It was so thick, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and it took a few minutes to locate the pod. Because of the poor visibility, I had to get really close to the crabs in order to film.

The king crab is an impressive animal with a leg span of up to 6 feet across, and with large powerful claws that could easily snap off a finger. As they get older and larger they are less dependent on the pod, but the crabs in the pod I was filming were still fairly large.

Lying on the bottom, trying to get as close as I could with my camera, I felt the sharp pinch of a claw grabbing on to my arm through my thick diver’s suit. It was so painful I almost dropped the camera. I tried to pull the crab away, but it refused to let go. I realized that the only way to free myself from the monster was to rise to the surface. Halfway up, the crab finally let go and sank to the bottom. I had learned my lesson – Give the king crabs a wide berth!

I did descend again, however, and resumed my filming of the remarkable crab pods on the bottom of Womens Bay, keeping a respectful distance.

We located more pods and made several dives in the bay that day. Through his research, Pete has learned a lot about the king crabs’ environment and their migration along the ocean floor. Hopefully his research will lead to a rejuvenation of the king crab population so that commercial fishing of this wonderful delicacy can resume on Kodiak.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Sri Lanka – A Paradise to Return To

LaVonne and a Blue Whale
Swimming with a Blue Whale – We were only yards away!

There are some countries in the world that have that little extra something, that appeal that draws you back like a super magnet. Sri Lanka is one of the countries I find difficult to be away from for very long. They have everything – jungles, wild animals, history, fascinating people, long beaches and exciting underwater scenery. It’s never hard for me, as a filmmaker, to find a story on this paradise island.

My latest trip, in March-April, was my 30th visit to Sri Lanka. I have often been there over extended periods, maybe 2-4 months at a time, working on various film projects. My first visit to this paradise island was in 1980. Sri Lanka was, at that time, a somewhat primitive country with rough, narrow roads and people doing hard labor with simple tools. A country not yet industrialized but still maintaining the unique culture of a fading colonial era.

Now, in 2017, Sri Lanka is a modern country with well-developed roads and transportation. People live much like we do in Europe, for better or for worse. For me, one of the more disturbing “modernizations” is the ever-present television that can now be found even in the simplest homes in rural Sri Lanka. People have succumbed to the same social paralysis that affected us in the 1960’s, staring at a moving picture on the screen rather than visiting and talking with each other. Even if they don’t have time to sit down and watch, the television is left on as some sort of artificial companion or status symbol. Of course, television, correctly used, can be a great source of entertainment and information.

This spring I and my wife and colleague, LaVonne, were in Sri Lanka to film the final scenes for our new film, a story about the Ahikuntaka people, and to gather more material for our new book about Sri Lanka. First we visited Kudagama, a small village about 30 minutes drive south of Anuradhapura. When I came to Kudagama the first time to film in 1982, the village was little more than a cluster of huts made from mud, sticks and leaves. Most alarming, however, was the obvious alcohol problems in the village. Virtually 100% of the people from the age of 10 years old were alcoholics, drinking large quantities of the cheapest alcohol called Kasippu. Terrible violence and riots broke out daily. I think it could best be described as “Hell on Earth.” In our coming book and the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” I’ll describe more about working in the village at that time.

Since that first visit in 1982, I have followed the Ahikuntaka people throughout the years and seen the village develop and change. This spring we spent several days in the village, interviewing the elders and visiting with friends. No longer a hell on earth, it is now closer to paradise. What brought this change? I’ll tell you more about that later.

After our visit in Kudagama we traveled to Sri Lanka’s east coast to film and photograph the marine national park, Pigeon Island. The national park is a popular destination and the coral reefs surrounding the island have been damaged and destroyed by the many tourists walking in the bay, breaking off the delicate corals. Although Pigeon Island is worth a visit, the real excitement is to be found just outside the national park in the deeper water where the Sperm whales and Blue whales feed. We dove at several beautiful sites that week, but one day we were snorkeling in deep water when a Blue whale swam straight towards me. (The Blue whale is the largest creature to ever live on earth.) His enormous body was just a few yards in front of me when he slowly dove into the bottomless depths. The intensely blue water, laced with rays of sunlight, engulfed the whale as it was slowly sunk into the depths. It was magical. Swimming with that gentle giant in his own environment is an experience I’ll never forget.

Coming this fall, 2017, the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” and a book about my favorite places on the paradise island, Sri Lanka.