Mayday, Mayday for Sierra Lima!


November 17, 2010, 4:45pm

I watched my bright orange hat blow away, tumbling along the sharp rocks in the wind.  The canopy had shattered, its pieces flung away during the impact, and I could see my sunglasses perched, strangely intact, on top of another rock, just out of reach.  The instrument panel was dead, and the valley was eerily quiet.  The only sound was that of the wind blowing past the glider, tellingly headed directly down the valley.  That explained a few things.

Looking down, my feet were resting on what was left of the rudder pedals, themselves half dangling from what remained of the glider’s nose and half balanced on the craggy stream bed I’d ended up in.  The fiberglass nose of the glider had been all but ripped away, some of the instruments in the panel were dislodged, and other innards hung suspended like entrails.  The sandal had been torn from my right foot, which was resting, numb, on a lichen-covered stone.  I could tell something was wrong with my foot, but the pain hadn’t yet set in.

Though a perfectly safe place to be and shielded from the cold wind, I, like countless accident victims before me, felt the urgency of needing to exit the grounded aircraft.  I reached down to unbuckle my harness and though it wasn’t loose, I realized that through the concentration of landing the glider, I’d never even thought to tighten my straps.  In fact, though I was quite certain that I hadn’t stalled, I couldn’t even recall my approach speed, one of the most crucial aspects in landing any kind of aircraft, something I’d religiously paid attention to on hundreds of prior landings.

Not bothering to open the canopy, its frame and a few jagged edges of acrylic being all that remained, I gingerly lifted myself out of the cockpit, bearing my weight with my arms, hands placed on either side of the canopy’s ragged edge.  Carefully testing my right foot, protected by nothing but a wool sock, I winced with pain as soon as I tried to place it on the uneven rocky surface.  I assumed it was broken and my left foot, though not entirely pain-free, seemed to bear my full weight.  Still clipped into my parachute, I sat down next to the glider and crossed my left leg to keep my swollen right foot off the ground.

I sat for a few moments, resting the back of my head against the leading edge of the wing.  I was swearing.  I couldn’t believe that I was actually sitting on the floor of a valley, thousands of feet below where I’d been moments before, nursing the injuries of a crash landing.  It was surreal.  And what the hell was I going to tell everyone back in Omarama?  What would they think?  The glider was insured, but everyone was going to shake their head at a young, mountain inexperienced, foreign pilot — there was no way I’d be able to show my face again in Omarama.

I unclipped the parachute straps, shifting it under myself so I could sit on the wool-lined backing.  It was getting cold.  I turned my attention to the instrument panel and wondered why everything was dead.  Craning my neck to look back into the cockpit, I could see the front battery lying on its side, ejected from the glider.  I flicked a switch to select the rear battery and everything came back to life.  The radio was silent.  Turning off the squelch, I could hear a faint, urgent voice.

“ … Mayday Mayday for Sierra Lima … GPS coordinates four four point four … “

X-ray Golf was radioing in my position.  The rescue helicopter would be here soon.  I switched to the emergency frequency, 121.50MHz, to make sure my emergency beacon had triggered.  I could hear its warble.  Good news.  I switched back to the gliding competition frequency.

“Sierra Lima, Sierra Lima X-ray Golf, do you copy?“

“X-ray Golf this is Sierra Lima I read you, can you hear me?”

“Sierra Lima X-ray Golf, do you copy?”

“I can hear you George, are you receiving this?”

I was virtually shouting into the microphone, struggling to get as close to it as my broken foot would allow.


Damnit.  Since I could only receive with the squelch off and my transmissions couldn’t be heard, I figured the aerial had become detached from the radio.  I had no idea where the antenna was in the glider.  The tail had snapped off and I could see some loose tubes and cables, but without the ability to walk, it was a non-starter.

With no other way to indicate my survival of the landing, I pulled the personal locator beacon out of the glider and activated it.  With its flexible aerial extended, I set it on top of wing.  Pulling some warmer clothes out from behind the seat, normally reserved for more routine outlandings, I did what I could to keep myself warm, wrapping my wool long underwear around my neck as a makeshift scarf.  Lifting myself up onto the wing, I sat there, hoping someone would be able to see that I was alive and had exited the glider.  There was nothing else I could do expect for one thing: wait.

As the minutes ticked by, I was left with my thoughts, running the chain of events through my mind over and over again.  Where had I gone wrong?  How could this have been prevented?  Had I let the excitement of the competition and my favorable placing the previous day overrun my typically cautious approach?  How had X-ray Golf escaped the same fate despite following virtually identical paths through the air?  Had the 50ft difference in altitude been enough to make a difference?  Fuck.

The locator beacon beeped periodically, sending its distress signal out in all directions.  The only other sound in the deserted valley was the hiss of static on the radio.  A hawk flew past, and the sun started to set below the ridge tops.  The wind abated for a moment only to return with a vengeance, colder than ever, mocking me.  I started shivering.  My right foot was throbbing.

Over an hour had passed already.  I sat back down on the parachute and grabbed the canopy cover from the back of the cockpit.  I wrapped it around myself as a shield against the icy wind.  The nose of the cover was over my head and it occurred to me that I looked like a very out-of-place Ku Klux Klan member.  I pulled my hood back at the hint of approaching helicopter blades.  Nothing.  A trick of the wind and a mind longing for that familiar sound echoing up the valley.

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t tried to use my cellphone yet.  Emergency calls should be routed through any available network, regardless of your subscription.  Perhaps if I could speak to someone they could tell me how much longer the rescue team would be and I could relay my injuries.  I turned on the phone and waited a few moments for bars to appear.  No luck.  I entered 111 and dialed.  Nothing.  The tops of the ridges surrounding me were virtually within sight of Omarama, but cell phone coverage was obviously non-existent.

I could see a lone dirt track that wound its way up the valley, but it was clear that it was rarely used.  There was no sign of livestock grazing.  It was a desolate valley a stone’s throw away from civilization, a sinister trap for unsuspecting glider pilots.  I visualized a 4×4 coming to get me, fellow glider pilots slowly winding their way up the bumpy track, dust streaming behind the vehicle.  It was going to be an uncomfortable journey to the hospital, but at least it would be warm.  I felt shame as I dreaded seeing their faces.

Another 40 minutes passed.  Resting my head against the wing, I stared upwards, contemplating the wind against my back compared to the clouds overhead moving right to left just a few thousand feet higher.  If you can understand how air flows over and around the mountains and visualize it like water flowing over pebbles in a stream, you can take advantage of the rising sections and fly for thousands of kilometers. Clearly, my understanding could do with some improvement.  As if reading my thoughts, a glider drifted into my field of view, circling directly overhead.  Lying in hospital that evening I would learn that it was Terry Delore — undisputedly one of the best glider pilots in the world, having set multiple world distance records — checking to see if I could be seen alive without drifting so low as to end up in the same predicament.

Impatiently checking my watch, I was starting to worry about how to stay warm when finally the faint staccato of helicopter blades wafted towards me.  As a small dot appeared around the corner of the valley in the distance, slowly growing larger, I blinked away tears.  Like something out of a Hollywood film set, the helicopter approached and settled down next to the downed glider and the paramedic hopped out.

I waved.

* * *

I’d had a good start, but I was struggling to find strong, quick climbs and the others were no doubt close behind.  I heard a group of competitors start about 12 minutes after me, and I was going to have to keep up my pace if I wanted any chance of staying close to the lead.

At 5,000ft above the Ahuriri Valley, I was confused.  I had understood the first turnpoint of the day’s competition task to be slightly further up the valley, and I didn’t trust my GPS’s assertion that it was in fact about 10km away, directly through the towering mountain range in front of me.  I had a plan in mind to skip along the present valley, but not for crossing into the Dingle Valley.  I double-checked against my chart, conceding that I was mistaken and the GPS was right after all.  Cloudbase was barely higher than the mountain range and there was heavy sink in its lee.  The latter was a good sign for lift on the windward side, but I would need to cross somewhere else.

Looking downwind, I spotted a small bowl that looked like a certain source of lift, facing into wind and baking in the sunshine.  I arrived below the top of the bowl and skirted along the semicircular basin as close to the hillside as I dared.  Sure enough, there were good pockets of lift, and I adapted my switchback pattern along the hillside to coincide with the strongest areas of rising air.

As I climbed along the inside of the bowl, I spotted another glider a few kilometers away at very low altitude, skirting along a hillside in the lee of the larger range.  As if sensing that he’d been spotted, he made a beeline for the bowl, joining below me.  He climbed quickly and soon we were taking alternate switchbacks at the same altitude, the pilot’s side profile clearly visible through the canopy.  The sight of X-ray Golf was a welcome one, a familiar pilot seemingly struggling to make progress through the same area.

Soon we reached the summit of the bowl and began circling tightly in a tiny thermal that was streaming from the peak of the hill like an invisible chimney.  Barely 100ft apart at times, I kept constant watch on my partner in this dance, keeping him on the opposite side of the turn to me as we banked at 45 degrees, trying to stay in the core of the thermal, the area of strongest lift.  Periodically we’d be pushed out of the thermal’s core and meet each other again in a tight circle as we recentered.

Glancing toward the Dingle ridge, I could see my escape path.  When I felt I had sufficient altitude, I would level off and fly directly under a line of clouds that was approximately aligned with a smaller ridge, gently leading up to the Dingle at a ninety degree angle.  From there, I could see a saddle in the ridge that I would cross over to reach the lift on the windward side.

After gaining another 500ft, I leveled my wings and set off first.  Pulling up to slow down in areas of rising area and pushing forward to speed up in areas of sink, I “dolphined” through the air, trying to make the best of the available energy.  Soon, I noticed X-ray Golf about 50ft above me to my left.  I fell in behind him and started to follow him, implicitly trusting his greater experience having grown up flying in these mountains.

Nearing the saddle, we pushed through sinking air and my clearance above the ridge decreased to a few hundred feet.  X-ray Golf remained within 100ft above me.  As we crossed into the next valley, I was surprised to find no lift on the other side.  I continued flying along the ridge, still with no luck.  Realizing that I might be in a landout situation if I couldn’t find any lift, I turned to continue crossing the valley, X-ray Golf still ahead.

Looking to the left, I was horrified to see that not only was this definitely not the Dingle Valley, but there was absolutely nowhere to land.  One of my unbreakable rules was to never, ever fly into a valley with no landout options.  My stress levels were suddenly elevated through the roof.  Passing through an area of strong lift, I pulled up and began to circle, but the lift was rough, and it was difficult to find a center to it.  Losing height, I leveled off and flew back to the saddle that we had just crossed.  If I could gain some height, I might be able to sneak back out again –

“Sierra Lima, is everything OK?”

This was the first time that X-ray Golf and I had spoken over the radio.  I could sense concern in his voice.  And the damned ridge wasn’t cooperating.  The lift wasn’t consistent, and every turn back to search for a pocket of lift was another hundred feet lost.  My exit was blocked.  I was trapped.

“Uhh … Not really.  Any suggestions?  It’s all sink.”

Though I tried to remain calm, there was a hint of desperation in my voice that must have been clear over the radio.  Quickly running out of options, I opened the water ballast dump valve to jettison the 80 liters of water I had on board.

“I’d try the sunny slopes.”

I flew down the sunny side of the valley, but even as I did so, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I would be making a crash landing in this valley, though I wasn’t yet ready to accept that fate.  Doing my best to fly as close to the hillsides as possible in search of a saviour pocket of lift, I looked out to the right below me and spotted the best possible option in sight — a small gravelly area that looked landable.  I made a mental note of it and continued to fly.

Everything was happening very quickly.  I hadn’t yet registered the fact that the air in the valley was doing something very different to what I had expected.  I was flying downwind, which not only explained why the ridges were producing no lift, but also why the terrain seemed to be going by so quickly as the valley began to swallow me.

“So is there any way out of this valley?  There’s nothing but sink.”

There was no time to think as the variometer told me that the air around me was descending at close to 1,000ft per minute.  As I wound my way around the hillsides, I was still trying to accept the fact that I might not get away.  I was vaguely aware that my piloting skills were degrading under the stress, but I’d managed to sneak away from tricky situations before, and I kept trying.

“Sierra Lima, what’s your altitude above the valley floor?”

I hadn’t the faintest idea.  I heard the variometer increase in pitch and I turned around with the optimistic hope of trying to catch the area of rising air I’d just flown through.  As I turned, I didn’t need the instruments to tell me that I was sinking fast.  Things were getting desperate.

“No idea … It can’t be more than 1,000ft.”

I turned back towards my chosen landing spot when all of a sudden it became clear that I had a significant headwind.  It was going to be extremely close.  I lowered the landing gear and eked out my final radio call, announcing my intentions.

“I’m going to land in the gravelly area.”

The picture ahead was depressing.  As if somehow descending vertically, I watched as the valley in front of me seemed to rise up and out of the ground.  It was inevitable that I was going to land short of my intended spot, but it was too late to do anything about it.  I had no altitude left.  All I could do was soften the impact and land as carefully as possible.  At this point my brain was completely overloaded with stress.

A wall of sharp rocks was coming straight for me, and if I didn’t do something about it, I would impact them directly.  On some kind of mental autopilot, I dove for the base of the rocks to gain speed and then pulled up to pass over them.  It was going to be a rough landing, and I’d rip off the landing gear, but –

The aircraft struck the ground and the world shook violently.  There was a horrible grinding sound, and I watched through blurry vision as the world slowly rotated 180 degrees and the glider came to a halt, resting near the source of Timaru Creek.  Silence.

The canopy was somehow entirely missing, and I was facing back down the valley in the direction I’d approached from.  I hadn’t expected to hit the ground at that moment.

What the hell had just happened?

Cross-Country Adventure

It was August 1999, and I was sitting in the cockpit of a single-seat glider, a Czech-produced model called a Junior. The only sound was the murmur of a slight breeze blowing over the aircraft, and the aircraft was tipped slightly, the end of one long wing resting gently on the grass runway. The landing had gone without incident, and it was starting to get cold as the sun set. I waited patiently on the silent runway for the crew to arrive; the luxury of cell phone communication was still in the future for most of us. My destination, Enstone airfield, and many more like it littered across the British countryside, was built during World War II by the Royal Air Force in support of the bloodiest war human civilization has ever known. Today, long since decommissioned by the military, it serves a more peaceful purpose for light aircraft enthusiasts.

By the time the headlights of a car appeared, the sky was dark. As the vehicle turned a corner, a long, thin aluminum trailer followed it. I watched it snake its way around the airfield as it finally pulled up next to the glider and stopped. Derek, another glider pilot, and my father stepped out of the car and we got to work. Two people held the wings level with some upward pressure as a third, reaching into the fuselage at the wing roots, removed a thick metal “pin” that held the wings in place. One wing was then slid out carefully, rotated, and loaded lengthwise into the long trailer. The procedure was repeated with the second wing, and then the fuselage was rolled into the trailer between the two wings. We double-checked that everything was secured correctly, closed the trailer doors, and started driving back home.

I had just completed a milestone, my first solo “cross-country” flight: a straight line distance of at least 50km (31 miles) from takeoff to pre-declared destination. These early milestone flights are intended to incrementally build the confidence of a new pilot as you expand your envelope of experience and decision-making in new situations. In the case of gliding, it’s also a question of honing your ability to use your knowledge of the weather to cover a large lateral distance to an intended destination.

Tomorrow morning, I will embark on an adventure that I could not have imagined after that first cross-country flight nearly 17 years ago. A flight true to the “cross-country” designation, two of us, both instrument-rated pilots, with my father as a passenger, will fly a single engine aircraft over a distance of more than 3,750km (2,330 miles) from Ottawa Lake, MI to San Carlos, CA. Over the course of three days, the flight will take us through twelve states: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California as we make our way home.

I’m really excited to share this journey with you. You can follow our in-flight progress as we file our flight plans, and I’ll be posting updates on Facebook along the way.

At the Edge of Fear

August 7, 2010


Roused from a fitful sleep, my body simultaneously shivered and ached and my head was pounding.

“Alex!  Wake up!  Quickly, get your stuff and bring it up to the first floor.”

I opened my eyes and squinted into the light.  Sumit’s silhouette filled the doorway as he spoke, his voice measured but firm.  The last thing I wanted to do was get out from under the warm bedcovers, but an urgent voice was telling me to run upstairs.  I groaned.  What time was it?

“What’s going on?” I croaked.

“They say there’s water coming.”

I could hear the urgency of voices through the open door.  The Hindi words were lost on me, but it was clear the same conversation was being repeated throughout the building.  Footsteps.  Doors closing.  Louder voices from upstairs, asking something of those in the garden; questions as responses.  A door opening.  The rustling of plastic bags.  Distant voices echoing from the street.  Familiar female voices nearby.  Mantse’s thick Catalan accent, the tension in her voice betraying her panic.  Valentina speaking in Russian, calm as ever despite the lack of a common language with anyone in the vicinity.  Silvia stuttered in English, only succeeding in stressing herself and feeding Mantse’s anxiety.  This was her second solo trip outside of Poland, and as usual her life was in danger.  Why did these things always happen to her?  Mantse would be looking for a cigarette about now.  Chaos.

The gaggle of voices faded up the stairwell.

“What do you mean?” I managed.  I barely had the strength to prop myself up.

“Come on, hurry.”

He left the room and for a moment there was silence.  Water?  I had been bedridden for the prior 36 hours, and every muscle in my body was aching, weakened by a raging fever and frequent diarrhea.  This was my second trip to India, and the first time I had managed to avoid the infamous “Delhi belly,” but now I had been hit hard.  By the time I returned to modern civilization in Mumbai I had shed over 12 pounds of weight.

In the grand scheme of things my concerns were relatively minor.  The same night I was gripped by the first flu-like symptoms, the skies brought unprecedented and record-breaking rainfall to Leh, triggering landslides that killed more than 100 people and completely cut off the town from the modern world.  No roads, electricity, cell phone coverage, telephone, internet or airline flights.  Thousands of locally stationed troops from the Indian Army struggled to recover bodies in the remote desert town that normally sees a few inches of rain each year.  Water.  The same exceptional rains that would leave tens of millions stranded and thousands dead in the Indus river valley in Pakistan, a stone’s throw from this valley.  The same Indus river that gave birth to an ancient Bronze Age civilization.

Water.  This was not what anyone wanted to hear right now.  As destructive as unusual in a steep-sided arid valley, this was a warning that might save your life.  Without any channels for communication, the best we could do was follow what people were saying.  I sat up and shifted to the edge of the bed taking a deep breath.  I closed my eyes.  I could just lie down again…  I took another deep breath and stood up, hunched over and eyes barely open, fighting the light.  I shuffled towards the door, straining to ignore the cry from every muscle in my body.  My intestines grumbled.

Up on the roof, I peered over the edge, resting my forearms on the wall next to Sumit.  The dirt road was below us, and I looked at the drainage ditches either side, expecting to see the first tendrils of a torrent of water.  Two men hurried past on the street, each looking over his shoulder as he did.  A few shouts came from up the street.

“What are they saying?”

Hindi isn’t the local language in Ladakh, and it wasn’t clear if Sumit had heard or understood.  A doctor from Delhi taking leave between jobs, he just shook his head slightly and squinted, calmly looking uphill.  Waiting.  The rest of the guests either looked down on the street or sat down.  Few words were spoken.  The six of us, representing five countries between us, had met on the two-day bus journey into Ladakh.  Together we had crossed two of the highest mountain passes in the world, toured impossibly perched monasteries, and shared overnight quarters in tents in a desolate and remote valley.  None of us had expected to be cut off from the outside world, our lives potentially in danger, but adversity makes for fast friendship, and we were thankful for the mutual support.

Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary.  I looked up, shielding my eyes from the bright sky with my forearm.  It was a typical summer day in the Himalayas, nary a cloud in the sky.  The air was bone-dry.  My head hurt.  Altitude sickness had hit most of us.  Our highest crossing had been close to 18,000ft and the town of Leh is nestled at a cool 11,500ft.  Most of the altitude-induced symptoms had passed for me a few days earlier, but hydration was an acute problem given my illness, and the rarefied dry air couldn’t be helping.

There was restlessness on the rooftop.  The roar of water I expected never emerged from the quiet distance.  The mood gradually lifted, and people started making their way downstairs again.  Sanjay smiled as if nothing had happened and rubbed his stomach.

“Lunchtime!” he announced.

We would never know the source of the rumor, but with all communications down, there was nothing to do but react.  I would find out later that with help from friends in Mumbai, my parents were trying to make contact with the US Embassy for further information.  The reality was that no one in Leh had any idea what was happening, much less a foreign embassy a thousand miles away.  We heard that the military was clearing roads and repairing damage, but it was impossible to get any accurate information.  With every road blocked, hundreds of tourists were camped out at the airport, desperate to fly out, yet unable to get any information from the local airline agents.  Information was so difficult to nose out that later on I would be shocked to find out that the substitute flight for my original departure from Leh had already left, half-empty.

I slowly lowered myself down the stairs and into the bedroom.  My belly rumbled, and I made my way to the bathroom.  No toilet paper is the norm in India, particularly in rural regions, and you’re expected to wash with a water nozzle instead.  I turned the tap for the nozzle and nothing happened.  With no electricity to pump water, we were relying on what remained of water in a reservoir on the roof.  I hoped that at least there was one last cistern full of water in the toilet as I pulled the lever.

It was empty.

When would this nightmare end?

Night Crawlers of the Abyss

May 19th, 2010, 7:34pm

Shining back at me like a green laser, the shark’s eye reflected the beam of my dive light surprisingly well.  I felt a rush of adrenaline as I froze, not daring to move my light off of the creature.  The sound of my breathing through the regulator filled my ears as I watched the predator slowly move along the reef.  Suddenly, with a sharp snap of its muscular tail, the shark turned and shot directly towards me faster than I’ve ever seen anything move.  Within half a second it had halved the distance between us.  Jackknifing to the right, it turned away just as suddenly and slowly wandered away.  My heart was pounding, and it happened so quickly that any reaction was embarrassingly late.  Oblivious to the entire episode, looking in another direction, my dive buddy hadn’t seen a thing.

Diving at night can be a disorienting endeavor: navigation, avoiding obstacles, and the possibility of equipment failure all add additional workload.  Without an underwater light to help orient yourself, it’s difficult to know which way is up.  There is, of course, what divers find most thrilling on a night dive: the living things that roam the night’s dark waters.  Hunting begins at the fall of darkness, and the only creatures you’re likely to bump into will be predators.  Everything else is wise to hide deep within the coral’s crevices.

After jumping into the black water, I made a circle with my light, giving the boat the “OK” signal as I bobbed on the surface, waiting for my dive buddy to enter.  Putting my mask to the water, it was impossible to see anything save for the eerie blue of the boat deck’s fluorescent light as it quickly faded, unable to penetrate the silent depths.  The ceaseless surface waves of the ocean twisted and bent the light, making it dance in a chaotic rhythm that reminded me of the Aurora borealis. With a loud splash my dive buddy entered the water, and I looked up to return her “OK” signal.  We swam along the surface towards the mooring buoy, our only reference point outside the boat.

Descending from the buoy, we followed the thick rope of the mooring line down at a forty-five degree angle to the bottom.  Covered in soft, silky, brown-yellow-green algae, we descended either side of the line, alternating between pointing our lights along it and downwards, looking for another reference point.  With the pull of the massive dive boat keeping the line taught, it sighed up and down with the cumulative movement of countless tiny waves.  Without any other visual reference points, we were just along for the ride.

Despite the high clarity of ocean waters, my dive light’s reach was disappointingly short.  Able to see in only the narrow sweep the light is pointed in, it’s as if you’re wearing blinders at a time when you’re trying to control your movement in three dimensions, never quite sure what’s coming next.  As a result you find yourself busily swinging the light around, trying to fabricate a mental map of the world around you and pointing it at the slightest movement caught out of the corner of your eye.

Finally, a sandy bottom came into view, and my light revealed a fleeting glimpse of a school of rays, disturbed from their sleep under the sand, headed for deeper and quieter waters.  Like saucer-shaped birds, they gently flapped their edges, levitating a few inches above the sand, their expressionless, beady eyes watching me as they searched for darkness.  As I adjusted my own buoyancy a few feet above the bottom, a school of batfish swam by, each two feet across, cruising along the edge of the reef.  They disappeared again into the depths as quietly as they had appeared.  We oriented ourselves to the mooring line’s anchor, our lifeline back to the boat, and started exploring the reef.

The coral heads present a maze, casting flickering shadows all around you.  Knowing that you’re surrounded by life, adrenaline keeps you alert as you push away childhood memories of monsters in the shadows cast by a nightlight.  You could be forgiven for mistaking a coral reef as dead if your only experience of it was at night.  Fearfully aware of their own mortality, the reef’s inhabitants, actively flitting about their homes during the day, are nowhere to be found at night.  The reef is uncannily silent and still.

The bright dive lights will sometimes startle a small fish out of hiding, which will then quickly dart back and forth, confused and trying to escape the beam of light.  Larger predator fish will often follow around divers at night, looking for an opportunistic meal.  Their larger eyes are adapted to find prey at night, but if a spotlight is being provided, why do any extra work?  As if playing a cruel, merciless god, they will swim anywhere you point, gobbling up any small prey captured in the light.

Shining my light under an outcrop of coral, I was rewarded by a rare and colorful sight: a large stoplight parrotfish lay motionless, wedged against the coral, wrapped in an all but invisible bubble of mucus.  Only its eye moved slightly, confused by the sudden appearance of light as I short-circuited millions of years of evolution.  A parrotfish this large was in no danger from any but the largest predators, though curiosity got the better of a hungry red snapper that had been following me for most of the dive.  Annoyed that my view was being blocked, I swung the light, pointing it away from the reef towards the open ocean.  A few shadows moved in the distance, quickly moving away from the light.  We were surrounded by life, glimpses of it the only hints of hidden activity.

Turning my attention back to the reef, I began to notice a distinctive flicker to my dive light.  For a moment I thought my dive buddy was signaling me with her own light, but every time I looked towards her, she was busily exploring a new section of coral a few feet away.  Confused, I began to swim towards her, shaking my light.  It was definitely coming from my light.  Was the bulb filament somehow loose?  This light also seemed distinctly yellow compared to the torches we’d used the night before.  Banging it with my other hand, the flicker responded in turn, the light somehow angled downwards.  Finally, I pointed the light towards my face and looked in horror as I saw the clear space in front of the bulb half-filled with seawater.

Without any light we would be in serious trouble, and it was only a matter of time before my lamp gave up in the corrosive saltwater.  Amazed that my light was still working at all given the severity of the leak, I shook my dive buddy’s arm.  Startled, she turned quickly, and I pointed at my impotent dive light, water swishing around the clear plastic.  Her blue eyes widened as she raised her eyebrows, and bringing her two index fingers together, she signaled that we should stay together and rely on her light for the remainder of the dive.  Agreeing that the chances of both lights failing was pretty slim, I gave the “OK” signal, but just as soon as I had, I grabbed her arm again.  I pointed at her light: it, too, was half full of water.  Circling my index finger vertically, I gave the signal to return to the boat.  She quickly nodded.

I tried to keep my breathing under control as we increased our pace underwater, hurrying back to the buoy’s anchor before both lights failed.  From there, even if blind, we could follow the line to the surface and the safety of the dive boat.  Both dive lights?  How was this possible?  Someone had screwed up on the dive boat preparing the equipment and we were lucky enough to end up with a pair of duds.  Now that I understood what was going on, it seemed kind of obvious.  Normally blinding, the lights were incredibly dull and yellow, struggling to penetrate the water.  Gradual malfunction is much harder to notice than sudden failure.

Reaching an area with a sandy bottom, I knew we were close to the anchor.  An otherworldly blue glow emanated from the other side of the coral heads.  No more than 20 feet away, the other divers in our group had no idea of our predicament.  Easily within shouting distance above water, it’s incredibly difficult for humans to communicate underwater, even with your dive buddy a few feet away, let alone someone on the other side of the reef.  Our inability to communicate and dependence on the failing electric lights were reminders of how ill-equipped we are as visitors to this alien world.

A wave of relief came over me as the concrete block of the anchor point came into dim view.  It wasn’t much further now.  The thick metal chains chinked together as the dive boat rocked in the waves at the other end of the line.  We swam to the top of the chain and held on to the thick rope, covered in slimy algae.  Framed by our dive masks, our eyes met, the only small window of facial expression exposed through our dive equipment.  We each gave the “OK” signal.  I checked my air supply: 2100psi.  Plenty.  She gave a thumbs up signal, and I nodded, agreeing that we should ascend.

The mooring line between us, we gently swam up, each with one hand on the rope as a guide.  Difficult to judge in the dark, I periodically checked the dive computer on my other wrist, making sure our ascent rate was under control.  The seabed was now out of sight and we were floating in a featureless void, the thick braided rope our only reference point, angled upwards for an unknown distance.  Looking back, the rope quickly faded into nothingness telling no tales of the living world beneath.  The glow from the dive boat was coming into view, and soon our fading dive lights would be useless.

Our dive computers beeped, and we stopped at 15ft of depth for our 5-minute safety stop.  Opposite one another, we held on and simply breathed.  Like the tufts of algae clinging to the rope for survival, I looked at my hand holding onto the mooring line, my skin pale in the half light, the hairs on the back of my hand moving with the water.  Bobbing up and down with the ship, the rope would sometimes move several feet at a time, and our bodies waved from our handheld anchor point, mimicking the algae.  Never still, the ocean condemns its inhabitants to forever be in motion.  I switched my light off, extinguishing it.  Looking up, I watched the bubbles of my exhaled breath rise to the surface, breaking up as they rose and expanded, taking with them the excess nitrogen in my blood, back to our world.

Willing my eyes to penetrate the darkness, I stared into the abyss, searching for that last glimpse of life before our return.  I imagined the rays that fled our lights earlier, their outlines buried in the unseen sand below us, beady eyes vigilant and watching me, above, grappling with the impenetrable waters, disabled by the failure of a simple light.  The sandy bottom failed to emerge from the depths, filled instead by a series of ghostly shapes that materialized out of the fog.  Gently pulsating in a futile attempt to control their destiny, a group of moon jellyfish drifted with the gentle current.  Watching their graceful domes pass by, I was distracted by movement at the stern of the boat in the distance.  Illuminated by the fluorescent lights on the rear deck, a huge school of large fish was swarming right where we would exit the water.  My dive computer’s alarm sounded: our safety stop was over.

We gave each other the “OK” signal and let go of the rope.  My eyes had adjusted to the dim light cast by the boat, and I motioned to my dive buddy to turn off her dive light.  Swimming through the clear water we were in easy reach of the boat, and it felt liberating to be swimming undetected and free in the dark ocean, lone observers to the frenzy in front of us.  The stern of the ship was silhouetted by the light, its single four-bladed propeller and rudder frozen in the water.  Shadowy and secluded, large fish often lurk underneath moored boats, slowly circling the keel.  Instead, this group of large pelagics was focusing on the volume lit by the rear deck’s light.

As we neared the stern I was finally able to see what was happening.  A shoal of baitfish had been unlucky enough to wander into the light cast by the boat, and they were being devoured by a school of great trevally.  The only way out of the water was through the feeding fish.  We paused at the edge of the writhing mass.  Bathed in light and swarming around the twin ladders hanging into the water, we were reluctant to continue.  As we watched, the baitfish were visibly decreasing in number as the dwindling survivors were being forced toward the surface.  In general, fish actively avoid being touched and schools of fish will part as you pass through them.  I’d never been near a school of feeding fish, but we didn’t have a choice.  I looked at my dive buddy and shrugged.  Onwards.

Slowly ascending through the feeding fish, I was mesmerized.  The water was alive with tiny silvery reflections and large saucer eyes.  The baitfish moved in a spastic zigzag pattern doing everything possible to avoid being eaten.  The trevally drifted by in all directions, their eyes calmly focused on their prey.  With a sudden burst of energy one of them would swallow an unwitting victim.  No matter which direction I looked, the scene was the same.  Keeping my arms close, I felt brisk currents all around me as the trevally feasted, but none of them brushed against me.  Looking upward, I watched both predator and prey dive out of the water, but the odds were clearly stacked in favor of the trevally with their large eyes and swift bodies.  It was just a question of time.  The ladder was near, and I could see the shimmering refraction of one of the crew waiting for us.  I exhaled one last time.

Bursting through the surface, the world was suddenly busy and loud.  The hungry fish around us were flopping on the surface as they dove after their prey.  The metal ladder I was standing on clanged against the deck as waves splashed over the side.  The grinding, rhythmic whine of the ship’s generator was blaring and out-of-place.  We slapped our fins onto the deck and clunked down the two broken lights, now filled with water.

“You two are back early!  What happened?”

The horizon was black in every direction, not a single sign of human presence, and even the trevally now seemed quiet, leaving no hint of life beneath the dark, undulating waters.

Golf Sierra Lima: Lessons Learned

[With minor edits, this is an article I wrote for New Zealand's Soaring NZ gliding magazine, published in the December 2010 / January 2011 issue.  I've added a link to the GPS record of the flight in IGC format at the end of the article.  You can read my first person account of the flight here.]

I’ve repeatedly defended the safety of gliding to my non-pilot friends, and I also believed that I was a safe and conservative pilot.  I fit none of the characteristics of a stereotypical risk-taker.  Highly analytical, trained as an engineer, I’m a strong believer in planning and procedure as ways to reduce risk.  I regularly read two different aviation safety publications, and most would describe me as thoughtful, careful, and certainly mindful of minimizing risk.

There’s nothing extraordinary about these characteristics.  With very few exceptions most people I’ve met in the sport fit this description, and there’s no doubt that we all highly value our own life.  Yet, if all of the above is true, how did I end up crash landing a Discus in an unforgiving valley?  Is our sport ultimately more dangerous that we publicly state — and perhaps more sinisterly — actually believe it to be?

With two broken feet, I won’t regain my prior walking fitness for at least another six months and will be on crutches for half of that time.  I can expect early onset of arthritis in my right ankle by the time I reach my mid-40s.  While I am very fortunate that my injuries were not more severe and that I didn’t pay the price of this lesson with my life, the entire episode was preventable and a direct result of my own decision-making.

I’ve analyzed the accident in my mind countless times, and I believe there were three primary factors that influenced the ultimate outcome.


  1. I was in a competition. I’m nothing if not highly competitive, and this was the first competition I’d flown in, but I don’t believe this was the primary factor in the accident.  However, I was flying with a smaller altitude margin of safety than I would on a non-competitive cross-country flight.  In this situation it is even more critical to know precisely what your actions will be if you don’t find lift where you expect it.  With less altitude in reserve, there is much less time to react and safely get to a reliable landing area.
  2. I wasn’t 100% confident of my precise location. This, in combination with the next factor, was decisive.  With approximately 80 hours of flying out of Omarama, I was familiar with the region, but I’d never been in the Ahuriri valley at ridgetop height.  Cotters Hut was the next turnpoint, and I was happy to cross a few hundred feet over a ridge because I believed I would be entering the Dingle Burn valley — with its known landing strips — and not, as it turned out, Timaru Creek.  Had I known that I would be flying into a valley with no landable areas, I would either have increased my altitude margin of safety or chosen to cross at a different point.
  3. I was following another competitor, effectively outsourcing my decision-making to a non-consensual third-party. This was a fundamental mistake.  I wasn’t communicating with him, but seeing another glider crossing the ridge within 50ft of my own altitude gave me a false sense of security, particularly since the other pilot has far greater mountain flying experience than I do.  There’s a single word that describes this situation: complacency.  Although following and learning by example is a very natural behavior, trusting your own safety in the assumption that someone else isn’t risking their own is a dangerous mistake.
    The stakes are high when flying an aircraft, and you must take extra precautions against this behavior as the risks involved are often deceptive.  My situation is summed up neatly by Prof. Martin Hellman’s description of a 99.9% safe maneuver (see “Complacency: What Me Worry?”, June/July 2010, SoaringNZ).  In subsequent discussions with the other pilot, he was extremely concerned about crossing the head of Timaru Creek valley.  As a result, he was mentally prepared to manage and plan for the 0.1% or 1% risk involved and intended to make the crossing as quickly as possible.  I, on the other hand, was ignorant of the risk the other pilot was taking — however small — and as a result was completely unprepared for the heavy sink I found on the other side.

I still believe that gliding can be a very safe sport, but I’ve learned the hard way that the mountains can be a dangerous, unforgiving place.  For the glider pilot, this means adopting decision-making that is mountain-specific and takes these specialized risks into account.  If the majority of your experience has been in a very different environment, such as the flatlands of the UK in my case, you need to be particularly careful.  You may be a perfectly safe and competent pilot, but are you mountain-safe?

In crisp contrast to the rigidly procedural conduct of scheduled commercial flights that make them the safest possible form of transportation, glider pilots are under a much greater burden to be continually evaluating changing conditions and making safe decisions.  An accurate perception of risk is critical.  I have a few recommendations to make, and I encourage you to discuss this subject further within your own club.

  1. Always get a briefing. If you plan on flying into a new area, need a reminder, or will be entering the area in an unfamiliar weather pattern, it’s up to you to take 5 minutes to get a briefing from someone with greater experience.  An excellent rule of thumb is that if the cost of not doing something greatly outweighs the cost of doing that thing, you should always do it.  This is one of those cases.
  2. Clubs should specifically highlight unlandable areas on charts. It would be helpful for new, visiting or foreign pilots to see all unlandable areas visually represented on local charts.  A red border or light cross-hatch would serve as a keen reminder, particularly in the mountains where it is easy to quickly become trapped, even at relatively high altitude.  Seen altogether, it might initially be quite surprising how many of these areas exist that we regularly fly over.
  3. There is no substitute for training. I’ve read seemingly countless accident reports, but not once has one of these accident reports come to mind while flying.  In an emergency situation there is no time to think, and in my case, all of my decisions came back down to basic training and actions I had practiced countless times in the air.  I would encourage clubs to incorporate mountain-specific drills into their training programs.  For example, setting up a glider in a 1,000ft/min descent and asking the student to land the aircraft would emphasize how little time there is to react if caught in heavy sink.  I can imagine various exercises that could be set up in a motor glider on a calm day in the mountains to illustrate marginal or unsafe situations on a soaring day.  Compared to passively reading an accident report and nodding in complacent agreement, these types of drills drive home the message to the student and become an active part of their decision-making process.
  4. Update your glider’s safety kit. One unexpected factor in my landing is that no one knew whether I was alive.  My radio wasn’t able to transmit and because of my injuries I was limited in my signaling options.  Other glider pilots weren’t able to descend low enough to see me sitting on the wing of the glider without ending up in the valley themselves.  A set of flares (red, green, white) would have been extremely useful.  A signaling mirror would be another useful addition.  Leave these items in your glider’s first aid kit next time you go flying.

[You can download a GPS record of the flight in IGC format here.]

The Great Barrier Reef

May 19th, 2010, 9:54am

The vessel was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  A converted trawler, this tough ship had taken us 300km to the north overnight to our first dive site for the day.  Known to the diving community as a “liveaboard,” these ships carry only scuba divers as passengers and will spend anywhere from several days to two weeks touring reef systems off the beaten track.  With up to four dives a day, including a night dive, there is little time to do anything other than dive, eat, and sleep.

Taka carries a maximum of thirty passengers, most of them crammed into a lower deck fore of the engine room and accessible by a steep metal ladder down from the main deck.  Three of us shared a closet-sized four-person cabin with bunk beds, swaying below the water line.  The monotonous throbbing of the engine roars constantly, day and night.  The main deck holds the dining area, galley, and a large flat-screen TV continually relaying a view from the outside world via a camera mounted at the front of the ship.  For those prone to seasickness, the windowless Taka is a never-ending amusement park ride you wish you’d never been convinced to ride on.

Moving aft, the main deck opens outside to a row of dual-purpose toilet/shower stalls that face three rows of parallel benches loaded with scuba tanks and gear.  Each diver is assigned a particular tank and location for storage of their gear, and this is the same deck that the divers enter and exit the water from.  Other than these areas, the only other space available is the top deck, a windy place to get some fresh air and look out over the open ocean.

On this particular three-day voyage there were only eleven passengers on board, with nearly a one-to-one ratio to the ten staff members that crew the vessel.  It was hard to imagine how crowded it must feel with a full complement of another nineteen people on board.  I’d never spent more than a few hours on a boat before, and it took some time to gain my sea legs.  The lack of windows often made it very disorienting to walk around inside when a sudden sway of the ship could throw you off-balance.  The shallower ocean inland from the reef is more sheltered, but can still be surprisingly rough.  Sleeping in a constantly rocking motion is an interesting feeling, though somehow comforting, perhaps triggering hidden memories from the crib.

Both the crew and the passengers were from all over the world.  Japan, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States were all represented.  Many of the passengers had stories to share of experiences on other dive boats and generally got along well, but the crew seemed somewhat more staid.  Working on a dive boat is tough work.  You might be out on the water for ten days at a time, only returning to port for a few hours each week.  Most of the time you are working to make sure the passengers are taken care of, whether that means cooking, briefing on the next dive site, refilling air tanks, cleaning the deck, mooring and unmooring the boat at each site, or guiding groups of divers underwater.  You’re up later and awake before everyone else on the boat.  For all this thankless work and an undoubtedly paltry paycheck, it’s no wonder that the staff can sometimes seem apathetic.

People end up in Cairns for all kinds of reasons.  I met a woman on the crew of a different dive boat the day before who was a former VP of Sales from San Diego.  In a declining market with uncertain sales prospects, she’d decided to cut loose and do something completely different for a year.  Few people I met were making a career out of working on one of the many dive boats that leave Cairns everyday, and most were overseas visitors working on a temporary visa.  Once you start traveling around, it becomes clear just how many people are taking time off from their careers and the story becomes almost formulaic: my job was killing me, I had no idea what to do with my life and needed a break, so I decided to travel the world.  Willing to work for just enough money to keep traveling, we’re everywhere.  Cairns is a particular hot spot.

The town itself is nothing to write home about, and it primarily owes its sprawling prosperity to the proximity of the Great Barrier Reef and the consequential volume of tourists, all hoping to dive or snorkel on this world-famous reef.  Despite its length of nearly 1,500km, the longest barrier reef in the world, there are few areas where the reef comes relatively close to the continent’s shore.  Despite this relative accessibility, it is still a one-and-a-half hour boat ride away with only a flat sandy bottom between the reef and shore.  I was surprised by how built up the town is, and it abounds with hotels, restaurants, bars, and endless tourist “information” offices, which are nothing more than promotional booking centers for the various operators.  Whether you want to scuba dive, skydive, bungee jump, or simply go on a sunset sail, it can all be done in Cairns.

Looking out over the bow of Taka after breakfast, I watched the crew help moor the boat to a fixed line marked by a buoy.  The ship slowly turned, drifting with the current as the mooring line was pulled taut.  No land was visible in any direction, and nevertheless we weren’t yet in the open ocean, still held within the safety of the reef.  I was amazed to hear from another skipper that many of the charts that cover the reef have never been updated since the first Western sailors navigated these treacherous waters more than a hundred years ago.  Even with all the satellite positioning technology in the world, charting the changing, living reef is a wholly different problem, and most navigation is done by eye unless you are inside well-defined shipping lanes.

All I could see from my vantage point was the undulating royal blue of the ocean in all directions, and yet beneath me, invisible just a few feet beyond the edge of the fog lay an ancient world, a massive, living, breathing ecosystem.  The land and the ocean live segregated, yet vitally interdependent lives, separated by a trick of refraction, one largely invisible to the other.

Stepping forward, I plunged into the ocean.

What Lies Beneath?

May 19th, 2010, 1:53am

Awoken from my warm cocoon by an unbearable pressure in my bladder, my brain fought to return to the comfort of sleep.  Losing the battle, moments later I reluctantly steadied myself on the bunk’s frame and swayed in the darkness of the cabin as I struggled to put my clothes on through my stupor.  Gripping the door frame, the hallway swayed back and forth like a suspension bridge as I struggled to keep my eyes open in the harsh fluorescent light.  Attempting to focus on the singular goal of completing the convoluted path to the toilet injury-free, I slowly scaled the steps of a near-vertical ladder, taking each step in turn with every unpredictable sway of the world.

Passing through another cumbersome door and its foot-high bottom frame, I was finally outside and made a beeline for the first stall.  Quickly looking in the mirror, disheveled hair and bleary-eyed, I’d never seen my eyes so bloodshot.  As the boat tipped back and forth in the waves, the water sometimes spilling onto the rear deck loaded with our scuba gear, I finally relaxed.


Nothing had ever felt this good.

Tomorrow evening, don’t go over the top with the water, I chided myself.  Just drink lots in the morning instead.

Urgent business taken care of, I retraced my steps and was particularly circumspect around the ladder and its thin, sharp metal steps.  They reminded me of the uncovered marble steps at our home in Spain as a child.  It was usually while running up the stairs that I had multiple painful run-ins as my shins smashed into the unforgiving stone in a moment of childhood carelessness.  There was no running this time, but the swaying of the boat was a brand new dimension.  I descended gingerly.  Lying in my bunk once again, shins intact, the rocking of the boat tossed me back into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The ocean is incomprehensibly vast.  Its immense lateral bounds dwarf the continents that we call home, and its depths multiply its domain many times over.  Although birds challenge land-based animals’ confinement to two dimensions, life in the ocean truly inhabits all depths, from the shallows of coral reefs, dependent on direct sunlight, to the deepest trench, tens of thousands of feet below the surface embedded in an impenetrable darkness.  From the largest animal on Earth, the blue whale, to the tiny krill that it depends on for food, a staggering range of creatures inhabit the ocean.  Each species is highly adapted to a specific envelope of conditions, some migrating thousands of miles every year, others remaining nearly static, thriving in the seemingly caustic and inhospitable environment of scalding volcanic vents on the ocean floor.

The senses we possess are woefully inadequate when it comes to surveying this alien world.  An analogy I once read described our primitive forays into the ocean as follows.  Imagine that at a certain point on land, a vast, uniform wall of fog existed, extending vertically and horizontally as far as the eye could see.  Unable to cross this inhospitable boundary, and unable to see more than a few tens of feet into it, strange life forms would visibly flit about the surface of this boundary, shrouded in dense fog.  Occasionally a large, shadowy creature would be seen briefly, and then disappear as quickly as it appeared back into the murk.  The foreign animals are somehow able to navigate this hazy environment across vast distances and many can detect prey with precision through an exotic sixth sense of bioelectrical signals.  A few have developed complex forms of communication.  Others possess the ability to produce their own light.  This is our mysterious ocean: the largest and most ancient habitat on the planet.

Ironic for a species that has repeatedly ranged over the surface of the Moon, vast unexplored expanses of the ocean remain here on Earth.  Most of these areas exist far below the reach of our sun’s light beyond the bathypelagic zone in depths exceeding 1,000 meters or 3,300 feet below the surface.  The difficulties inherent to manned exploration at these extreme depths and pressures aside, even unmanned vehicles face the challenge that, mirroring our own bodies, our technology is also designed with the limitations and assumptions of a gaseous environment.  We grope blindly through the fog, struggling to adapt to its unfamiliar world long enough to capture glimpses of understanding.

SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) equipment allows divers to temporarily immerse themselves in this environment.  With no connection to the surface, a simple mechanical system attached to a tank supplies the user with compressed air suitable to their particular depth.  Two regulators accomplish this, one worn in the diver’s mouth.  The diver simply breathes normally and a wetsuit helps to retain body heat.  Though barely scratching the surface at a maximum depth of 40 meters or 130 feet, the world’s reef systems lie comfortably within this scuba diving range, exposing an amazing range of biodiversity to anyone willing to invest the moderate effort in obtaining a diving certification.

Tropical reef systems abound with life, a kind of underwater rainforest.  An essential component of the global carbon cycle, coral is a living creature, often locked in a symbiotic agreement with a particular photosynthetic algae, that builds a protective shell around itself made of calcium carbonate.  This is the same material that forms sea shells, and the primary component of white sandy beaches that tourists seek.  After millions of years this same material is often found on land as limestone.  Even mild acidity (for example, that of acid rain) is sufficient to dissolve limestone and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was captured millions of years ago by a prehistoric reef system.  The cycle continues.

There are hundreds of different types of coral, and growing together to form a reef system, a dense habitat with endless nooks and crannies is built that provide areas for nesting and protection from predators.  Entire islands, known as atolls, owe their existence to these huge colonies of tiny coral polyps, constantly growing their hard skeletons.  The coral reef is largely the domain of smaller fish, anemones, shrimp, and eels.  Larger predators such as rays, sharks and pelagic fish will roam on the outer bounds of the reef, seemingly aloof, choosing their prey carefully.

A large proportion of people I talk to react with horror to the thought of diving.  Part of this I think is an understandable and natural aversion to an environment that our bodies are not designed for.  Breathing underwater already sounds oxymoronic before you even consider a worst case scenario such as your air supply running out or that you have no way of speaking.  (“In space no one can hear you scream.”  Nor underwater.)  I get the impression that the remainder of the fear is driven by the unknown creatures of the ocean and Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week.  I shared these same fears before my first ocean dives.

The truth is that diving underwater is incredibly peaceful.  Most people can handle the straightforward mechanics and procedures of handling scuba equipment and once comfortable, you begin to realize that virtually everything underwater is either scared of you, ignores you entirely, or curiously and harmlessly observes you.  Nothing likes being touched, and nothing touches you.  You can slowly drift through a school of fish and they will part to make way for you.  It’s largely a matter of size.  Few sea creatures are bigger than you and when they are, aside from counting yourself lucky to see such a rare animal in the first place, you are not a recognized form of prey.

Calmly drifting along the reef, you’ll see schools of small fish dart in and out of coral.  Clownfish retreat to the safety of their home anemone as you float by and cleaner shrimp advertise their services with their red-and-white banded claws, tucked upside-down in a crevice.  Eels patiently wait for their prey to come into range, their heads poking out from between the coral, mouth agape.  A one-hundred-year-old giant clam filters the water for food and you hear the crunching sound as a parrotfish scrapes at dead or weakened coral.  Rays search for prey amongst a sandy bottom.  Bar jacks swim through your exhaled bubbles, and you spot the occasional shark in the distance, timidly curious to know what you are before disappearing into the deep royal blue of the open water, enveloped by the fog once again.

Surprisingly, as my father observed one day, you rarely see any hunting taking place underwater.  The larger fish never seem to eat any of the smaller ones.  I thought about it for a moment, and on over 75 dives, I agreed that I’d never seen a single fish get eaten.  My experience would dramatically change that night.

The Land Down Under

May 14, 2010, 9:03am

Rubbing my eyes and putting my glasses back on, I willed myself awake and excitedly looked out the window to survey the new continent beneath us.  I caught glimpses of whitecaps on the waves below between puffy white clouds, an endless field of cotton balls extending off the wingtip to the distant horizon.  Hanging low over the ocean, illuminated in the first rays of the morning sun, we descended rapidly towards the cloud tops.

Though still thousands of feet in the air, you can immediately recognize that you’ve arrived in a foreign country.  Without seeing any faces or hearing the local language, the land speaks volumes about life at ground level.  The small size and haphazard layout of farmers’ fields in southern England exposes a convoluted history of land ownership.  The four-leaf clover design of massive highway intersections in the United States, ignorant of the concept of scarcity of land, are pulsing arteries parallel to vast plains of fields laid out in a perfect grid.  The endless red and blue roofs, large and small, of China, are packed into the metastasizing growth of Beijing.  The paucity of nighttime lighting over vast tranches of India tells of economic conditions outside the major cities.  Like a fingerprint, each pattern of land use is an identity inseparable from the culture, history and politics of past and present generations.

As the aircraft cleared the last wisps of cloud, the coastline sprung into view, wandering aimlessly, and occasionally revealing a sweptback bay with a wide, sandy beach.  The waves silently lapped the shore, not a soul in sight at this quiet hour of the morning.  Sydney’s international airport came into view off the left wing, and we were fortunate to join a long line of aircraft in a left hand circuit: everyone sitting on the left side of the aircraft was about to get a leisurely aerial tour of Sydney Harbor.

Compact and modern-looking, with skyscrapers and towers tickling the morning clouds, Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) is split across the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge.  As the olympic stadium and village rolled by in the outskirts of the city, I realized how little I knew about Sydney other than being able to identify its two most famous landmarks.  One of the most well-known buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House, came into view and I remarked on how beautiful the architecture is seen in context.  It appeared smaller than I imagined, sitting alone on a tiny spit of land in the harbor, dwarfed by the bridge and nearby skyscrapers.  A pleasing shape to the eye, the rising sun’s colors danced off its sails, flowing and changing, reminding me of sunrise at the Taj Mahal.

The landing circuit took us cleanly around the harbor, and I was surprised by how compact it is.  Seemingly countless small inlets and bays sprout off the main harbor, each holding a pod of neatly-spaced sailboats, homes looking down like spectators in an amphitheater.  Having never sailed anything larger than a 3-person dingy, and never observed it myself, I pondered how crews get to their moored boats off-shore.  Probably not by swimming.  In a neighboring inlet, a tanker ship offloaded its cargo into storage containers on land, its route through the harbor unclear from my vantage point.  The homes in this particular inlet were no doubt less desirable.

Despite having experienced thousands of landings and in spite of being a pilot myself, as usual, my stomach tightened.  An accident on approach, a time when there are few quiet moments in the cockpit, is exceptionally unlikely, and knowing what the procedures are in the cockpit is little comfort.  The thought that this might be the one time that the aircraft simply continues descending gently, putting us short of the runway in the dark ocean crossed my mind.  Yelling at them to pull up, the pilots would never hear me in time, and the flight attendants’ first reaction would be to sedate me.  The deathly silence in the cabin with eyes transfixed on the approaching ground through the tiny windows, typical conditions during landing, betrayed the unspoken unease that our lives were in the hands of an immensely complex machine with two overworked pilots at the helm.

Needless to say, the aircraft made a flawless touchdown.

Sydney airport bursts with activity, confidently playing the part of a major international hub, and travelers arriving from Europe or North America no doubt instantly feel right at home.  Clearly a major gateway to the Orient, close to half the foot traffic is Asian.  Spotting a Boeing 747 draped in United Airlines livery, it teased me with the idea of how mindlessly easy it would be to jump on board and be back in San Francisco for lunch the same day.  I marched towards immigration and despite the fatigue of being awake since 1:30am local time, Australia had a friendly feeling to it, and the Australian women seemed to be particularly attractive.  I had a good feeling about this trip.

At the End of the Earth

May 8-11, 2010

With our existence on a near-perfect sphere, there is no reason that any one point should be intrinsically more alluring than any another.  In fact, there are many reasons to remain within a comfortable climatic band like any other sensible species.  Yet in a manner akin to the living dead, humans are irrepressibly seduced by the siren call of that which is inhospitable, desolate, near impossible to traverse, and preferably all of the above.  Particularly if that most motivating of words is uttered: impossible.

Thus, sitting in the bar of the South Sea Hotel, mentally planning my future travels to Antarctica, grandiose notions of exploring the far-flung continent by scheduled steamship in mockery of the hardships faced by pioneering explorers, I realized that Stewart Island was a significant landmark in itself.  Straddling forty-seven degrees of latitude, there are few other permanently inhabited islands this far south, a last bastion of humanity at the bottom of the Eastern hemisphere.

In contrast to the first treacherous expeditions of the past two centuries to conquer and civilize every last corner of the natural world, exponential advances in technology, global communication networks and inexpensive means of travel have resulted in a world that is remarkably accessible to anyone with sufficient economic means.  Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander and first to climb Mt Everest, would never have imagined the day that a 13-year-old would ascend that same formidable peak, no less call his mother from the summit.

Yet with this great dissemination of humankind have also come the familiar and telltale signs of our efficient proliferation.  Hungry for arable land, indigenous forests have been cleared to feed growing populations and embed the infrastructure that we construct our modern civilization around: transportation, water, energy, waste, and communications.  It’s remarkable what a small percentage of the planet remains that has been untouched by human beings: look out the window on any flight on any route around the world, and if over land, chances are overwhelmingly high that you will see signs of human life.

It was my curiosity to know what New Zealand looked like before human arrival that brought me to the far southern reaches of the South Island, starting with the Catlins.

My first night was a frigid one.  The wind was persistent and wet, the first signs of winter’s approach at these southern latitudes.  Arriving in Owaka under a blanket of darkness, I was having trouble finding my accommodation in the tiny village.  The small-town feel was unmistakable: the main street was empty and hardly a light remained on though it was barely half past eight.  The only homes that dared divulge their furtive residents were those with chimneys smoking.  Doubling-back on the main road through the mist, I spotted the small, dimly lit sign of the guesthouse and pulled into the driveway.

I picked up a phone by the front door to be given the entry code.  The voice on the other end, the local owner, sounded distant and warm, comfortable in a faraway place.  Walking in, I turned on the lights and looked for my room.  The hallway, bathroom, and bedroom were barely a few degrees warmer than the Antarctic winds blowing outside.  As I exhaled, my breath immediately condensed.  Settling in, I prepared for bed.  When the moment of truth arrived, I quickly stripped, leaving my long underwear on, and took a deep breath before diving under the freezing sheets.  Lying completely motionless lest I let in a draft of frosty air, I patiently waited for my body heat to warm the bed.  This was undeniably the low season for the region.

The allure of the Catlins is its isolation, rugged beauty, and rafts of protected native forest, all of which make it a very popular destination in the peak (summer) season.  It’s hard to imagine what it must be like during these busy periods, local resources stretched to the limit.  The coastline, like many parts of New Zealand, is stunningly beautiful, but the lack of development makes it particularly arresting.  In a whirlwind tour of the Catlins, I took two and a half days to visit Nugget Point Lighthouse, Tautuku beach and forest, Porpoise Bay, the Jurassic-era petrified forest at Curio Bay, and on down to Slope Point, the southernmost point of the South Island.  Gazing south toward the blue horizon, it’s a humbling feeling knowing that there is no land between you and Antarctica for over a thousand miles.

Though beautiful, I was somewhat disappointed with the Catlins.  Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but I had prepared myself for native forest as far as the eye could see and an endless number of long hikes to choose from.  Unfortunately there was a lot more cultivated land than I had expected, and the areas of native forest feel more like endangered islands than something you could lose yourself in.  I decided to push ahead to Stewart Island.

Every visitor to Stewart Island will spend at least one night in Invercargill, the southernmost town of its size and a 30-minute drive from Bluff, the fishing town famous for its oysters and the departure point for the Stewart Island ferry.  You can immediately tell the character of a town upon entering it, and unfortunately there is little to absolve Invercargill’s mediocre reputation.  Near the center of town, Queens Park is beautifully maintained, but the main street exudes fatigue and lack of character, not helped by the cold, damp sea air blowing in from the nearby ocean.  The coastline itself, though beautiful a few kilometers in either direction outside of town, is hidden several blocks behind the main street, lined by aging buildings in support of Invercargill’s port activities.

The Foveaux Strait separates Stewart Island from the South Island, and a single passenger-only ferry service connects the two on a daily basis.  Conditions can be extremely rough, but we were spared the worst of it on our way south.  Looking out the window at the waves rolling past, an albatross kept up with the ferry, swooping below the peaks of the waves, looking for an easy meal in the wake of the ship.

Entering the calm bay with Oban at its head, the town that 80% of the island’s 400 permanent residents call home, is a peaceful and idyllic scene.  Halfmoon Bay owes its name to a cartographic error, its name inadvertently swapped with neighboring Horseshoe Bay, and anchored at evenly-spaced moorings just off shore, fishing boats bob up and down in its gentle waves.

There is an old world feel to the town, a place where time has run its course at a slower pace.  Not a modern building in sight, the South Sea Hotel, the island’s pub, stands out as the only two-story building on the waterfront, juxtaposed with a bright, human-sized giant chessboard across the street just off the beach.  With hardly any paved roads, there are few cars on the island, a luxury that must be shipped across the strait on a cargo ship.  Boats are the primary form of transportation to islands and coves both near and far, and people often walk through the native forest to reach their homes, typically impossible to see through the dense foliage.

The sound of birdcalls is almost deafening.  Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island, is almost entirely an untouched national park, carpeted in native forest.  Their indigenous habitat intact and mostly free of land-based predators, birds thrive here.  A symphony of birds calling one another through the forest can be heard across a wide range of pitch.  Heard at once, the calls of each species are noticeably distinct and some, like that of the Tui, are incredibly intricate and melodic (audio: MP3).  Others, such as the Kererū, the New Zealand pigeon, are vocally more reserved, but as they hop from tree to tree their distinctively noisy wings give them away as you crane your neck up to towards the forest canopy, straining to find the culprit.

I spent a day and a half walking along some of the local forest paths, including half a day spent at Ulva Island, a 15-minute boat ride from Oban.  Ulva Island is a unique conservation area in that it is viciously protected from any land-based predators that could disrupt the native bird life.  Native New Zealand birds are particularly vulnerable to predators as there were few on land before their introduction by European settlers.  Signs warn visitors to check for rats in anything they might be carrying.

Walking along the small island’s tracks you have the ability to feel almost entirely alone with nature, wandering through the dense temperate rainforest and deserted rocky beaches.  Sitting motionless for a few minutes at the side of the track, you might be lucky to spot a rare Saddleback, a once endangered species that has been recently reintroduced to Ulva Island.  Taking in the calm view from one of the beaches in seeming isolation from the modern world, a group of wekas’ insatiable curiosity for what I was carrying in my backpack quickly reminded me that I was probably not the first human to set foot on these shores.

Rakiura is beautifully peaceful, a tight-knit sanctuary far from the reaches of the modern and busy world.  The more I explored, the more I realized that remoteness requires additional preparation.  Options for activities are fairly limited unless you’ve come with the right equipment or have made arrangements in advance.  The Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is a 3-day tramp around the northern part of the island, and can be extended in various places to make up to a 10-12 day tramping excursion.  With the undeveloped land preventing any sediment runoff, scuba diving is also said to be phenomenal in the crystal-clear, if cold, waters around the island.  Brachiopods — living fossils, having first appeared on Earth over 500 million years ago — abound in the Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve.  Though I had my diving gear with me, there is no operator on the island, and diving trips need to be arranged in advance on the mainland.

Somehow fitting to the seclusion of the region and playing into my lack of preparedness, I spent several hours chatting with an American woman, the owner of a local cafe, who has been based on Stewart Island for the past 18 years.  After completing her PhD at the University of Otago in Dunedin, she landed her dream job at an organization in Paris before quitting 6 months later and moving to Stewart Island to carve out an entrepreneurial and independent life.  The first foreign transplant to New Zealand I had spoken to at length on my trip, with a familiar American perspective no less, we had a fascinating conversation.

A common topic amongst any travelers in a foreign land, cultural differences and identity are very personal to me.  With an American father and Mexican mother, my childhood was split between three countries (USA, Spain, and the UK), and I constantly struggle to answer the simple and common question, “Where are you from?”  I very much feel like a citizen of the world, with the benefit of exposure to different points of view from an early age and a resulting open mind, and yet it’s hard to deny that certain cultures have had their particular influence on me.  At various times in my life I have felt greater allegiance to one country over another, but I have never felt entirely accepted in return.  Be it something as simple as a difference in accent or more complex such as cultural references in humor, a gap in historical knowledge, or the lack of shared, culturally typical experiences growing up (for example, I never experienced “prom” in the US), people are quick to seize and focus on differences.

I had the feeling that despite being a Stewart Island resident for 18 years, my American friend felt somewhat ostracized by the community.  Entirely familiar with unfounded and unfair resentment — as a schoolboy in the UK, being “American” was enough of an infraction to incite bullying — I asked her why she thought that was.  Her interpretation was that she was feeling the backlash of “tall poppy syndrome,” a culturally-ingrained form of envy where the most successful members of a community are struck down.  Without engaging in a full analysis of the undoubtedly complex interaction between personal psychology, culture, and unknown skeletons within a very small community, it’s safe to say that cultural upbringing and differences undoubtedly play a strong role.

When traveling, I tend to distance myself from being identified as American, playing my background to my advantage.  The reputation that Americans have for being culturally ignorant is unfortunately often true and an embarrassment.  In New Zealand I generally identify as British, which tends to immediately present some level of comfort and familiarity.  I’ve come to realize that my upbringing in the UK, aged 10 to 18, likely affected my personality more than I’ve given credit to.  Kiwi and British culture have significant commonalities, and, by American standards, my more modest and reserved style is well suited to the local culture.

I departed Rakiura the next day, and watching another albatross follow our ferry north to Bluff, I reflected on our conversation.  When traveling for long periods, enlightening conversations seem to occur at the most unexpected times.  In this case, it wasn’t until I stepped away into a different culture and environment that I started to think about some of the things that are intrinsic to my own behavior.  Already relatively well-traveled, the difference in this case has been the luxury of having the time to reflect and question some basic assumptions.  The irony is not lost on me that it took a journey to the opposite side of the planet to gain a small amount of insight into my basic personality.  But that’s what this journey is all about.

[ My route on Google Maps. ]