Sunday, October 19, 2014


I thought my friend and fellow dive instructor, Jim Brown, was joking when he invited Skeeter and I to do a no-light, no-moon night dive with him. Though I had turned my flashlight off during numerous night dives for a few minutes each dive, I had never considered doing a night dive with no light at all. And not even the glow of the moon? It sounded absolutely insane!

I pictured myself crashing face first into fire coral and sea urchins, ending up lost and by myself, and being left as shark bait. But Jim assured me that he had done this lots of times in Mexico, and quite a few times here in the Virgin Islands…and he lived to tell the tale. He promised me that the experience would blow my mind.  And it DID!

We geared up after the sun had completely disappeared.  We each had a light with us “just in case,” hanging from our BCD’s.  Jim said he usually does the first 5 minutes of the dive with the light on to get oriented, but I talked him into not turning on our lights on at all.  I figured we might as well let our eyes adjust as quickly as possible.

We dived from the shore of Secret Harbor in St. Thomas.   I was nervous but excited.  We waded into chest deep water, and then slowly descended toward the sandy bottom.  We waited a minute to let our eyes adjust, and then Jim led us toward the reef.  I was shocked how much I could see. 

Once my eyes adjusted, I could see about 10-15 feet.  I could not make out details or colors, but I could make out the general shape of the reef, sea urchins, and Jim and Skeeter.  We followed the contour of the reef around the edge of the bay, with reef to our right and a sandy grassy plain to our left.  It was incredibly peaceful in the dark but starry sea.  The only sound was the sound of our slow steady breathing.

It was incredible…like being in outer space!  Tiny little lights began firing all around us like twinkling stars.  I could see the silhouettes of Jim and Skeeter, especially the glowing pixie dust coming off their fins.  It reminded me of a scene out of Peter Pan.  Every time I waved my hands, hundreds of tiny little particles would magically light up a bluish-green color.  Even my bubbles were lighting up!  Strands of lights a few inches long were sequentially firing around us.  They were mesmerizing!

Part way into the dive we slowly came up to the surface to verify our location.  We could still see the slight glow of the lights from the nearby houses on the cliff above, and we wanted to head toward the darkest possible spot to maximize our experience.

Being on the surface when I can’t see what’s below me makes me feel very vulnerable, so this triggered a series of unnerving thoughts.  We descended back down, and this time my breathing was not quite so slow or relaxed as before.  I tried to stop my imagination from running wild, but heading out of the bay and around the corner into open water and across a sandy grassy plain with no reef for protection added to my increasingly stressful thought patterns.

FACT: Sharks are more active at night.  FACT: There had not been an unprovoked shark related death in the St. Thomas since 1963.  I argued back in forth in my head trying to decide whether or not it was logical to be afraid.

I swam over and took Skeeter’s hand to help me calm myself down.  It helped.  Watching Skeeter hanging upside down, flapping his arms like a bird, swimming like a dolphin, and playing Street Fighter II and shouting, “Haduuuken!” through his regulator as he threw balls of bioluminescence into the darkness also helped me to laugh and refocus on positive thoughts.  Now my mind focused on the wondrous bioluminescent lights blinking all around me instead of my imminent death.

Our dive was a shallow one, never dropping below 20 feet.  Since we were all experienced divers, we didn’t use up much air.  We were able to roughly monitor our air gauges because they had a slight glow to them.  Though we couldn’t read the exact number on our gauges, we could clearly see that we were well in the safe zone.  We enjoyed our dive so much we stayed under for almost an hour and a half!

I am so grateful that my crazy friend Jim talked us into this.  It was seriously life changing.  I searched the internet to try to find evidence of anyone else doing such a crazy kind of night dive but found none.  I found talk about no light night dives during a full moon, but absolutely nothing about no light night dives with no moon.  This is an experience that is absolutely incredible, but I would only recommend it to extremely experienced divers.  And of course only in the most ideal of conditions.

I spent the entire next day researching bioluminescence, and can’t wait for my next opportunity to try this again.

The ocean is full of bioluminescent creatures.  Most of the ones we were seeing were DINOFLAGELLATES, single cell bioluminescent algae.  They collect energy during the daytime, so the higher the intensity of light the previous day the more light they will emit.  Even the slightest movement deforms the cell and triggers a chemical reaction which causes a flash of light.

I was really curious as to what the benefit of flashing could possibly be for these dinoflagellates, and I found out that they do this as a burglar alarm.  When a creature comes close to eat them it triggers the flash of light, which attracts a secondary predator.  The secondary predator comes and eats the creature that was trying to eat the dinoflagellates!

We were also seeing some bioluminescence from COPEPODS, a small transparent crustacean that releases chemicals into the water to produce a glowing cloud of light to distract predators while they escape.

There are also tons of other bioluminescent creatures in the ocean.  Some jellyfish, comb jellies, bacteria, sea pens, fish (including the cookie cutter shark),  squid, anglerfish, and sea stars are bioluminescent.  Each of these creatures uses their bioluminescence for defense, offense, and/or to attract a mate.

I learned so much from these two websites:

And one of my new  heroes is a marine biologist by the name of Edith Widder.  You can watch a couple of her awesome videos by clicking below:

“The weird and wonderful world of bioluminescence”

“How we found the Giant Squid”

Thursday, September 4, 2014


When we bought Salt Whistle, we were convinced that the engine would just need a little bit of work.  We managed to get in two decent sails (one to Great Lameshur Bay on the south side of St. John, and the other with our friends Lauren and Alex to Hawksnest Bay on the north side), but the engine got worse and worse.

Amy and Skeeter sailing

Lauren and Amy at Hawksnest

Skeeter and Alex sailing to Hawksnest

Not having a reliable engine is stressful, I don’t care what the macho sailors say (“It’s a sailboat….why do you need a motor!?”).  There are times that there is no wind, the wind is not in your favor, or you have to maneuver in tight spots.  No motor might be okay for a small sailboat, but not a 42′ boat that doubles as our home.  We’d prefer NOT to end up on the rocks, thank you.

We live in the Virgin Islands, so finding parts and finding a mechanic who knew our engine was not easy.  After about a year of struggling to find the correct parts for our old 1985 Volvo Penta MD30A (parts are obsolete…finding them meant days of research, dozens of phone calls, and majorly inflated prices) and paying mechanics who weren’t able to pin point or fix our issues, we decided to give up.

Figuring out what to do with the old engine was another challenge.  Lots of boaters would say, “Those Volvo Pentas are great engines,” but when it came down to it, we struggled to even GIVE it away.  We posted on sailing forums, on Craigslist, and in Facebook groups for months with no real leads.  We even joked about “accidentally” dropping it overboard.  Finally, our friend Rick told us about a guy called “Kiwi” who has lived aboard his boat since the 70’s and is a tinkerer who is constantly fixing and selling boats.  And we finally had a taker.  Kiwi agreed to help us with the removal of our thousand pound engine if he could have it.

It ended up being a two day process.  This was our first experience in engine removal, but Kiwi had done it countless times so it was nice to have his expertise and extensive tool set on hand.  Hopefully this is the last time we have to remove our boat’s engine, but we did learn a thing or two in the process that will end up being useful.

This is how we did it:

STEP 1 – Disconnect and drain the hydraulic steering fluid lines.

Disconnecting steering fluid lines in engine room

Draining hydraulic steering fluid into containers

Access to hydraulic steering fluid lines under bunk in aft cabin

STEP 2 – Disconnect transmission cable from gear box

Disconnecting transmission cable from gear box

STEP 3 – Disconnect throttle cable from throttle linkage

Throttle cable

Disconnecting throttle cable

STEP 4 – Disconnect alternator


Disconnecting alternator

STEP 5 – Unscrew cockpit floor and prop it up for light and accessibility

Unscrew cockpit floor

Prop up cockpit floor to let light into engine room

STEP 6 – Disconnect wiring harness from engine block

Disconnect wiring harness from engine block

STEP 7 – Cut exhaust hose free with hack saw

Cutting exhaust hose free with a hack saw

STEP 8 – Disconnect prop shaft from engine

Holding prop shaft with pipe wrench

Unscrewing bolts that hold coupling between prop shaft and transmission

STEP 9 – Cut dry riser pipe for exhaust with grinder and cutting wheel

Cutting dry riser pipe for exhaust with grinder and cutting wheel

Sparks flew, but I had the fire extinguisher ready just in case

STEP 10 – Move floor and pedestal completely out of the way

Move cockpit floor and pedestal completely out of the way

Direct access to engine room through cockpit floor

STEP 11 – Attach shackles and lines to engine in preparation to lift

Securing shackles and ropes to engine

Securing shackles and ropes to engine

Attaching chain lift hook onto ropes

STEP 12 – Support boom and attach chain lift

We used the topping lift, the main halyard, and the secondary halyard to support the boom

Securing chain lift to boom

STEP 13 – Carefully lift engine using chain lift and guide through cockpit floor opening

Guiding the engine through the cockpit floor

Barely fit. Needed to be turned to make it through.

STEP 14 – Guide engine to starboard side of boat and set down

Easing the engine down on the bench. The chain lift was out of chain and it just barely made it to the bench.

We put down plywood and an old rug to protect our boat.

STEP 15 – Raise the boom to lift engine over rail

STEP 16 – Lower engine down into Kiwi’s work dinghy

Carefully swinging the boom over and trying to ease the topping lift and the halyards evenly

Oh crap! The topping lift snapped. Near heart attack…luckily the two halyards still held.

Gently setting the engine down on plywood in Kiwi’s work dinghy

The engine made it safely out of our boat and is heading to a new home

STEP 17 – Degrease, de-rust, and paint in preparation for our new engine!

The engine room is empty!

Ready to clean, degrease, de-rust, and paint

This was quite an accomplishment for us!  We didn’t burn our boat down in the process, and we didn’t sink...two fears that had been running through my mind.  We are excited to be making forward progress toward our cruising dream!!!
Thank you to Rick, Kiwi, and Andrew for helping make our boat 1000 pounds lighter!

Sunday, May 18, 2014


 In honor of international turtle day, I decided to blog about baby turtles and their fight for survival. All around the world, people love turtles…they make a delicious soup, their shells make beautiful jewelery, and their eggs are supposedly an aphrodisiac. WHAT!???

I love turtles too, but I love them much more in their natural state…ALIVE! Unfortunately, most sea turtles have ended up on the endangered species list, and humans have had a very large part in this.

Sea turtle hatchlings have a very poor chance of survival. Only about one out of every thousand eggs will survive to be a mature adult turtle. These little guys have lots of obstacles to overcome.

Turtle hatchling races toward the sea

These little guys face many dangers – Photo courtesy of travelbagltd

Female turtles return to the beach where they hatched in order to lay their eggs.  When a female turtle’s birthplace habitat has been destroyed by coastal development, she does not know where to lay her eggs.  She needs to lay her eggs far enough up the beach so the tides don’t carry away her eggs, and the sand needs to be soft enough and deep enough for her to dig her nest.

Coastal development sometimes happens on turtle nesting grounds

Before her eggs have a chance to fully develop, animals dig them up and eat them.  Poachers steal her eggs and sell them.  Some people believe that sea turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac, so they are highly sought after in some cultures.  Once hatchlings emerge from their eggs, some of them are not strong enough, or are on the bottom of the clutch of eggs, and are not able to emerge from the deep hole in which they hatched.

Turtle eggs for sale in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Cam Pervan

Once they emerge from the sandy pit, they have birds lurking overhead waiting for a tasty treat, and crabs snapping their claws ready for a crunchy meal.  Driftwood may get in their way, and artificial lighting may confuse them and lead them in the wrong direction.

Crabs await a crunchy meal

Sea gull eats baby turtle

Driftwood blocks baby turtles’ path to the sea

If they make it into the water and begin flapping their flippers, there are ocean predators awaiting them as well.  If they successfully make it past these initial threats, they are the few lucky ones.  They spend the next few years adrift, camouflaging themselves in large beds of sea weed such as saragassum.  They have a better chance of survival in open ocean, since there is less population density and therefor less predators.  

Much of our trash ends up in the ocean, and turtles can mistake trash for food.  Some get trapped in plastic rings that hold 6-packs or ingest things that won’t pass through their digestive systems and kill them such as plastics and tar balls from oil spills.  If they survive long enough to grow to about 10 inches or so, they can return to coastal areas with the older turtles.

Turtles return to coastal areas when they are big enough to survive – photo courtesy of James Bennar

Even if they make it this long, the threats to their survival are not over.  They still have large predators such as sharks that pose a threat.  Many turtles are accidentally trapped in fishing nets and drown.  Some turtles are hit by boats and their propellers.  Other turtles are poached for their meat, skin, and shells.

Tiger sharks enjoy eating a tasty turtle from time to time – Photo courtesy of Tobze

Fishing boat pulling up a net – photo courtesy of M&G Morris

Here’s what you can do to help sea turtles survival…

1.  Cut the plastic rings on your 6-pack plastics before throwing them away.

2.  Reduce, reuse, and recycle to minimize the trash you produce.

3. Purchase seafood that has been caught responsibly.  Some companies are more responsible than others in regards to what ends up in their nets.

4. Be careful what souvenirs you buy.  Never buy anything that is made from turtle shell.

5. Watch what you eat.  Just because a restaurant serves it, doesn’t mean that it’s being caught sustainably.  Print a card or get the app at

6. Sign a petition to save sea turtles.  Endangered sea turtles are still allowed to be hunted in the British Virgin Islands.  Help put a stop to this atrocity by signing:
7. Be respectful of turtle nesting beaches and never disturb or let your dog disturb their nests.

Don’t let your dog near turtle nests

8. If your home is near a turtle nesting beach, eliminate or at least minimize the amount of artificial light you produce during nesting season.

9.  Go on a sustainable Eco-tour to see or swim with sea turtles in their natural environment.  Remember not to touch, ride, or chase them.  Only non-aggressive observation that does not interfere with their natural behavior is acceptable.

Snorkel boat at Turtle Cove in the US Virgin Islands

10.  Volunteer!  There are many organizations looking for volunteers to help protect the sea turtles.  I volunteered  in Costa Rica with leatherback sea turtles…it was amazing!

Volunteer conducting research on the eggs that didn’t hatch

11. Help fund organizations like or, or learn from and support local turtle conservation organizations.

Turtle conservation in Isla Mujeres, Mexico