Monday, August 15, 2011

The Blue World Team heads to Bonaire!

I have been diving for almost 25 years now, so it’s rare for a dive trip to completely change my perceptions of the sport. But this past week on Bonaire, two different events did just that. (Click any image to enlarge)

Our film crew for this expedition consisted of me, Mia Peluso (production manager), Tim Howe (normally one of our editors but this time getting his first shot at being the topside cinematographer) and Pierre Séguin (underwater cinematographer). Pierre flew in from Miami while the rest of us came from Boston. We arrived at the invitation of Buddy Dive, and the Tourism Corporation Bonaire to film and participate in two extraordinary events hosted every year on Bonaire.

The first event is a freediving event sponsored by Buddy Dive, featuring the world-renown freediver Karol Meyer. Karol is a Brazilian freediving legend who has set more records than you can imagine. She teaches freediving seminars, a freediving certification class, and gives instruction to her students in the open water. My goal was to take her class and become a dolphin—or at least improve my pitiful freediving skills.

The other event is for the 6th Bonaire-Be A Diver-Wounded Warrior Scuba Certification trip, held at Captain Don’s Habitat and co-sponsored by Captain Don's Habitat, Adams Unlimited public relations company and the Tourism Corporation Bonaire. My plan is to go diving with the warriors!

Our crew arrived and spent the first afternoon getting our gear put together and our schedule finalized. The next morning before I even met Karol Meyer, our first shoot was at 7 AM to film her world record attempt. Last year she set a record for static apnea (holding your breath while laying motionless, face-down in the water) at 18:32. Yes, that’s 18 and a half minutes on one breath! It was very interesting to watch the breathing and relaxation techniques. We had to film from a distance because the distraction of a film crew would throw off her concentration. After an hour prepping and almost 14 minutes of apnea, she decided to quit because she wasn’t feeling well. Things have to be perfect to break a record like that and today wasn’t the day. But still—14 minutes!

Later that morning we got to meet Karol and discuss the class. It was unclear if I would be able to adjust my schedule to make all the parts of her two-day class but we figured out which parts were the most important to attend and film.

Later we went over to Captain Don’s to meet some of the Wounded Warriors and plan our shooting schedule. Then we did a couple dives at Buddy Dive just to get our gear all checked out and ready. I was trying out my new incredibly powerful Atlantis LED video lights—which are amazingly bright!

The next day we dove with the Wounded Warriors and met a bunch of nice guys and gals who were injured in the line of duty. All had recently learned to scuba dive and were on their first tropical dive trip with one of their family members. And they were all excellent divers! We dove a nice reef over at Klein Bonaire and spent some time getting to know them.

The next morning it was time for me to attend the first part of the freediving class with Karol. In the classroom at Buddy Dive, I met 5 other students, all much younger than I, and we learned how to breathe for freediving, a few relaxation techniques, and a few tricks of the trade for getting a good gulp of air before a dive. We also learned about shallow water blackout, rescue techniques and other important safety stuff. I thought I knew a lot about breathing since I have been doing it since I was born. However, as it turns out I have been doing it wrong!

After a few hours in the classroom we headed to the pool where we would perfect our apnea skills and rescue techniques. After practicing the rescue techniques for a while, we started working on static apnea. My record for this was 2:15 before the class. With an hour of practice in the pool, I got to just a smidge under 3 minutes! Amazing what a little professional coaching can do. I’m a regular guy—imagine my surprise to find out that I can hold my breath for 3 minutes! At that point I decided I was going to take the whole course no matter what. I didn’t want to miss any of Karol’s class!

After lunch we hit the ocean and practiced swimming down a rope hanging from a float that went into the blue abyss. Karol taught us to kick like a freediver, swim like a freediver and clear our ears frequently. On my deepest dive I easily hit 56 feet on a single breath. Not the best in the class, but far from the worst. Already I was feeling like a freediver!

The following morning we went diving with the Wounded Warriors to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. You would never know that these folks just learned to dive. They had very good buoyancy control and looked comfortable in the water. The wreck is in good shape and we all enjoyed swimming around and through it like kids on a jungle gym!

After lunch it was time for my private lesson with Karol (having your own TV show has advantages). We went out off the dock at Buddy Dive for some training. Karol wore her monofin and she looked like a mermaid. Mermaids probably can’t dive as well as she. Karol is amazingly graceful in the water and she can stay down a long time, swimming around, exploring and zooming back and forth in her monofin. Wait until you see the video. This lady can dive! By comparison, I look like a fish out of water, flopping around trying to be graceful! I did have my super cool ultra-top secret Force Fin prototype free diving fins that Bob Evans gave me. He engraved my name on them so that “If they turn up on eBay, I’ll know who to blame!” Don’t worry Bob, they are safe with me!

My private lesson with Karol yielded results. My bottom times improved. We didn’t work on getting greater depth, but better relaxation and more time underwater on a single breath. Just being in the water with her is inspiring. Having her next to me on the bottom, watching and smiling, gave me confidence and control. We also used the opportunity for Pierre to get some good underwater shots of Karol, and for Tim to get some good shots from dry land of Karol and I training together. We stayed close to shore for those shots.

Later in the afternoon it was time for the last part of the class. The rest of the students showed up and we headed over to Klein Bonaire. We paired up with buddies and alternated doing dives. Karol swam among us, watching and giving tips. I couldn’t believe how good all the students were getting so quickly. I was soon diving over 60 feet deep without even feeling like I was pushing too hard. Karol’s husband was scuba diving below us, shooting video of the students, and we all took turns diving down to him and making faces into his lens. I was really starting to feel like a marine animal myself. Karol came over and told me I need to change my name to Jonathan Fish—quite a compliment from her. I am really starting to love freediving.

At the end of the class we had to hurry back to our rooms and change clothes because our crew had been invited to join the Wounded Warriors at a reception/cocktail party at the Governor’s house. Every year they have a motorcade over to the Governor’s house, taking a long route through town, nice and slow, where people can honor the Warriors. The motorcade is always led by Jack Chalk from Captain Don’s Habitat, flying the American flag on his bike, and a bunch of local motorcycle club members. At Captain Don’s, Jack Chalk and Anne-Marie Vermeer own a company that gives guided motorcycle tours of Bonaire, and they always take part in the motorcade. This year, Anne-Marie, knowing that I ride, invited me to take part. She presented me with a Blue (of course!) Harley Davidson Dyna to ride with the group. It was an honor to be invited, but a chance to ride a Harley on Bonaire?? How cool is that!!?

We rode through town, then up north towards the Governor’s house. Inside, the Warriors were greeted by friendly faces, people wanting to meet them and shake hands. We went out back by the pool to enjoy a gorgeous sunset. I met the Governor Glenn Thodé and his delightful wife. By now I’m hoping they have watched Blue World (we gave them a DVD) and turned into fans of the show! (More pictures of that event can be seen here).

Later that night, we went to dinner with the Warriors and ended up at the bar at Captain Don’s where one particular Warrior, (you know who you are….no names please!) started with the Kamikaze shots. I don’t remember much after that. ;-) But it was fun!

Thursday morning we had to bid farewell to Pierre as he needed to get home and turn around for a shoot next week in France. Without our second underwater cameraman, the underwater shooting was finished for the week. Ann-Marie invited me to go motorcycle riding with her again and I can never turn that down. But since Mia and Tm don’t ride, they borrowed Ann-Marie’s car and drove along behind us. We took a nice ride up to the town of Rincon to have lunch at a great local restaurant. Tim and I wanted to try some local food. We ordered the iguana soup and were shocked to find whole claws in the soup, which kind of grossed me out. But it made for some funny pictures. Tim got to have his goat stew (he had been talking about trying it all week) and I stuck with the beef stew.

We spent the rest of the day shooting interviews with Warriors. I know what you are thinking…Blue World rarely does interview-style segments and its sort of outside the usual formula of our segments. Well guess what…it’s my show and I can do anything I want. :-) I like these folks and I’m doing a segment on them. I want you to hear what they have to say about diving, about life and about the enduring spirit. You are going to love it. They are America’s finest.

Friday consisted of more interviews and lots of topside shots. Then we attended the “Taste of Bonaire” festival downtown. The film crew and the warriors ended up back at the Captain Don’s bar afterwards and between Jack Chalk and my new military friends buying rounds, it was a fun night. I feel so honored to have met this year’s wounded warriors. They are a great bunch of people with big hearts and positive attitudes dealing with some very serious injuries. I am humbled by them all and hope we will keep in touch over the years.