Sunday, December 16, 2012

Revenge of the USS John Penn

The USS John Penn was an attack transport commissioned by the Navy on January 8, 1942.  On August 13, 1943 the ship was a cargo of ammunition to Guadalcanal when it was attacked by torpedo planes.  The crew was able to shoot one of the attacking planes out of the sky, which unfortunately crashed into the ship.  Following a secondary hit, the ship sank, taking with it 98 sailors and stevedores.  It now lies off the coast of Honiara in about 160 feet of water.  
And the old bastard almost claimed a few more a few weeks ago.  (Okay, that is a bit melodramatic – but this was about as close as I need to come to dying in a dive accident.)  It is a deep and at times technical dive.  I went out on a boat with a captain and four other dives, but no official guide (the other divers had done the wreck a few times before).  The first dive was incredible – crystal clear water and no current.  We can up doing the multi-stop required decompression – and got back on the boat totally pumped. 

And here is where we start doing dumb things.  The plan had been to go to another site – a much shallower site – to do the second dive.  But we were already here and the first dive had been so epic – how could we possibly leave without doing a second dive on the wreck?  But the tide would change soon – killing the viz and kicking up the current – so we cut our surface interval a bit shorter than would normally be recommended.  And the crap dive shop had given us two light filled tanks – despite me asking them (twice) if they had checked the air.  So as the lightest breather of the bunch – I got the lightest tank.  And we should have had tanks hanging to assist in the decompression – but we didn’t do that either (though we did bring a spare tank down).  In short – dumb.


But no one ever really gets hurt right?  So we go down.  And the worst happens.  We hit the wreck in almost no visibility and heavy current.  And we lose a diver.  What is worse is that the diver we lost was my friend, my dive buddy that I am supposed to be keeping an eye on, and the guy that I talked into doing the dive even though it was deep and possibly technical.  At that moment – hanging on the anchor line – forced to come up slowly to prevent the bends – I was officially the worst human being on the planet.  
So I skipped the last step in my decompression – a 55 minute at 3 meter stop – to alert the captain that we had a lost diver.  And then I pace around on deck for awhile until we spot him.  And then I am so relieved that I grab my mask and a buoy and start swimming Baywatch style over to make sure he isn’t dead.  Only once all of that is done and I am back on the boat do I realize that my hands are tingling.  That is an early symptom of decompression sickness (the bends).  So I jump back in the water to do an emergency in-water re-compression – which of course none of us know how to do correctly so we just wing it.  And then make an uncomfortable phone call to a dive doctor in Australia where I had to list off all the stupid things I had done in the previous two hours.  And then spent the night sucking oxygen with my dive mask on (to prevent me from breathing air).  And that last bit sounds terrible until I add that I still went to the dinner party to which I was invited – carrying my oxygen tank and sitting in the corner – taking breaks from the oxygen to eat babaghanoush.  

In short – I looked every bit the jackass that I felt.  But – like an 8 pm sitcom – I learned a valuable lesson.  Bad things do happen to dumb divers – and not to be an idiot in the future.  But I avoided the decompression chamber and still made my plane the next day back to DC – with basically no other symptoms of the bends.  That’s got to be worth something right?

I have added some of my wreck diving pictures here – even though most of them are from boats other than the John Penn (mostly Japanese transport ships as they were nice enough to crash closer to shore and in shallower water).  They are in black and white because they look better that way (you can never really get all the blue out of deep water pictures).  And the two that you don’t know what are are torpedo exit wounds. 

Feel free to leave comments saying I am an idiot – in today’s interconnected world, confessions are held public on the blogosphere. 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Headhunting with JFK and the Killer Clown Fish

Sometimes in this life you need to recognize that no matter how long you stare at the little blinking cursor, you are not going to improve upon what has come before you.  Therefore I will humbly give way to Wikipedia to introduce the Gizo Islands – where I was for a work / diving adventure last week.  With no further ado : “This area of the Solomon Islands has had a history of headhunting. According to local stories the Gizo tribe were notorious in this activity. As a consequence the surrounding local tribes took the unusual step of joining together to obliterate the Gizo tribe. The stories further relate that the only survivors were a Gizo woman and her son. This event led to Gizo Island being declared as a property of the state, rather than the usual customary ownership prevalent in much of the rest of the Solomons. As a secondary consequence becoming an administrative and business center because of the relative ease with which registered land titles could be obtained.”  Which basically means that this is where the whities have opened their resorts because there were comparatively fewer people to pay off.

The trip starts with the weigh in at Honiara airport.  As in many other airports, they weigh your bags.  Then, slightly more uncommonly, they also weigh you.  (These are really small planes.)  Then off you go to hop across the islands.  The most exciting stop is in the town of Munda.  It was a Japanese air base in WWII and we bombed the holy bejeezus out of it.  The New Zealanders are currently paying for an expansion of the runway (partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because having an alternative 737 landing zone would dramatically reduce the amount of emergency fuel their planes are required to carry), and have been unearthing 500 lb unexploded ordnance.  The villagers have asked that they detonate no more than one bomb a day because of the earthquake it causes. 

But luckily, I was bound for Gizo Island, and to a little resort with a great view of the volcano.  It was actually right across the water from Kennedy Island, which was where JFK washed up when he lost his PT boat during the war.  (And bizarrely Gizo loves Kennedy even more than Boston does.)  My friend actually swam over to it just to say that he did – I was too busy diving.  The Solomons are spectacular for diving because in addition to some of the healthiest and most populated reef life that I have ever seen, the Americans and Japanese were nice enough to provide the resident fish with a number of artificial reefs while they were fighting over the island of Guadacanal.  I am going to focus on the reef photos this week and post my wreck photos next week.  Notice the large number of pictures of clown fish.  This is because most fish absolutely refuse to hold f’ing still when I am trying to get a picture of them.  Clown fish, however, are highly territorial and aggressive.  So if you come too close to their anemone nest, they will fight you.  (Seriously – I got bitten by one diving on night in East Timor.)   So these guys are all just sizing me up for the kill.

I am going to assume that only a few true dive dorks want to hear about the diving – which I believe that I have already mentioned was awesome – like diving in an aquarium with sunken battleships – and truly no one wants to hear about work – so I will leave this one off here.  I can think of a way to make my departure story sound amusing on paper (even though it actually was in real life) but the cliff notes are that I discovered the airport was actually on a different island from the one that I was one about 30 minutes before the plane was supposed to take off, and the hotel’s boat wouldn’t start, so some crusty Australian with a motorboat taking his kids to school was hijacked to drop me off.  It was also the only time I have ever flown where there was no security screening of any kind. 

So that’s it for reefs.  I will tell you a more compelling story about wrecks next week.