Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dive Skin to Protect Your Skin and the Reef

Don't let a sunburn cause you to lose a day of your vacation.
Don't let being cold drive you out of the ocean.

Before we arrived in Hawaii, I purchased a new dive skin, which is the Lycra equivalent of a wetsuit.  Skins are thinner, cooler, easier to get into, have more stretch, and more comfortable than wetsuits.  A dive skin is a one-piece bodysuit made of very stretchy Lycra material.

I hate to sunburn. The day I saw an ad for reef-safe sunscreen, I thought, "Oh no! Is the sunscreen I rely upon bad for the reef I love?" I started doing research. The safest sunscreen for humans and for the reef is clothing.  So now I wear a dive skin while snorkeling and avoid the chemical sunscreen. The dive skin has paid for itself many times over in what I've saved on sunscreen.  After snorkeling for two months in Hawaii with this dive skin and no sunburn, I ordered three more in different sizes.  I bought one each for my aunt, son, and daughter-in-love to use when they visited.  So now I have four skins in four sizes.

The wrists of my dive skin are too tight for me.  It is easier to get into this suit than out of it. I can do it by myself, but it is difficult, so my husband usually helps me take off the suit by pulling one shoulder of the suit past my elbow.  I think if the dive skin had a longer zipper, then it would be easier.

The dive skin has elastic thumb loops on the sleeves and straps that go under your feet, so that one can easily put a wetsuit over it.

The water is warm in Hawaii and most people swim without a skin.  Still there are places where underground fresh water streams or springs enter the ocean where it is surprisingly chilly.  This dive skin helps me swim as long as I want without getting cold.  Occasionally I wear a Thermoprene 3mm dive vest with a front zipper, but my dive skin and vest are enough most of the time.  

We are currently on the on the Big Island of Hawaii, and occasionally we're getting into and out of the ocean over scratchy sharp lava. This suit has definitely saved me some scratches climbing out of the water when the waves have pushed me unexpectedly onto the lava, and the suit still looks new.

There have been locations where I've noticed tiny larval jellyfish, but I haven't been bothered by them which might be attributed to the dive skin.

Do I look strange wearing a skin in Hawaii when there are a lot of bikinis around?  Well, my dance tights and swim shirt were peacock blue and red and my fins were yellow when I was in Cayman, so I looked like a parrot fish.  I didn't mind, because it let me stay in the water longer.  I questioned the intelligence of looking like a large parrot fish the day I discovered that sharks really enjoy eating parrot fish.  My black dive skin looks more like the wetsuits the divers around me are wearing, so actually I stand out less than before.  Now I look more like a seal or a penguin, which sharks also find tasty. 

Fit:  I've noticed that some people on the beach are wearing their swim shirt sized like they would wear a T-shirt, but that is wrong.  To keep one warm and to make swimming easier the shirt needs to lie close to the skin.  It should be comfortable yet fit snugly enough to act like an extra skin.  It keeps you warmer, because your body heats the thin layer of water next to your skin.  A loose shirt or shorts still provides sun protection but allows that warm water layer to escape; it causes drag when swimming, and is more likely to get snagged on something.  Make sure what you're wearing fits snugly.

Color:  I've heard that white offers the most sun protection, because white reflects the light rather than absorbing it.  I wear a basic black suit with color accents.  It looks more unisex in case I want to let someone borrow it.  There are some wonderfully colored and patterned suits created for women but they are more expensive.  If you're worried about being mistaken for a seal or a parrot fish, then the color that would make the most sense would be light gray on the front and medium gray on the back the way a dolphin is colored, but I've never found those.  If you're worried about getting lost or making it easier for your snorkel partner to find you if you get separated, neon yellow is the easiest color to see when you're in the water.

Care:  Rinse your dive skin in fresh water after wearing (or when you get back to where you are staying) and hang it out of the sun to dry.  Periodically wash it and again and hang it out of the sun to dry.  Occasionally I've forgotten and left mine in the back of the van.  It is unpleasant putting on a cold damp suit and one risks mildew.  You have to rinse the salt water out as it is corrosive to the zipper and you'll end up with a dive skin you can't zip.

Depending on the color, the sizes range for extra small to triple "x," and because of the stretch they can be worm by men or woman.

Cost:  On Amazon they are anywhere from $33 and up.   

Alternatives to a dive skin for snorkeling:

  1. I used to wear thick-Lycra dance leggings and a long-sleeved swim shirt. They were definitely easier to get into and out of, but occasionally when I snorkeled, the shirt would ride up and I'd get a strange burn across my back, so I prefer the one-piece dive skin.  Other benefits of a full skin over my swim shirt is that I can unzip its front zipper if I get too warm, and its collar covers more of the back of the neck, so my neck doesn't get burned while I snorkel.   Major benefit of the two piece leggings and swim shirt over the one piece dive skin is it is much easier to go to the restroom.
  2. Sunscreen is not a good alternative for you or the reef.  The first time I snorkeled years ago, I slathered on the sunscreen, reapplied often, but still burned the back side of my upper thighs making it extremely painful to sit down.  I could not go back to the beach the next day because of the burn, so we went for a drive instead.  Both were painful mistake.  
  3. One day I realized I'd left my dive skin at the house where I'd hung it to dry.  I had a long-sleeved swim shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts in the van.  They kept me from burning.  A pair of Lycra bike shorts would have been a better choice because they would have been much easier to swim in and would have been warmer.  You may already own a Lycra swim shirt and bike shorts, exercise leggings, or dance wear; or you may have more use for them afterwards.  They are available almost everywhere.  Just take extra care to make sure you aren't accidentally exposing your back.
  4. Rash guard and shorts.  There are some wonderful rash guards in wonderful patterns and colors as they were originally created for surfers.  You may have better luck getting kids into these as they look cool.  It easier if you have to take them to the restroom.  They do seem to be more expensive.  And the shirts can also ride up and expose the back to the sun.
  5. A wetsuit (full or shorty) will also keep the sun off and protect against nicks and tiny jellyfish.  It is warmer and increases your buoyancy.  But it cost more, takes more effort and time to put on and take off.  I started wearing one starting in February.  A shorty wetsuit is easier to get into and out of than a full wetsuit.  I'd recommend a shorty or at least a wetsuit vest for children, because most have very little body fat and chill easily, so they could use the extra warmth and buoyancy that wetsuits offer. Most children and many adults don't have the patience to put on a full wetsuit, so use dive skins avoid that. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Don't Pet the Sea Life: It might follow you home or worse.

When snorkeling, I try to follow the rule "touch nothing."  It simplifies my life, because I don't have to remember which things are dangerous and which are not.  I can simply enjoy myself, and the sea life appreciates it, too.


OK, I admit I break my own rules, but I knew this was a harmless cowry (also spelled cowrie);
and after taking its picture, it went back to the tidal pool where I found it.

Bill doesn't always follow the do-not-touch rule.  Most notably was the time we were walking on the beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  Bill handed a large shell to his young son to hold up to his ear and listen to the sea.  Only after Eric handed the shell to me and I tried to listen, did we discover it had a large hermit crab residing inside.  I envisioned my son wearing living hermit-crab earrings.  Bill laughed at his mistake, and it cost him.  We took two crabs home in a plastic box with moist towels, and I bought a large saltwater aquarium and all the expensive supplies that entails.  The crabs were fun and educational.  We purchased a collection of larger shells, so that they would have a "house" to move into as they grew and molted.  We kept the hermit crabs for two years and then made a 400-mile trip back to the coast to return them to the ocean.  The aquarium tank later went on to house an iguana, then baby chicks.  I'm sure Bill wishes he'd never picked up that crab!    

The typical hermit crabs one finds on the beach are not like the land crabs people purchase as pets.  The aquatic crabs need a saltwater aquarium.  Instead they are hardy saltwater aquarium pet that you can take out of the water and hold.  A few months after we set up our saltwater aquarium, we purchased a damsel fish.  It was quite different from the tropical fish I'd enjoyed in the past, because it spent almost all the time hiding.  I did some reading and found that I should have purchased a captive-bred fish.  I found a place that had farm-raised fish and purchase another damsel fish.  What a difference, this bold fish had always been around people, and it made a much better aquarium guest.  The main reason not to purchase wild-caught saltwater reef fish (about 90% of what is sold) is that the aquarium trade is destroying the reef.  People take the coral that the animals depend upon, and they take the fish that clean the algae from the coral.  To make matters worse, most of these fish die in transit or soon afterwards.

Years later Bill handed me another beautiful shell while we were walking along the beach in Grand Cayman.  Eric was grown, but I still envisioned him as a young boy holding a hermit crab to his ear.  I asked Bill if he'd checked the shell for a crab.  He said, "Yes." Later his hand was stained a bright purple that lasted for days.  Searching on line to get more info on the purple snail dye (plicopurpura patula) lead me on a quest where I read about another snail for the first time:  The lovely yet poisonous cone snail.  Some have enough toxins to easily kill an adult.  Before that, I never would have imagined that picking up an occupied shell could be deadly.  (Check out cone snail on wikipedia).

Yep, best not to touch!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Yesterday I was swimming with about 50 spinner dolphins about (the adults are 150 to 200 pounds each) and I felt nothing but excitement. A few minutes later, I swam over an eight-inch fish sitting in the coral inches from my face that I didn't see until I was right on top of him.  It started me enough that I laughed at myself through my snorkel.  Luckily, there was no one anywhere around to hear me. The fish was very happy to pose for a photo, so it turned out well, no matter how silly I felt for being frightened.

I don't recommend snorkeling alone.  Yes I've done it, is always best to stay with your snorkeling partner for two reasons:

1.  If you get into trouble, you have someone there to help.
2.  If you see something cool, you can share the experience, which makes it better!

It isn't easy to understand what someone is saying when they are speaking with a tube in their mouth.  But we still try.  You would think that I could just lift my head, remove the snorkel, say something and then resume snorkeling, but in that short time, I can lose track of the fish I was trying to point out to Bill, we often use hand signs.

Here are the most frequent that we use.

  • Turtle - we just use the American Sign Language sign for turtle
  • Eel - arm moving like a snake
  • Crown of Thorns Starfish - one hand laying on top of another fingers spread.
  • Cold - wrapped arms across chest and shiver
  • Come here - a hand wave
  • Lots of pointing, accompanied by saying "look" into the snorkel.

And for shark, dolphin, and whale, we get so excited for those we just talk to each other.

Fish in Coral
Waiting for Lunch to Come By

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Whale Watching Boat Tours in Hawaii

We went on a whale-watching boat tour while on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Most things I've read have said that it is whale season in Hawaii from November through March, with some whales coming sooner and some staying later.  We didn't start really seeing them until January, with February being the best month for whale watching so far .

If you're going to be here for a short time, and want to see whales, I'd recommend coming in January and February.  It might be worth your while to go on a whale-watching tour boat, because you're pretty much guaranteed to see whales that way.  If there are more than just two of you, you could for the same money, arrange for a private fishing charter to take you whale watching instead.  You could save money, and have less people standing between you and the whale.

Humpback (c) Engela & Bill Edwards (2013)
Humpback Whale

If you really want to save money or see the whale again, then you can see whales from the shore line.  Even when the whales are close to shore binoculars make the experience better.  Binoculars that you don't have to worry about getting wet or splashed with salt water are the best.  The same goes for your camera.  Still, I think being on a boat gives you a better chance of seeing the whales.

Bill's been on four whale-watching boat tours.  The one he took in Maine is still his favorite, because the whales came alongside the boat.  He did two from California, one only saw a whale twice at a great distance, and one we didn't see whales at all but we were on a inflatable Zodiac boat which was fun, as we easily saw over 1000 dolphins, which was fantastic.

Our favorite viewing of the humpback have been from the shore at Two Step, on the Big Island of Hawaii.  There were days that we could hear them singing while we snorkeled.  We recommend getting far enough from shore that you aren't hearing the surf, and it also helps to be a few feet under the water when you are listening to them.  Bill dove about 5-feet down, and said he could hear them better, but I could hear them while snorkeling at the top of the water.  The snorkelers who stayed close to shore never heard them.

One day the four whales traveled back and forth at the mouth of the bay at sunset.

One day a mom and baby came into the bay and swam really close to the shore and the snorkelers that were in the bay.

People have said that the northwest coast of Hawaii is even better for seeing whales.  Our tour was actually supposed to start further north, but because of high winds and waves, we were taken to the Kona Bay instead.

When we've been on the northwest side of the island, we've been able to pull over at the roadside overlooks and watch whales.  Nice, but not as impressive as being close enough to hear them blow.

In fact when they are close, the sound of their spout will alert you where to look.  

I can't write about whales without mentioning numbers.  At one point it was estimated that there were 1,500,000 humpback whales in the ocean.  When they were declared an endangered species in 1964, it was estimated that only 1000 humpbacks were left in the whole world.  It has taken them almost 49 years for their numbers to grow to around 80,000 individuals.  Around 10,000 of them visit Hawaii every year to give birth where it is warm and breed.  It has been said that one million people visit the islands to see them.