Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Scuba Diving, La Romana, Dominican Republic

Of course you could spend a whole week in the Dominican Republic (DR) lazing about on a beautiful playa, reading trash fiction and sipping pina coladas out of freshly-cored pineapples. This was the way of my last trip to the Casa de Campo resort near the town of La Romana, when I finished Ken Follet's medieval man-centric sex epic Pillars of the Earth. This is still a highly recommended way to experience a tropical beach vacation.

But, as an avid diver, I decided to take a different approach this time, having resolved to leave no stone unturned when the opportunity to dive presents itself, which is practically anywhere there's water. As part of this ongoing mission*, it's a little strange that I didn't go diving last time I was in the DR, but you could chalk that up to me being seized with apathy, a dearth of cash, and not having a partner since Jill wasn't PADI certified at the time.

Having solved that last problem in Maui over Memorial Day weekend, I treated my mom and Jill to a diving excursion out to Isla Catalina, just a 15 minute boat ride from La Romana harbor.

So far, diving in the DR is a bit of an after thought. As such, there's very little evidence of good or bad diving available on the Internet at the popular diving websites. This leads most divers to believe the diving is bad, because otherwise there'd be something and this island would be more of a diving destination. The assumed thinking and pervasive reputation, by dint of lack of actual accounting, is that the DR is a crowded, clumsily and irresponsibly-industrialized island that has destroyed and over-fished it's reefs.

So going in blind, with scant impressions via first-party reports from here and there on the web, I had extremely low expectations. These weren't raised much when the diving outfit we ended up with turned out to be hitching a ride on a 100-person snorkel tour/booze cruise. (This booked for us via an under-the-table exchange with ex-patriot, unofficial tour director extraordinaire, Dave Black.)

There were six divers total, on this calaypso-playing, meringue dancing catamaran rum runner, including the 3 of us, two Frenchmen and a single Kazakh, the first I'd ever met. Joel, our divemaster, was a friendly Dominican who turned out to be an excellent dive master, when he could turn his attentions away from pawing my wife and mother.

Our first dive was The Wall. We dropped into warm, clear water with visibility in the 70' range and dropped down to 25 feet or so and kicked over to the eponymous wall for a cruise up and back at around 45 feet max depth. My impressions immediately centered on the health and vitality of the reef. Having seen degraded reefs in Florida, Hawai'i and Mexico, I was expecting the grunge of bleached coral skeletons, but instead was treated to a reef as full of live as any I've seen outside of Palau. There wasn't manifest in great hard-coral growth, so much as a lushness of soft corals, gorgonians and abundant large tubular sponges. Amongst this there was great macro life going on with flamingo tongues, arrow crabs, cleaner shrimp and a host of colorful small fish and sea anemones. The highlight of the dive was a lionfish, which we spotted hovering in a nook in the wall. These fish are non-native invaders of the Caribbean from the South Pacific.

Outside of a lone wahoo, I didn't see much in the way of big animals, but there was an abundance of small groupers in the 18 inch range. This could be a good sign of things to come if Dominican diving gains popularity and the value of sustained preservation becomes more imminent and economically valuable.

Our second dive, The Aquarium, is located just off an appealing beach on the North shore of Isla Catalina. This dive features a flat, sandy bottom butting up against significant hard-coral growth. Again our depth was 45 feet with 70' of visibility. Once again, we saw vibrant soft-coral life and perhaps even better macro than on the first dive. Five minutes in, Joel proved the worth of a local dive master and found a couple of seahorses, one black and the other canary yellow nestling in some coral. We spent a minute or two playing with these shy, passive creatures. He also found a large rock crab, several small, colorful moray eels, two grumpy, stone-like scorpion fish and a spotted skate. The highlight of the dive for me, was the orange, painted frog fish, I found perched on a coral head. A shockingly bright species of angler fish, these at first appear a piece of coral, but then you spot them as a kind of strange, half-fish, half mutant toad. About the size of a softball, it has stumpy little legs and claws it uses to guide it's sinking more than swim. Once on the bottom, it crawls around ambushing creatures its own size or smaller, a kind of coral reef gargoyle.

It was a great find, and one that I'd been looking forward to since I started diving. All in all, it capped a great two-dive day in the Dominican Republic and completely changed my malformed opinion of diving in the DR. As someone with some experience diving around the world, I would expect many seasoned divers would also have thoroughly enjoyed these dives. Neither were technically challenging, but we got to enjoy an unexpectedly vibrant reef with great surprises in terms of diversity of species and rare finds.

The irony of viewing this with a sugar refinery churning out smoke in La Romana in the visible distance was not lost on me. But it served perfectly to illustrate the contrast between the old Dominican economy and what I hope the future economy will be. I think there are signs the the DR is taking steps to adapt its approach to the environment to this eco-tourism oriented end. Given the health of the reefs around Catalina, and the abundance of small fish, notably groupers, I get the feeling that things are changing and better care is being taken of the DR's natural resources. I don't have much policy evidence to support this, but if my theory is correct, those small groupers will grow up and we may have experienced the tip of the iceberg of Dominican diving. I also hear great things about diving on the other side of the island in an area called Samana, where humpback whales spend the winter calving, and am looking forward to my next trip back here to continue my exploration of this large island's underwater environments.

*The Ongoing Mission; Places I've Dived:
Redfish Lake, Idaho
Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Turneffe Atoll, Belize
La Jolla Cove, California
British Virgin Islands (all of them)
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Nanaimo, British Columbia
Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts
Connecticut River (beneath Ledyard Bridge), Hanover, New Hampshire
Ocean City, Maryland
Cabo Pulmo, Mexico
Key West, Florida
Makena Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Isla Catalina, Dominican Republic

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ze Frank Summarizes 8 Years in Afghanistan in Less than 5 Minutes

Ze Frank says at the end that he wanted to write an opinion piece on Afghanistan, but the general surplus of opinions about what is going on, have been obscuring the facts about what is actually going on.

I think this is a useful realization. So here you have a <5 minute summary on 8 years of convoluted conflict. Not as funny as his Frank's usual schtick, but this really helped me get a summary grasp of the Afghanistan conflict.

Google Real Time Search? Meh.

Watching the Top Chef Semi-Final last night with Jill, I wanted to get the word on this Bryan Voltaggio guy, who's said to have a restaurant in Maryland somewhere. Within striking distance of Philadelphia, I wondered, so I went to Google and had my first encounter with the heavily-hyped 'real time search.'

So it's early, and Google's got the whole reputation of releasing half-cooked products in beta, but I have to say I was expecting more than just an embedded Twitter Search feed.

Relevance being Google's goal, I have a hard time seeing how the real-time blather going on over at Twitter merits a higher ranked result than either the Top Chef site or Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant Volt (the result I clicked on). I would rank both of these as primary sources of more credibility than the voices of ignorami en masse, like @mandelicious85's 'Speculating that Bryan Voltaggio win's top chef.' This stuff is meaningless.

Fortunately, it appears Google may have anticipated a degree of time-sensitivity as determining factor for when the 'real time search' functionality appears in search results. Doing a little follow-up research this morning, now that the Bryan Voltaggio wind on Twitter has died down, the embedded feed didn't appear.

I suspect there's probably some threshold of activity that determines when real time feeds go on or off. This suggest that Google will learn something from their early experiments with this, and I hope they'll trip on someway to parse the noise and find better sources of real time relevance than rote Twitter feeds.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Beware the Grooveshark

Which shark species presents the greatest danger to man kind? The Great White? The Tiger Shark? Perhaps the Bull or Mako? Nope. None of the above.

It's the Grooveshark music streaming website. Hyperlink intentionally omitted because I'm too afraid of it to visit or link to it at this point, following not 1, not 2, but 3 known laptop meltdowns in just 2 weeks using the site.

My colleague Ben and I both got stuck on the site, which seemed like the latest evolution in the streaming music genre of websites, introducing an iTunes like user interface and and wide variety of searchable songs that you can assemble into shareable playlists. Sounds great.

And it was, until my computer got KO'd by the nastiest malware infection I've ever witnessed - a piece of work known as SecurityTool - and ultimately had to be re-imaged. Ben, smug during the additional week of his Groovesharking, got it later and was also laid up for two days sans-laptop while IT went to work on the hard-drive.

I'm sharing this so other folks avoid this fate,but also as a plea to corporate IT policies around corporate America. Just let people have iTunes alright? At my company, the double-secret IT security policy is the equivalent of the War on Drugs - a costly and futile mission under the auspice of public safety that has the unintended effect of sending people under ground for entertainment and productivity tools that aren't regulated by reputable purveyors of web-based services. In this most predictable of ironies, it causes as many problems as it tries to prevent.

The bad stuff is always one step ahead of the firewall. As soon as IT blocked Pandora, I replaced it with LastFM and Imeem. When they banned Imeem (which never crashed my machine) I moved onto Grooveshark and had this encounter.

Now none of this would have happened if they'd trusted me with iTunes in the first place.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Decorations Gone Wrong

This is one of those things I got in an email from a cousin, of a friend of my brother's friend from his last job. For the personal touch of realism 'Greg' sends along this little note, explaining his seasonal hijinks:
"Good news is that I truly out did myself this year with my Christmas decorations. The bad news is that I had to take him down after 2 days. I had more people come screaming up to my house than ever. Great stories. But two things made me take it down.

First, the cops advised me that it would cause traffic accidents as they almost wrecked when they drove by.

Second, a 55 year old lady grabbed the 75 pound ladder almost killed herself putting it against my house and didn't realize it was fake until she climbed to the top (she was not happy). By the way, she was one of many people who attempted to do that. My yard couldn't take it either. I have more than a few tire tracks where people literally drove up my yard."
I'll leave it to you to assign voracity, but I thought it was funny enough either way.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dats Hats - Business Sequel to TOMS Shoes

That TOMS Shoes thing is a pretty good idea right? Giving a pair of shoes to a needy kid in the 3rd World for every pair sold retail, lending automatic globalized magnanimity to the company and its hipsumers*.

Wish I'd thought of it so I could roll like Blake Mycoskie on my $340,000 yacht. Now I see Dats Hats has adapted the concept to hats and I'm thinking, what's left for me?

Does the 3rd World need toasters?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Valient Thorr Loves Idaho

I was surfing on's Featured videos section and caught this hairy-looking maniac from a band called 'Valient Thorr' and was scrolling right past it when, hang on, was that guy wearing an Idaho t-shirt? All references to my home state being so rare, and generally detrimental, in the popular culture, that little yellow caution flag in my brain went up, so I went back to check it out.

Sure enough Valient Thorr himself (of Chapel Hill, North Carolina) rocks out for the duration of the song 'Tomorrow Police' with an Idaho t-shirt beneath his leather jacket and above his heavy metal belly. The best part is there's no hint of the hipster irony I'd expect from someone wearing this sort of shirt, just straight up metal. And as a result of his excellent sartorial taste, Valient Thorr has a new fan in Pennsylvania by way of Idaho.

Funny how things just seem to work out sometimes.