Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell


Posted from Culver City, California at 5:21 pm, June 23rd, 2011

Despite a lightning storm that kept us on the tarmac for two hours in Dallas and a cab driver who repeatedly fell asleep at the wheel while driving us home from LAX (Audrey to me: “Put your seatbelt on. NOW.”) we made it home in one piece and have since been unpacking and re-adjusting to life with drinkable tap water. It’s a rare trip that doesn’t end too soon, but it’s also a rare trip where it isn’t nice to come home, and on both accounts this one was no exception.

Isla Mujeres from the air

Isla Mujeres and the blue waters of the Caribbean, taken from the airplane window while flying out of Cancun.

SCUBA Steve! Damn You!

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:05 pm, June 20th, 2011

Apparently there is a tropical storm on the Pacific side of Mexico that has been causing the recent weather on the Caribbean side, and the rainy stuff continued on our final two dives today. We joined the couple from Missouri, two other folks from yesterday, and Gabi Loco for what would turn out to be adrenaline-filled dives. The first dive was the more mellow, with a decent current (perhaps twice normal) pushing us along past eels, a nurse shark, some pretty coral, and with a surprise leg cramp during the safety stop to add an element of human interest. The second dive is where things really got interesting – the storm was having a significant effect on the local waters, and the current was flying along, making the diving feel like underwater body-surfing more than SCUBA – after the dive Gabi said that we had covered three reefs in forty minutes, when you would normally see one reef in about an hour.

Prior to the second dive Gabi had promised to introduce us to his “dog” Pancho, a massive grouper, and we were zipping along a sandy channel next to the coral when a ginormous fish suddenly appeared. It was (very literally) an ass-over-teakettle moment as people clambered to get handholds in the current. Mark and I perhaps fared the best – he found a rock to hold but left a line in the sand as he and twenty pounds of stone were pulled along the bottom, while I was nearly elbow deep in the sand and hanging on for dear life, somewhat apprehensive of what might be buried in the seafloor under me. Pancho was of course unperturbed, and the giant-headed beast hung out calmly a foot away from Mark and me waiting for Gabi to offer the expected bit of fish. At a later point in the dive I made an attempt to re-position and went flying, accidentally flailing my arms and almost knocking out Mark’s regulator. For those not in-the-know, that’s the number one worst thing you can do on a dive – there is literally nothing more inept and evil, and while Mark laughed and forgave me I wouldn’t be surprised to get a sternly-worded letter from the PADI surgeon general about the value of air to fellow divers. The dive’s other excitement came from a loggerhead turtle that was at least five feet across, although most of the group was blasted along too quickly to give him much attention.

After diving Audrey and I said goodbye to our new friends, packed our very, very funky smelling wet gear, and made the taxi-ferry-taxi journey back to Cancun. Along the way an offering was made to the gods of heating and cooling technology that resulted in an air-conditioned hotel gym, meaning that for the first time in two weeks the daily workout didn’t involve whimpering, tears, and heat stroke. Tomorrow the girl and I are on different outbound flights, so she’ll have a few extra hours in the Mexican Riviera while I’ll be going stir crazy in DFW before we meet up for our return flight from Dallas to LA.

Se llama Gabi Loco

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:09 pm, June 19th, 2011

“My name is Gabriel, but you can call me Gabi Loco”. Those ominous words began our morning dive. “Gabi Loco” was our divemaster, and due to the weather suggested we dive nearby where visibility would be a bit better and we could watch him chase lion fish. An hour later, with a spear filled with seventeen lion fish in tow (remember: they are bad) Gabi Loco earned his tips by providing a free lunch for his six person dive team. The scary thought is that even after spearing nearly twenty lion fish, there were easily another fifty hanging out in the area we dived – without divers trimming their numbers they really would take over the reef.

The remainder of the day’s activities included a second dive, a lunch of lion fish tacos, and a run in the hotel’s sauna gym with a three-plus foot long iguana watching from a ledge outside of the window. The day concluded with our dive friends and Arturo, the hotel restaurant owner, enjoying a Mexican barbecue, many drinks, and more than a few laughs. Sadly, tomorrow is our last day of diving before we return to Cancun and fly home on Tuesday.

Gabi Loco and a Lion Fish

Gabi Loco showing off the poisonous spines of one of his many victims. They are pretty fish, but very bad for the reef. Photo by Audrey.

A spotted moray snacking on Gabi Loco’s string of speared lion fish. Video by Mark Hahn.

I don’t have the Bends

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 8:23 pm, June 18th, 2011

Apparently exercising within 24 hours of SCUBA diving may induce symptoms similar to the bends. This fact may explain some of my recent near-death experiences while running, which is reassuring since the other explanation would have been that I was just really out of shape.

We awoke to lightning this morning, and the good folks at Scuba Mau immediately informed us that they were still planning on taking us out on the water so that we could help act as human bridges for current passing from sky to sea – it is possible we haven’t been tipping the divemasters well enough. Luckily they agreed to reschedule us for the afternoon, and we then enjoyed two cloudy and electricity-free dives on reefs that reminded me of an underwater version of Paradise on Mt. Rainier with all of the tiny, colorful plants. Fish were plentiful, regulators were leaky, and a huge green moray eel came out to give us an all-too-close greeting. The divemaster did a quick check after descending to verify that we were all good, and then spent his time spearing lionfish and feeding them to the trigger fish (remember, lion fish are bad), and in between pointed out everything from turtles to eels to crabs to giant parrot fish.

More diving (and rain) is scheduled for tomorrow, and if all goes well there should hopefully also be a video or two available from Mark, a fellow from Missouri that we’ve been diving with.

Inventory of Broken-ness

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 8:59 pm, June 17th, 2011

On yesterday’s trip into town I picked up a bottle of nasal spray to ensure that any congestion I had would be gone by the time we were diving today. Having never used the stuff before, something that would have been good to know in advance is that it would turn my nose into Niagara Falls. I arrived at the dive shop this morning, Kleenex in hand, and had no less than three people recoil in horror at the prospect of me going underwater. Luckily the sinuses were clear, and, while the mask needed frequent clearing during the dive due to what could charitably be described as an excess of goo, I didn’t have any problems at all with pressure equalization.

We dove again today with a couple from Missouri that we met on Wednesday and the same divemaster we dove with previously. Similar to Wednesday we did our first dive along a huge coral wall with numerous swims through coral caves, and a variety of fish to keep us company including a big grouper who swam up to most of the divers to give us each a closer look. The second dive was Audrey’s and my first ever dive on a shipwreck. The Mexican Navy had intentionally sunk a WWII-era minesweeper in 1999 in about eighty feet of water, and swimming through it was like something out of the Poseidon Adventure with perspectives twisted by the effect of being underwater, tight passages, air from the regulators seeping out through unseen crevices in the ship’s structure, random fish and coral throughout, and a tour of the ship’s latrine where a photo was taken by one of the Missouri folks that I’m hoping will never see the light of day. At times we were winding our ways along narrow, enclosed passageways with sharp metal all around us, including one piece that slightly caught Audrey on the leg and made her the designated shark bait for the dive. Other highlights of this dive included a school of tuna that passed by, several starfish, a few jellyfish, and the normal complement of amazingly-colored reef fish.

Following the morning’s diving and a mid-afternoon nap I again attempted a sunset run and again came home completely beat up after only a very short time. While the heat and humidity is an obvious culprit, Audrey and I started doing a rundown of my broken-ness on this trip and came up with an impressive tally: one day of barfing, one mangled toe, a wicked sore throat, a lingering head cold and a pretty beat up set of legs. Somehow I’m the only person in the world who can come to a beach paradise in Mexico and contract more ailments in ten days than I would in a year within the smoggy confines of LA – clearly this body was built for the extremes of Antartica or Alaska, and a tropical paradise throws the systems into utter disarray.

Bahama Shorts Fidel Castro

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:06 pm, June 16th, 2011

We’ve been pretty lucky with timing on this trip, as today’s example proved: for no particular reason we decided not to schedule any SCUBA diving for the day, and overnight a sore throat I’ve been fighting turned into a full-blown cold. For those who have never been diving, a cold equals sinus issues which in turn means you can’t equalize pressure as you dive which in turn means that it feels like someone is pounding on either side of your head with a sledge hammer the deeper you go. Long story short: good day not to be eighty feet underwater.

In lieu of diving we lounged around and then headed into town, where every shopkeeper in Mexico ran out to tell us about the amazing things we had to see inside of his/her store. Surprisingly, the amazing things almost always turned out to be sombreros or t-shirts with classy slogans like “I chased tail in Cozumel, Mexico”; I did not make any purchases. I did, however, find the awesome Bahama-shorts clad Fidel Castro pictured below outside of a cigar shop, which made the whole trip to town more than worthwhile. The day’s other noteworthy highlight was waking up to discover the world’s largest cruise ship docked just down the coast – any horror at the thought of a 6,000 passenger edifice to overindulgence was more than overcome by seeing an 1,187 foot engineering marvel that dwarfed the cruise ship docked next to it.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

Me and Bahama-shorts Fidel Castro. Photo by Audrey, although to her credit I forced her to take it and she mumbled “I can’t believe I’m dating you” while doing so.

Scuba Mau

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 10:37 pm, June 15th, 2011

After five years without diving there was a trail of rust behind me in the water today, but luckily I managed to not do anything completely stupid like getting dead. We did two dives, the first one through giant coral heads including some awesome little caves. The interlude between dives was at a beach with a school of “Mexican piranha” hanging out at the dock – they looked fearsome, but followed Audrey and I around like puppies. The second dive had more fish, including a couple of nurse sharks, some giant parrot fish and grouper, and a handful of sea turtles including one who was scratching his back on the coral twenty meters down. The plan for tomorrow is to have a recovery day with more diving to follow thereafter.

Things that did not suck today: diving, seeing sharks, hanging out with sea turtles, eating fajitas next to the ocean. Things that sucked today: there was a mosquito in the room at one point, and also the little umbrella in my pina colada blew away in the breeze; it’s a rough life.

Still More Whale Sharks

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:53 pm, June 15th, 2011

At the risk of overkill, here are three more photos from last Sunday’s whale shark extravaganza. I will do my utmost to refrain from posting more, but sometimes awesome things need to be posted over and over and over.

Whale Shark and swimmer near Isla Mujeres

The surface view, with a swimmer for scale. From head to dorsal fin is less than half of the shark.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

The non-business end of the whale shark.

Whale Shark and Audrey near Isla Mujeres

Audrey dutifully does her job of providing scale as a freakin’ whale shark swims next to her.

Self-Contained Underwater…

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:38 pm, June 14th, 2011

A checkout dive is typically done when SCUBA diving so that the dive master can verify your skill level and make sure all is well. However, in Cozumel a checkout dive apparently consists of the dive shop giving you equipment, directions on where to swim from the docks, and then saying “let us know if there are any issues” – this approach was eerily similar to my first dive ten years ago in Malaysia when the divemaster showed me how to put on the gear, told me to jump in the water, asked “are you nervous?”, and then took me underwater for forty-five minutes. In both cases, all ended well.

Our checkout dive today lasted for more than an hour as we enjoyed the sea life at between five and twenty feet; for me this was my first ever dive in the Caribbean. In addition to an odd artificial-reef thing filled with dozens of yellow French grunt and several mannequins, the obligatory species-sighted list includes: three different eels, three stingrays, numerous shrimps and crabs, a scorpion fish, two lion fish, and about a gazillion other reef fish. The lion fish in particular were ridiculously pretty, but as an introduced species they’re apparently having a bad effect on local fish populations so seeing them is bittersweet.

Tomorrow we’re off for a couple of dives, followed in coming days by even more diving. My camera is waterproof only down to five meters so sadly there won’t be any pictures, but no doubt tomorrow’s journal entry will contain a story about stupid things Ryan did while underwater since it’s been five years since the last dive trip and the rust is bound to show.

Purple Toe

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:32 pm, June 13th, 2011

Since this trip journal has suffered terribly from a lack of stories about toe injuries, here’s a quick one: in the midst of the whale shark excitement yesterday I whacked the hell out of my pinky-toe-neighbor toe on the side of the boat, and under any other circumstances might have called for an injury timeout, but with whale sharks awaiting a toe was not going to be a cause for distraction. Overnight that toe magically grew two toe sizes and turned all sorts of shades of awesome, events that would have tempted a lesser man to post pictures on Facebook (I had no readily-available internet connection). For better or worse the toe now seems to be on the mend, and is merely one toe size larger than normal and a curious shade of grape.

With the obligatory toe adventure story out of the way, today was mostly a travel day and thus of relatively little note for journaling purposes. We awoke to thunderstorms, started on the seven part journey from Isla Mujeres to Cozumel at around noon (taxi to ferry to taxi to bus to taxi to ferry to taxi), and managed to cut two steps out of the journey by paying $50 for a taxi directly from the Cancun ferry terminal fifty miles south to the Playa del Carmen ferry terminal. Shortly thereafter we departed on the ferry, and after thirty minutes of enjoying the ridiculously blue waters of the Mayan Riviera arrived on Cozumel to checkin to a hotel that Audrey had previously visited on a dive trip in 2000. Following a sauna-like run in the hotel’s “gym” we enjoyed a dinner featuring unbelievable Mayan sauces that was hosted by the garrulous old Mexican restaurant owner. The coming days will likely involve some SCUBA diving and perhaps even some moped-ing mixed in with siestas and bebidas before our departure date arrives in another week.

The One with WAAAAAY More Whale Sharks

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 4:00 pm, June 12th, 2011

As amazing as Thursday’s whale shark experience was, it turns out it gets way, way better. WAY better.

We debated whether or not we should go on the whale shark trip again because we were afraid the second time wouldn’t be as good, but we finally decided that it would be silly not to go again and try our luck. The trip started out ominously – sixteen people showed up at the docks, but the boat was supposed to take a maximum of nine, our guide was the son of the guide we expected and spoke almost no English, and our captain from Thursday was going fishing so not only did we have a different captain but we got a smaller boat. Despite this beginning, all worked out. Seven of the people at the dock departed on other boats, the water was ridiculously calm so the smaller boat wasn’t an issue, and as we headed out we heard stories of “another area” in which a hundred whale sharks had been seen the previous day – while hopes were raised, we prepared for this number to be an exaggeration with a best case of a few more sharks and more time in the water.

The ride out involved dolphins and a few sea turtles, and then suddenly we were in magic land. As soon as the first shark was spotted six more were found within a hundred yards of it, and an area that was perhaps a mile across ended up having 100-200 whale sharks in it; literally everywhere you looked there was a set of massive fins sticking out of the water as the sharks filtered plankton at the surface. Not only were there more than enough sharks to avoid the need for sharing between boats, we actually had to be cautious of bumping into sharks while swimming as they crossed and re-crossed paths. To describe this experience as “awesome” would not do it justice. The water was ridiculously clear, the sharks were moving slowly enough that it was possible to swim with them, and we got four trips into the water for five-to-ten minutes each time where we swam within arm’s length of the largest fish in the ocean. One of the sharks in particular was huge (perhaps 35 feet long) and kept making 180 degree turns, giving Audrey and me the experience of following next to a beast only to have it turn, gaze at its followers, and then slowly pass by us at close range.

Some of today’s videos give a reasonably good impression of the experience, but a bit of editing and a faster internet connection will be needed before anything is ready for posting, so hopefully these two photos offer some hint of what it feels like to swim with giants.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

Whale shark with attendant fish, each of which was between one and two feet long. One of these smaller fish actually left the shark and swam to within a foot of me for reasons which no one but that fish will ever know.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

This is the giant shark that Audrey and I swam with for about ten minutes, giving us a look before making a 180 degree turn.

Big ‘ol Stingin’ Rays

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 10:49 pm, June 11th, 2011

The troops rallied dramatically today, and I was eating toast, drinking juice, and keeping it down like a champ at breakfast time. The day’s big activity was a double-dose of snorkeling at the far end of the island featuring a good number of fish whose names I do not know. A few photos were attempted, but underwater photography is a mystery best summed up as “chase the fish and hope it stays in the frame”, so the examples below are all that are forthcoming from that endeavor. Tomorrow we decided to book a second trip to see the whale sharks, so barring bad luck another video of me swimming frantically behind a giant fish (“chase the fish and hope it stays in the frame”) may be the main subject matter of tomorrow’s journal entry.

Audrey Underwater

Audrey modeling her wicked awesome swim shirt.


The very rare kitten-faced stingray.

Sick Day

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 9:42 pm, June 10th, 2011

Audrey spent today shopping and lounging while I added Mexico to the list of seven countries (and four continents) within which I have barfed. This doesn’t seem to be food poisoning since the girl and I have been eating all the same foods, but with any luck I’ll wake up tomorrow, see solid food, and not cringe at the sight. Our plan for today had been to rent a moped and see the rest of the island, but instead the view was mostly limited to the iguanas that hang out in the hotel’s back yard and a brief excursion after sunset to a restaurant full of begging cats, some of whom have apparently become so spoiled by the fancy cuisine that they won’t eat unpeeled shrimp – it seems that the tourists aren’t the only ones living the good life here.

The One with the Whale Shark

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 10:08 pm, June 9th, 2011

Here’s how this went down: 6:00 AM the alarm goes off, and Ryan is out on a run. It’s hot and humid, the legs feel like lead ballast, and the army guy at the waterfront gives me a dirty look; this won’t be a day that is remembered for exercise. 7:15 AM Audrey and I arrive at the docks, have a quick breakfast, and then we’re off on a boat with six other passengers and two Mexican crew. At 9:30 AM we’re about twenty miles from Isla Mujeres watching sea turtles do it; this wasn’t a planned part of the itinerary, but sometimes the universe puts two horny sea turtles in the water in front of you and you just say thanks and go along with it. For the next two hours we’re racing around looking for giant fish, and having no success. And after that, the real fun begins.

Two other boats had found a smallish whale shark (thirty feet!) and our boat joined the rotation, putting two people in the water with it as soon as the other boats had a turn, with each group getting about two-three minutes with the shark. Audrey and I were the third group on our boat to go in, and we hit the water, got temporarily disoriented in the open ocean, then looked down to see a submarine of a fish swimming under us. The obvious but unmistakeable first impression is that whale sharks are big. We swam along on the surface about six feet above the shark, apparently alarming it no more than any of the dozens of other fish that were following it, and while my watch showed that we were in the water for two minutes the first time, it seemed a lot longer. Over the course of almost two hours we got three turns with the shark, and while more time would have obviously been great, those six total minutes will undoubtedly be some of the most memorable 360 seconds of our lives.

Life has treated me very well, and while I don’t know what it is that I’ve done to deserve it, I’m extraordinarily grateful that things have worked out as they did. More adventures await over the coming days.

Second trip with the whale shark. That’s Audrey at the very end, and the whale shark is the giant fish that is never fully in frame. My life is good.