WA­TERS OF ABUN­DANCE

Scuba Diver Ocean Planet - - One Ocean - By Rui Guerra

In the Azores, the wa­ters are boom­ing with breath­tak­ing gath­er­ings of life, but the div­ing is some­times dicey, and ev­ery en­counter is left to chance

At just 10 me­tres, I can al­ready see the bot­tom, more then 50 me­tres below me. I drop slowly, con­trol­ling the on-board com­puter of my re­breather, keep­ing the par­tial pres­sure of O2 un­der close sur­veil­lance. Sud­denly, the am­bi­ent light dims and in an in­stant I am sur­rounded by hun­dreds of al­maco jack, Se­ri­ola rivo­liana, that form a tight mass around me. I con­tinue the de­scent and reach the top of the rocky reef. Here is a compact school of whirling fish, in­di­vid­u­als swirling to­gether in pairs, one dark, and one lighter. Th­ese are Po­mato­mus salta­trix, also known as the marine pi­ranha, an­chova, or blue­fish; an­other large preda­tor that usu­ally forms big schools in this dive spot. I look at the steep slopes of this rocky peak, in the typ­i­cally in­tense blue of the Azorean wa­ters. Swim­ming around the top, at be­tween 50 and 55 me­tres, I come across some big greater am­ber­jack, Se­ri­ola dumer­ili, some of which are surely more than a me­tre long, swim­ming in a pow­er­ful for­ma­tion close by. Some me­tres away, a clenched school of small red Caprus aper, swim in a syn­chro­nised man­ner, like a cloud of in­sects, try­ing to es­cape to the al­ter­nat­ing at­tacks of some jack. All is a whirring, writhing, school­ing mass of pul­sat­ing life of dif­fer­ent forms. But al­ready it’s time to start the as­cent back up the rope. How­ever, un­like many other dives, even as we start to as­cend, this one is far from over. In fact, this ex­cur­sion to greater depths is com­pletely op­tional and, for many, of no in­ter­est. Why? Be­cause this site’s main at­trac­tions are not those schools of pow­er­ful preda­tory fish amassed in the deep – the main draw of this dive is much closer to the sur­face, so close that some­times we can see it from the boat.

DEVILS OF THE NOT-SO-DEEP

Great dark masses gen­tly fly through the shal­lows, so close to the sur­face that oc­ca­sion­ally the tips of their wings break the wa­ter, mak­ing them look like sharks. Th­ese are devil rays, Mob­ula tara­pacana, and, here at the Am­brose seamount, off the Is­land of Santa Maria, they gather in con­cen­tra­tions of sev­eral dozen in­di­vid­u­als dur­ing the warmer sum­mer months (July–Septem­ber), when the wa­ters nor­mally reach tem­per­a­tures of around 25 de­grees Cel­sius. While I as­cend qui­etly up the rope, three of th­ese large rays, in squadron for­ma­tion, qui­etly pass me a short

dis­tance away. I quickly eval­u­ate the cur­rent and no­tice it is very weak, so I let go of the ca­ble and wait for them to make an­other pass, and give me a se­cond photo op­por­tu­nity. I barely have time to ad­just the cam­era be­fore an­other small group ap­proach. I try to keep as still as pos­si­ble, un­no­ticed thanks to the ab­sence of bub­bles from my re­breather. They pass so close to me, and I fire off some shots. Then I look at my com­puter and see that I am still at more than 30 me­tres, and I have drifted about 30 me­tres from the de­scent line. Swim­ming calmly but at a de­ter­mined speed, I head for the ca­ble. This is not the place to be drift­ing away from the boat; we are more than three miles from the shore, a group of is­lands right in the middle of the At­lantic, with strong and un­ex­pected cur­rents and strong sur­face winds, which can make it very dif­fi­cult to find a diver adrift.

EX­PECT THE UN­EX­PECTED

Th­ese is­lands are the west­ern­most part of the Por­tuguese ter­ri­tory, lo­cated right in the middle of the At­lantic, on the mid-ocean ridge, where the tops of their seamounts

form the nine is­lands that make up the Azores. Th­ese mid-ocean ridges are, of course, a mag­net for marine life. Div­ing here is al­ways a chal­lenge with a good deal of un­cer­tainty. Even in mid sum­mer, there are days when it is im­pos­si­ble to dive, or a trop­i­cal storm rolls in. This lo­ca­tion in the middle of the At­lantic, sub­ject to ocean cur­rents and at­mo­spheric air cir­cu­la­tion sys­tems, can lead to un­ex­pected sur­prises, fur­ther in­creas­ing the sense of ad­ven­ture. It may be that over a long pe­riod of good weather, with sun­shine and no wind, the waves pick up, heav­ing strongly for no ap­par­ent rea­son. Such con­di­tions may be

MOUNTS OF MAG­NIF­I­CENT MARINE LIFE

2 due to some dis­tant trop­i­cal storm on the shores of the US, with the swell trav­el­ling hun­dreds of nau­ti­cal miles be­fore it dis­si­pates. If that hap­pens, the best op­tion is to spend time re­view­ing your im­ages on the com­puter, and get­ting know the coun­try­side and peo­ple of this lit­tle cor­ner of Por­tu­gal.

But when the con­di­tions are right, there are un­der­wa­ter mar­vels to dis­cover. Each is­land has its main at­trac­tions: large dusky groupers, Epinephelus margina­tus, more con­cen­trated on Corvo Is­land; mob­u­las and whale sharks in Santa Maria; the great arches of lava in Pico; blue sharks off Fa­ial; and ship­wrecks in San Miguel. Each is­land has a good range of dive sites to of­fer the

most de­mand­ing and ad­ven­tur­ous diver. But noth­ing is guar­an­teed. Some of the species that can be found in the Azores are par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to find and re­quire many hours of nav­i­ga­tion, and jour­neys of many miles in the RIB. This is the case with the whale sharks, which can some­times be found off the coast of Santa Maria, when the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture rises above 25 or 26 de­grees Cel­sius. They, they are of­ten found in close prox­im­ity to beau­ti­ful shoals of skip­jack tuna. Th­ese Por­tuguese is­lands are also vis­ited by more than 20 species of cetaceans, from dif­fer­ent species of dol­phins to the largest mam­mal in the world, the blue whale. How­ever, the most em­blem­atic of the Azores, usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with the is­lands of Pico and Fa­ial, is un­doubt­edly the sperm whale, Phy­seter macro­cephalus. Of course, div­ing with whales in the Azores is reg­u­lated and only pos­si­ble by free­d­iv­ing or snorkelling, and with a spe­cial per­mit from the re­gional govern­ment. But that’s a story for an­other time… SDOP

1. At the top of the Am­brose seamount (“Baixa do Am­bró­sio”), in Santa Maria is­land, schools of blue­fish, Po­mato­mus salta­trix, are of­ten seen in pairs, male and fe­male side by side, one darker than the other. If you re­main mo­tion­less, they will ap­proach very closely

2. At Baixa do Am­bró­sio, Santa Maria is­land, balls of boarfish, Capros aper, seek pro­tec­tion in num­bers from preda­tory jacks and devil rays

3. Div­ing be­tween dozens of devil rays, Mob­ula tara­pacana, is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, pos­si­ble in the Azores, par­tic­u­larly at Baixa do Am­bró­sio

Rui Guerra, CMAS Two-Star In­struc­tor of Un­der­wa­ter Pho­tog­ra­phy, has spent sev­eral years teach­ing the art and tech­niques of the dis­ci­pline, and is now the na­tional coach. He is also the au­thor of the only tech­ni­cal book of un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy in Por­tuguese. Rui is the most awarded Por­tuguese un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­pher in splash-in type com­pe­ti­tions, both na­tion­ally (six times Na­tional Cham­pion of Un­der­wa­ter Pho­tog­ra­phy, among oth­ers) and world­wide (World Cham­pion in the cat­e­gory of Wide with Diver, Vice-World Cham­pion in gen­eral, among oth­ers). Rui’s work has also been fea­tured in nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions around the world. www.pho­toguerra.net

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