Thursday, December 25, 2008

Brushes with death

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, spotted eagle rays' "stinging spines...have a barbed tip and recurved lateral teeth along with a forked root. These venomous spines can deliver a nasty sting when used in defense against potential threats."

Harry Blalock is one of those potential threats and could have very likely gotten a taste of those "stinging spines" as a Christmas present yesterday. Harry survived the onslaught and recounts his near death experience on his dive blog, but I will recount my version here.

Like I said in my last post, I decided to spend Christmas morning underwater. It has been months since I've been diving and with work winding down on the monument I was more than willing to spend a relaxing morning out on a boat. Plus, I've turned Brad D and Harry's dive offers down too many times to count.

Saipan Dive ShopWe met up early at the Dive Saipan shop to get our tanks and to rent gear for those who needed to rent gear. I didn't know this when I was invited to tag along, but Kathy came up with the idea for a Christmas morning boat dive. She wanted to give Brad a Christmas present he'd never forget.  Great idea, Kathy!

When we all had our gear we loaded up into the cars and drove over to the dock. Then we loaded up the boat, jumped on board and rode the waves out to our first dive site, Ice Cream.

spotted eagle rays
All of the underwater pictures are taken from Harry's smugmug website. Kelli gave me permission to post some of the photos here. Some of the photos on the site are downloadable for free, while others are available for purchase. In this photo I can only imagine what is going on in Harry's head. The bubbles give a clue.
About five minutes into our first dive, as we rounded one of the corners at Ice Cream, we were greeted by a wall of eagle rays. There were more eagle rays in one place than if you added up all the eagle rays I have seen in my entire life (not that many, I admit). Harry and I independently counted 45, but the actually number must have been higher because the entire time the eagle rays were swimming in and out of our view. There were probably as many as 60-75.

spotted eagle rays on saipan
Photo Credit: Kelli Blalock from Harry's Blog. I'll link to more photos as they appear.
For the next 45 minutes we all swam around the bottom of Ice Cream looking up, looking down, and looking side to side as bomber brigades of eagle rays floated by in groups of ten or fifteen.

About half way through the dive I went to check with the rest of the group to see how they were doing. I found everybody lying on top of Ice Cream, peeking over the edge onto a squadron of eagle rays.

It was a perfect location for getting close to them. We weren't really out of their view, but there was a shear drop of about 10 feet in front of us and if we didn't move too much they didn't seem to mind that we were there. The eagle rays went back and forth, back and forth, right in front of us, about 10-15 at a time. At times they were so close that all you would have to do was reach out with your arm to touch one.

We didn't have any plans of doing so. Every time I see some kind of ray in the water I am instantly reminded of Steve Irwin with a sting ray barb in his chest. I don't want to be that guy. Imagine the headlines, "Coral Hugger gets to close: Died doing what he loved."

spotted eagle raysSo this brings us back to Harry and his near death experience with the end of an eagle ray's tail.

I was sitting about 10 feet to the left of Harry in about 20 feet of water, right on top of Ice Cream. The seven people in our dive group were laying parallel to us. Dave and Brad D were to my left, Harry and his wife Kelli were to my right, and Brad Ruszala and Kathy were to their right.

spotted eagle ray bottomWe were watching the eagle rays swoop back and forth right in front of us. Every once in a while one would come in really close, realize that we weren't some strange species of coral and slowly swerve away from us.

Apparently one of those swooping eagle rays had eyesight as bad as Harry. It swooped in over the rocks and drifted straight towards Harry. As it got close, and I mean really close, it decided that it didn't want to run into or swim over Harry, so it banked to the left.

As it turned, the four foot long tail slowly followed the lead of the body, but like an SUV that turns too sharp and hits the curb, the tail inched closer and closer to Harry, right at his neck.

Everyone in the group froze with visions of Steve Irwin replacing the Christmas sugar plums dancing in our heads. Since we were underwater, this whole ordeal really played out in slow motion. The tail went right across Harry's neck like Oren Ishii slashing at Black Mamba's neck in Kill Bill...or was that one of the wearwolves slashing at Neo's neck in the Matrix Reloaded?

Any quick movements on anyone's part could have spooked the eagle ray and with a slash of its tail it could have split Harry's neck wide open...and Harry was the only one holding a camera!!! The irony!

Then the moment passed and we collectively let go of our breath.

We finished our dive, climbed back up on the boat, rode over to our second dive site, Shipwreck, had another great dive and then pulled back into dock.

After the dive I took Harry and Kelli up on their offer to join them for Christmas brunch at the Hyatt.  Edz came, too.

angelo villagomez and edz blancoAfter brunch I took a nap and when I woke up I drove myself over to Cinta's house to see how the Kaipat's were doing.

cinta kaipat and olomwaayWe had a great time singing songs and laughing and joked about my potential run as the first Jedi politician...which Cinta doesn't like.

Long after the sun had set I drove myself home and went straight to bed.

A perfect Christmas.

Harry posted the video of his brush with death on Youtube. I have reposted it here since most of you are unlikely to follow links. This is a great video.


Harry Blalock said...

Yeah that would have really sucked if he had slit my throat and there wouldn't have been any footage of it since I was the one doing the video at that point. It made for a pretty cool video though.

Brad said...

Was I the only one worried for the Eagle Ray? What a great great video.

EJ said...

that's my boy-Jun!