July 19, 2000
Mark Miller, Shipwreck Historian
Did we get great news! Our rebreathers came in on the MAC flight, and we could now begin some serious work! But first, there was WORK! The units had to be completely disassembled, cleaned, packed with absorbent, and put through a battery of tests. The Nitrox blending station had to be set up, tanks prepared and filled, and the gas mixtures analyzed. Conducting all this in the hot and humid conditions of a Kwajalein summer was quite an experience. When we were done the whole crew looked like something Betty Crocker threw out! The word "moist" just doesn't do justice.
Once everything was in place and triple checked, we needed to do a "shake down" dive. Hmm, where to go? Tom took us to a spot on the outside of the West Reef, south of SAR Pass. It was a place that I was familiar with, having spent many exciting dives there in the past. Even though there were no shipwrecks to be found, we made do with the brilliant coral reef and it's inhabitants. Black coral and gorgonians lined the steep drop, feather stars perched atop whip corals, and colorful fishes were abundant. One thing that both Jonathan and I were excited about was how the local fishes would react to divers wearing the silent rebreathers. Rebreathers are quiet--they don't make as much noise as regular open circuit scuba, which makes a lot of very noisy bubbles, tending to frighten marine life, or even just alert it to your presence. For underwater photographers, this is a problem! If rebreathers can make our lives easier, well, we're all for that!
We had both seen this in other areas, with other marine life, but the local critters were our main concern, since they were what we wanted to photograph. Our question was soon answered when a five foot long white tip reef shark almost bumped into us! It didn't even realize we were there until it almost bonked Tom in the nose. When another diver was in the water with us using conventional scuba, a small gray reef shark came in to check us out, apparently attracted by the noise. But when that diver left, so did the shark. We hope to be able to approach other marine life, such as sea turtles and sharks, without them taking much note of our presence and allowing us to film their natural behavior.
The reefs on the open ocean side of Kwajalein Atoll are primarily vertical, or nearly vertical walls. These walls are pockmarked with multitudes of crevices, holes, and small caves. Small canyons, called "surge channels" cut through the coral perpendicular to shore, terminating on the drop off. This environment is not only quite spectacular in its own right, but is home to a thriving ecological system. Everyone on the team could quite happily spend a lot of time exploring here.
All in all, the rebreathers functioned as expected: fantastic! We are afforded longer bottom times and greater safety than when using standard scuba. We can sneak up on critters without their knowing, and spend more time doing it more comfortably. Tomorrow, the real test begins...deep wrecks!