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The Silent Retreat

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A conversation between two way cooler than me California women about a type of retreat where there is no conversation – a silent retreat – and I immediately recognized a parallel in my own world – scuba diving. That’s scuba diving, I shouted out without hesitation, and suddenly I gained respect as more than the nerdy girl taking pictures underwater who can’t stop talking about the unusual creatures that reside there.

Each dive really is a mini silent retreat. My head goes under, and for an hour or more, depending on air consumption and the mood of the guide, I have to keep my mouth shut. Chiuso (I love Italian words). I have logged more than 600 dives which somehow adds up to almost a month of silence underwater.

A whole month to consciously look inside myself or rather outside myself. But I am not exactly sure what the rules of a silent retreat are (I guess no talking) and more importantly what may constitute breaking the rules of a silent retreat. There is a lot that one can say for example with the raising of a single eyebrow (if you can do that).

Scuba diving is not performed without some form of communication. You can’t scream about having just seen a whaleshark but you can pump a fist. At the same time, just seeing one leaves you speechless and reverent. There are for sure some serious hand signals, the OK sign and how much air do you have, and the not so serious, for a pygmy seahorse or a frogfish. Guides sometimes have some kind of noisemaker to catch our attention for something special but I am not a fan of these because, well, they break the silence. I have watched a hearing impaired couple underwater converse beautifully because for them, there was nothing to adjust.

You are forced to experience the world around you without speaking a word for an hour, but it is speaking to you.

There was a moment on a dive near Kri Island in Indonesia when anything that could swim vanished before me in an instant. The fish silently disappeared in unison. I held my breath, waited, and contemplated what might be coming while looking worriedly at the suddenly empty deep blue water scene in front of me. A boat? Something big but not a boat? A natural disaster? It was a silent but somehow not silent school of eagle rays which disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Did we really see that?, I asked myself. I was the only creature who was unaware that they were coming. Yet, I knew something was up as I watched the instantaneous disappearance of the dense cloud of life which a moment before had been parading before me.

Subtle cues communicate action all around us. When is it, that magic moment when a pair of mandarinfish know it is time to mate, that exact moment at sunset when the right amount of sunlight remains sending them in a panic search for a mate, and then the chance to mate is over until 24 hours later when the same moment occurs again.

A cuttlefish makes no sound but rapidly executes a series of color and texture changes either to camouflage itself, or to scare or to potentially hypnotize you. And if none of that works to frighten you away, it will release a bit of black smoke and disappear as if by magic. Still in silence.

Thousands of sardines will swim around you in organized silence until someone in the group makes an abrupt switch. The change is still silent, like a silent symphony.

Ironically sound travels better through the sea than air. You can hear a parrotfish scraping its perfectly evolved teeth on the coral to feed on the algae. Or a humpback whale song sung by a whale which is nowhere in sight. It will stay in your mind forever if you listen for it.

Silence in the ocean is an attribute. No one hears a shark. A frogfish sits and watches like a sphinx. Divers will even see more if they remain calm.

So I could report to my two very cool Californian acquaintances that I have been going to the ultimate in silent retreats for years. Perhaps a little more intermittent rather than a week of silence or even a full day of silence. But there is no TV, no internet, no iPod tunes, nothing to distract you from viewing the world in which you are literally immersed in silence.

Janice Nigro is an avid scuba diver with a PhD in biology.  She is a scientist who has studied the development of human cancer at universities in the USA and Norway, and has discovered the benefits of artistic expression through underwater photography and story writing of her travel adventures.

Miscellaneous Blogs

Book Review: Dragon Sea (2007) by Frank Pope

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Dragon Sea, by Frank Pope, tells the true story of the location, combined archaeological survey of a large, five-hundred year old wreck and salvage of over 250,000 Vietnamese ceramic artefacts from the Hoi Ann shipwreck. It also charts the complex negotiation with government departments, legal and cultural bodies in Vietnam, as well as international groups, which had a vested interest in the outcome of the excavations and sale of artefacts.

It was a sensitive and expensive project. The ransacking of ancient Chinese porcelain artefacts from the wreck of the Dutch East India Company Geldermalsen, a few years earlier, had generated US$20 Million at auction but prompted furious international condemnation at the destruction of the wreck site for profit. In addition to managerial and ethical problems, the Vietnamese Hoi Ann shipwreck rested on the seabed over seventy metres below the surface in the turbulent and typhoon prone South China Sea. It would be a testing site on which to work.

At the outset the endeavour seemed to offer so much to everyone involved. The wreck site was a time capsule, sealed on the day of its sinking. It offered insights into Vietnamese culture and ceramics made during the golden days of the civilization. The Chief Archaeologist explained “shipwrecks preserve information in a way that very few land sites could – by freezing a moment in time” (p. 8).There was the prospect of huge financial rewards to the businessman leading the consortium of investors. Divers and technicians, managers and workmen, as well as Vietnamese institutions, all stood to benefit.

In his account Frank Pope combines the excitement of both archaeologists and accountants as pristine artefacts are uncovered and brought to the surface. His descriptions are vivid: “fragile kendis and ewers, vases, and large blue-and-white storage jars had cascaded down as the wood around them disintegrated” (p. 196). The numerous sketches Pope includes in his book are useful, but actual photographs of some of the artefacts and scenes would have been a valuable addition.

Throughout the book a central theme emerges; it’s the cost cutting measures under which the project operated. The author reveals how these pressures and accompanying resentments grew within the team as a result of these measures. For the divers, their work time in saturation (living inside a pressurized chamber breathing helium and oxygen, and working at seventy metres plus) was extended far beyond the recognised limit. Eventually, when they emerge after fifty-nine days of saturation diving, they were “thin and bearded, their skin yellowed and covered in rashes and lesions” (p.259).

Calm waters do not typify the South China Sea – especially as the typhoon season approaches. A recreational diver may experience surge, current and turbulent water; but is not working for twelve hours a day, for weeks, at a depth of more than seventy metres! The effect of surface sea conditions on a dive platform, waves and swell, are magnified underwater. The diving bell and the umbilical attached to a diver are continuously wrenched up and dropped down in the current. Even in calmer conditions the process of negotiating the metal grid positioned over the wreck is problematic. It “was like trying to clamber through a climbing frame on a moonless night with a gale blowing, wearing full dive gear, trailing a cable and carrying a heavy basket of fragile ceramics” (p.209).

Pope skilfully describes the changing atmosphere surrounding the project – both above the water and below. Close, personal friendships become strained as fatigue and adverse weather, financial constraints and day to day problems begin to overwhelm those involved. The uneasy balance between rigorous archaeological practise and the economic need to recover artefacts takes centre stage. The Chief Archaeologist “couldn’t shake the fear that despite his instructions, the divers were ignoring anything that wasn’t ceramic.” The businessman believed the actions of the archaeologist were sabotaging the recovery of artefacts. The crescendo, the sale of the artefacts from the Hoi Ann shipwreck, is not what you may have expected.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of Dragon Sea is the way Frank Pope succeeds in building a relationship between the main characters and the reader. You want a diver to survive, another character to change, broken relationships mended. The closing sections provide a pleasant summary of what subsequently happened to them. However, perhaps the most salutary comment is reserved for the state of marine archaeology in many parts of the world. Frank Pope writes “In most of Southeast Asia, however, it is still open season on the seabed.” (p. 315)


Dragon Sea (2007)

  • By Frank Pope
  • New York: Harcourt Books
  • ISBN 9780156033299
  • 341 pp

Frank Pope obtained a degree in Zoology from Edinburgh University and is Ocean Correspondent for The Times newspaper. He has worked on underwater expeditions under the auspices of Oxford MARE (Maritime Archeological Research and Excavation), including the salvage of Lord Nelson’s flagship Agamemnon. His most recent book is 72 hours (2013); the Royal Navy’s dramatic race to save the crew trapped inside a Russian submarine.


Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

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Dive Training Blogs

What you need to know about SMBs!

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Ok, so not the most exciting of topics… but an important one nonetheless. Especially as many of us will be starting to enjoy the UK dive season and heading out to explore our beautiful coastline. Some of you may even be heading into the UK waters for the first time due to the travel restrictions… welcome, you will wish that you had done it sooner! 

Surface marker buoys. SMB’s are an invaluable piece of equipment. To demonstrate your position in the water, to fend off boats, to show off your buoyancy to your dive buddy when you can inflate it without moving an inch in the water… or to un-intentionally make your buddy laugh when you forget to attach your reel and send it up like a lost rocket… A must have skill and piece of equipment for all divers. But, how do you choose which one is right for you, and how do you use it correctly? 

Choosing a colour, we all know to look cool as a diver, its all about co-ordinating, but not so much with SMB’s I’m afraid. The standard colour is orange and is what you will typically see being used, and yellow due to it’s higher ability to be seen at night time is just for an emergency…. Not because it is your favourite colour…sorry yellow lovers! If you are wanting to personalise it though you could put your name down the SMB, that way the surface cover knows who it is underneath. 

Next, inflation. Here we have the option of open bottom or direct inflation. An open bottom means that you will need to use your alternate to inflate the SMB, direct inflation you would use your inflator hose. Either of these are sufficient and is generally down to preference. If you are not sure which you prefer, or how to use them, there is a course that you can take to learn all of the skills and offer some helpful tips of how to inflate it and control your buoyancy too. I happen to know an instructor that teaches it… so just drop me a message and I can help…!

So, we have the SMB, next we need a line or spool. So many decisions with a basic piece of kit! Most SMB’s will come with a line, which is great as you can use the equipment straight away. The only down side is, with gloves it can become annoying, especially if you are changing depths quite often as typical on a shore dive here. You may wish to look at a spool instead… They also come in more colours, and this time you can choose which ever you want… even yellow, result! 

Having got to the point of choosing you SMB and line/spool, where are we now going to keep it? Clipping it onto your BCD, keeping it in your pocket. Anywhere is sufficient as long as its easily accessible… like not in your car once you have entered the water…. So be sure to add you SMB to your buddy check! Happy diving! 


Find out more at www.duttonsdivers.com.

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life.  The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.

£1475 per person based on double occupancy.  Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available.  Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp.  Flights and transfers are included.  See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.

This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

Call 020 3515 9955 or email john@thescubaplace.co.uk

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

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