Shark Week

Bucket list. Everyone has one. And one of the problems you get from flying in space is that your bucket list gets WAY too long. Before my spaceflights, I was content with seeing Europe and Hawaii and maybe an occasional trip to Asia. But, having spent over 7 months in space, I’ve now seen places like Namibia and Patagonia and Kamchatka and New Zealand and Baikal and Mongolia and the Southern lights from orbit. Places I’d never heard of before I went to space. And now I want to visit them! Hence my problem. The bucket list is just too long. However, one thing I recently experienced was actually not on my list, but after doing it, I was blown away, and would highly recommend it! Diving with Great White Sharks.

The organization that runs these trips, Pelagic Fleet, wanted to film the experience of taking a cruise to Guadalupe Island in Mexico, to dive with great whites. And they wanted to film it in 360, including all aspects of the cruise- capturing our boat’s departure from Ensenada and arrival to the Island, accommodations while at sea, flying high above the vessel to see the Island and sharks and boat from the sky, and of course and most importantly, capturing the sharks from underwater. This required multiple types of cameras and filming techniques- from the air, surface, and below the ocean. My role in this project would be as the drone pilot and “assistant cameraman.” I had to work for my food….

Photo credit: Terry Virts
Solmar V, the vessel that took us on a 5 day adventure to Guadalupe Island, diving with great white sharks.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

In order to do this we strapped a baseball-sized 360 camera called a “Fly 360” to a commercially available drone (Mavic Pro). This system worked pretty well, although the drone was a little wobbly. A company called Adrenaline Films provided the modifications necessary to attach this special camera to the off-the-shelf drone.

One of the big surprises for me was trying to fly the drone from a ship. Which meant taking off and landing from a moving target. Modern drones like the Mavic are exceptionally easy to fly from land, but they aren’t designed to fly from moving platforms. Added to that, the 360 camera attached to the bottom of the drone meant that it had to takeoff and land from a person’s hand, since the landing gear wouldn’t reach the ground. Takeoff was pretty simple- they would put on some work gloves (just in case…..) and hold the drone out, and off it would fly. But landing was a little trickier. I’d maneuver the drone to match the boat’s motion and slowly bring in down to within reach of the “landing helper,” wearing those same gloves. At which time they’d reach up and grab it. However- the drone’s proximity sensors would mistake the person’s hand for the ground, and the propellers would spin up as it furiously tried to avoid what it thought was about to be a crash. It took the system about three seconds to shut the motors off, while the poor landing helper held on to the flailing and lurching drone while I tried to cut power.

The drone video was surprising- climbing high above the Pacific, seeing the magnificent mountains of Guadalupe island, with a constant river of clouds spilling over the north end, and the sun rising or setting in the distance. It was beautiful. Flying low alongside the boat- seeing massive grey shadows lurking and gliding just below the surface of the water. I remember thinking that if I had just come to this island and didn’t know any better I would have gladly just gone swimming- not knowing just how many great whites were sharing the same waters with me. Being at that amazing island made me realize- when you go swimming, especially at a place like that, you are just another link in the “food chain.”

The really spectacular part of the trip was, of course, diving with the great whites. There were two ways for us to do this. First was in a surface cage. We dove with no fins, just a weight belt and 7mm (i.e. very thick) wetsuit, to help keep us warm in the cool Pacific waters. We had a normal SCUBA mask, but our breathing was done via hose (i.e. no tanks), and you climbed in the cage and usually within seconds there was a massive shark circling nearby. The sharks were never aggressive towards us, they were attracted to the chum that our two expert “shark wranglers” cast into the water. They seemed to not even notice us, just a few feet from them, and it ALMOST seemed like it would be OK to open the gate on the cage and stray outside. I stayed in the cage, in case you were wondering. And though these cages looked perfectly normal and safe from topside, once you were in them underwater the bars did seem to be rather widely spaced.

Photo credit: Terry Virts
A diver photographs a great white. Thankfully he did not eat the camera.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

Our boat, Solmar V had two surface cages, each one having a four-person capacity. She also had a submersible cage, that would go down to about 9m (30’) of depth. It was lowered by crane, and two divers went down with a dive instructor. This one gave you the perspective of looking up at sharks, and seeing them circle around the people in the surface cages, sunlight shining through and sparkling in the blue waters.

Photo credit: Terry Virts
A ghostly apparition out of the deep below.  Photo credit: Terry Virts

While these details of how a cruise to Guadalupe Island to dive with sharks may be interesting, the actual experience of diving with them is sublime. To be underwater, out of our natural land domain, in the presence of one (or often several) of Earth’s most magnificent and deadly creatures is just impossible to put into words. I saw them slowly emerge from the deep, starting as shadows, then slivering and gliding up from the darkness directly at us, swerving to the right or left before they got too close. A great white coming up out of the deep looks more like a ghost or spectre, this small, dark grey shadow. Looking directly down on one surprised me, because I didn’t realize they had that rectangular shape. But when they swim alongside you there is no doubt that you are in the presence of a Great White. Apex predator. The distinctive massive, sharp, snaggly teeth. The big eyes that are always watching you. Tall widely spaced gills that usually had battle scars on them. The distinctive, no-doubt-it’s-a-great-white dorsal fin. And the white underbelly. No, you did not have to be a marine biologist to identify one.

I said this about the eclipse a few weeks ago, and I will say it again about diving with Great Whites. It may have been my first time but it will not be my last. I went to Guadalupe Island more as a work project than as a bucket-list adventure. But I came away amazed and really glad that I went. If you get a chance I highly recommend going. But first, make sure the cage bars aren’t too widely spaced. And bring a friend that you can out-swim.

Hurricane Harvey


The smell after Hurricane Harvey was different than after Andrew…  It feels silly to try to describe the smell of the aftermath of a hurricane, like a wine critic using terms like “aromatic bouquet” and “silky complexity.” The sopping wet household goods destroyed in Harvey’s floods have an “old” musty smell. The houses ripped apart by Andrew were filled with fast growing mold and had a much sharper “new destruction” smell.  It’s an unexpected way for two of the most destructive events in our nation’s history to stick with me, but it’s how I remember them- or rather experienced them.

An F-16C from the 307th FS is damaged on the Homestead AFB tarmac in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, 25 Aug 1992.  USAF photo by MSgt. Don Wetterman

The eye of Hurricane Andrew had passed over my house at Homestead AFB in Florida exactly 25 years before the day Harvey had been upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane status.  That week in 1992 I had been in Las Vegas with my squadron, the 307th, flying F-16s in a joint exercise with the Army called “Air Warrior.”  Every 600 mph low pass looking down on those dirty and sweaty army guys in the desert, made me glad I joined the Air Force.  Especially, when my fighter pilot buddies and I returned to our hotel after a hard day of flying. Filled with thoughts of the poor GIs sleeping in their foxholes. On August 23rd, even though Andrew had made a turn toward Homestead, we still thought that it would hit a little to the north in Ft Lauderdale, maybe as a major hurricane.  Because we really didn’t understand just how serious this storm was… We celebrated the arrival of Andrew with a “hurricane party” at the motel pool, complete with a life-sized cardboard Elvis.  Fighter pilots are nothing if not able to deal with potentially disastrous situations with calm and humor.

I will never forget the morning after landfall.  Woke up and immediately turned on CNN, the first image I saw was of a young man running across a parking lot with a TV in his arms. I realized that this was the Cutler Ridge mall, just a few miles from my house at Homestead AFB, and it was clear that life had changed in South Florida. I called my wife, (she had evacuated to Ft Lauderdale, 50 miles to the north), and told me how stressed out our golden retriever “Einstein” had been.  He was only 3 years old but big circles formed around his eyes and turned grey overnight.

The squadron had to wait a week before we were finally allowed to return to Florida, and during that time the Air Force flew an RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft over the base.  They sent us the photos (back in the days of wet film). I was able to find my house. From the air it really didn’t look too bad. The roof was intact, and no major debris seemed to be around it.

I eventually returned to Florida, and as I drove down the Turnpike towards the base I missed the highway exit. Drove right past it. I had driven this road countless times …but the destruction left behind was massive, I didn’t even recognize the way home! As I arrived to my home it became clear that the reconnaissance photos didn’t tell the whole story.  The windows were broken and the inside of my home seemed to be run through a blender. There were large pieces of broken glass wedged into walls at 90 deg angles, and nearly everything inside was destroyed.  It was that moment I swore I would never stick around for a major hurricane; I would always evacuate. As I write this blog Hurricane Irma is churning as the most powerful Atlantic storm ever.  I hope and pray that the records that Andrew set are not surpassed by Irma.

Fast forward to 2017.  Coincidentally, I was again out of town for the main action for hurricane Harvey.  This time I was filming a project while at sea, without internet (which will be the subject of a future blog). When I left I was sure that Harvey would just be a minor “rain event. ” We had survived Allison in 2001 (at the time the “500 year” flood for Houston).  But, boy was I wrong!  Fighter pilots rarely lack confidence, but brains, well… that’s another story.

As I came back to the world of the internet, I began to get the full story. It was immediately clear that this had been a devastating storm. I’ve lived through Andrew, Ike and Rita but they just didn’t compare.

Resilient Friendswood, Texas residents in front of their house in the aftermath of Harvey.  Photo credit Terry Virts.

Typical hurricanes do the brunt of their damage via the storm surge, which is a big wall of ocean water pushed in front that causes rapid and uncontrollable flooding. Often many feet deep in coastal areas.  Then the intense winds ensue, especially near the “eye,” which can often destroy houses.  Cat 1 hurricanes don’t cause too much wind damage to modern countries like the US, but they can really devastate less developed island nations. When it becomes a monster Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm, the wind damage can destroy everything in it’s path.

Harvey left a path of destruction in Rockport and southern Texas after making landfall as a Cat 4 storm. The intense winds of Harvey were quickly a distant memory, as the “worst case” scenario began to unfold. A series of high pressure systems had formed to the north and west.  These steering currents were a nightmare- they formed a blocking wall like the Alabama offensive line, and Harvey was the poor defensive tackle trying to get past.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  So, Harvey continued to churn on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the city of Houston for several days.  Sucking up very hot Gulf waters, rotating them counter-clockwise, and dumping them on Houston.

You could not have drawn up a worse flooding scenario.  If you look at the rain accumulation maps, they are unbelievable!   They say Harvey dumped the equivalent of more than a foot of water over an area the size of West Virginia.  More than 50” (1m 30cm) of rain in several towns, making it the worst rain event (and hence flood) in American history.  If Allison was the hundred-year flood, they’re calling Harvey the 1,000 year flood.  One local TV channel did the math (statistics) and claimed that this was the 40,000 year flood. Incredibly, centered on the nation’s 4th largest city, a metropolitan area of over 10 Million people.

When I finally made it back to Houston, the drive home from Bush Intercontinental Airport was surprising. I wasn’t back until a few days after Harvey because of cancelled flights.  And everything looked, well, pretty much fine.  Some dirt on the edges of streets.  But the highways were open, stores and neighborhoods looked normal; what was the problem?

As I turned into the first neighborhood I could see the flooding. Talk about devastation.  It was a scene that every Houstonian is now familiar with- street after street full of homes with mountains of their life piled out on their front yards. Couches.  Clothes.  Baseball cards. Golf clubs. Appliances. Everything and anything. The most bizarre thing was that tearing their houses apart became a necessary process to save their home.  And then I noticed a familiar smell…

If Hurricane Andrew looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off in South Florida, Harvey reminded me more of a neutron bomb. Designed to use neutrons to kill people but minimize destruction. Harvey did not leave a blatant “blast effect” but its destruction was nonetheless complete.

I felt a call to action, I needed to start working. For those of you who haven’t been involved with a flood, here’s how the drill goes.  You wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, you get a good pair of gloves, a crow bar, hammer, and boots. You find a group to join- mostly at local churches here in Houston (where, BTW, thousands of volunteers are pouring in from all over the country, this has been the Church’s finest hour, from my point of view).  And then you go to work.  In the past few days, I’ve been to five houses. Mind you these are total strangers. I’ve contributed to destroying their homes, with their blessing.  It’s not every day you can just walk into a house that you’ve never been before, and start swinging, tearing out drywall, wood floors, cabinets, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. It has been a  surreal experience.

Photo credit Terry Virts.

In the midst of this terrible disaster it has been very encouraging to see people from all walks of life just helping each other.  Harvey has affected rich and poor. It is certainly true that the wealthier victims will be able to recover quicker- as they are able to afford contractors and temporary living quarters, and likely had better insurance.  But in the midst of this tragedy I saw both rich and poor sweating and working non-stop.  I saw people who absolutely did not vote for the President welcome his visit.  I saw many, many church groups and other volunteers come to Houston from all over the country ready to help. Much more needs to be done, and significant recovery will take many months and even years.  But in a time of unprecedented division in our nation maybe this terrible storm will help unite us, in some small way.

There is another consequence that I hope Harvey brings in the long run, and it is one that I saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.  The area that was most affected, South Florida, was frankly in pretty bad shape in 1992. There were many neighborhoods around our base that were off-limits to military personnel, because they were crime ridden. But now, years later, the Homestead area is thriving, it is very modern and safe, and its economy is doing great.  As terrible as the storm was, and as much pain as it caused, the process of rebuilding made that region better in the long run.  I hope that in 10 years’ time we will say the same of Hurricane Harvey and the greater Houston area.  There is something about going through a very rough patch, whether in nature or in your life, that can lead to a better future- if properly handled.

I will close this blog by saying that as of tonight, Irma has practically destroyed small Caribbean Islands, has missed significant parts of the larger Caribbean nations, and will likely be a disaster for a significant part of Florida.  My prayer is that the damage be limited to things.  That can be rebuilt, better than before.  The same cannot be said of the people in the path of this storm.

This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows (L-R) Category 1, Hurricane Katia; Category 5, Hurricane Irma and, Category 1, Hurricane Jose at 1300UTC on September 7, 2017.   CREDIT AFP / NOAA / RAMMB / JOSE ROMERO / Getty Images

First Day of College

The day finally came.  For 18 years I knew it was coming, and like a dog who hides his head under the couch and thinks nobody can see him, I pretended it never would arrive. And frankly it surprised me how hard it was- how emotional I got.


Yes- for all of you parents out there, you know what this dreaded day was- the day I dropped my first kid off at college.  Him finally, and with finality, taking that giant step off on his own.  His new roommate has two older siblings (he is #3 of 4) and the day seemed to go pretty smoothly for his parents- this was “old hat” for them.  They were there to help him with the logistics of moving into his apartment, getting the curtains hung, moving boxes of clothes and (used) kitchen supplies, testing out the multitude of electrical devices that go with a modern college experience.  And then, “OK bud, we’re leaving, have (not too much) fun and call us if you need us, bye.”  And they were gone.  Faster than a total solar eclipse.  Probably high fiving each other on the way home like any sane parent who had just regained some degree of their freedom that had been missing for 18 years.


But for me it was a little different.  My kid had a little more dorm room stuff I was dropping off with him than his roommate did.  For the most part it was all new- not a lot of “hand me downs” for #1.  And it took longer, I had to make that extra trip to Walmart to get that last floor lamp and picture hook.  Throughout the day it was no big deal, everything was just happening, as part of the plan that we had know was coming for months and even years, and nothing was too emotional, just getting the “to-do list” knocked out.


Actually, everything about yesterday was positive- my kid is off achieving his dreams, going to stand on his own two feet, and living the life he wants, and not just the one that his parents provide for him.  It’s the beginning of a lot of new adventures for him.  He’s not that far away and of course I will still be able to see him (I love joking about how it will be great for me to come up and visit him at college on Friday nights…)  In fact, if he had not gone off on his own it would have been a much worse day, with the whole “failure to launch” phenomenon looming as a threat to my sanity and checkbook.  Yes- it was a good day.


But man, when the time came it was rough.  When it was finally time to say goodbye, it hit me like a flood.  I went from “put these dishes away, here is your tool box for the laundry cabinet, let’s take those amazon boxes out to the dumpster” to “OMG, my little boy is on his own- he is gone.”  And it hurt.  A lot.


All I could manage was a hug and a “bye bud, I’ll see you soon,” before I had to go off to the car by myself, all choked up, to avoid a public breakdown.  Unexpectedly, it was like every memory that I had of his childhood came back, all at once.  The Steven Curtis Chapman Christmas music that was playing the day he was born.  The time when he was 12 months old and he ran (not walked) for a mile.  The first day the neighborhood pool was open, when he was 3 years old, and he ran straight for the water while I yelled “STOP STOP STOP STOP!!!” and jumped in, and just started swimming around, with no help from dad.  That first time on the bike without training wheels when I thought I’d be running up and down the street all afternoon holding him and he immediately just pedaled away on his own, no help required.  At kindergarten graduation, when they asked all the kids “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  Baseball player, doctor, movie star, fireman, teacher…  And my kid wanted to be an “Ice cream man” (driving one of those ice cream trucks that we all warn our kids to avoid).  That time after a little league game, when I thought I’d be a good dad and have “the talk” with him, as we got a milkshake at Sonic.  I proudly gave him a one minute synopsis of how babies are made, age appropriate of course.  He thought about it for a few seconds and said “EWWWWW you and mom had to do that twice??????”  And we immediately got back to our milkshake and talking about sizing up the competition for the next baseball game.  The day after I got back from nearly 7 months in space, during which time he had gotten his driver’s license, and he said “OK dad, enough medical experiments, we’re going car shopping.”  And we did.  26 hours after returning to earth (he drove, I was still too dizzy).


These thoughts just seemed to all come at once.  Yes, I know it’s for the best.  I know he’s off pursuing his dreams.  I know this is so much better than the alternative of him not going off to college.  But it’s hard to move on to the next phase, knowing that my time of being his full-time protector and parent are long gone, and it’s now on to the next phase of being more of a friend than parent.  It doesn’t matter if your child is going to their first day of school or first date or first summer camp or college or getting married- it’s always tough to move on to the next phase of life.  But thank God that these milestones happen.  Or life would be boring and stagnant.  And kids would really live up to their nickname- “the gift that keeps on taking…”


Have fun at school bud.  I’m looking forward to driving up for an occasional round of golf and lunch and talking about which classes to add or drop- and oh yeah, Friday night party.  Don’t worry, your friends will think I’m cool.  I’m sure you’re looking forward to that too….

Eclipse 2017

I’ll need to get a Thesaurus out for this one. Amazing! Incredible! Breathtaking! Awesome! The list goes on. But for me, that’s what seeing my first ever total eclipse (from Earth) was like. Wow, just wow. I was fortunate enough to be asked by National Geographic to help host a live event from Oregon, one of the first locations in the U.S. to experience totality. That in itself was quite an adventure. It came together only days before the eclipse, and originally I was supposed to be on an airplane, flying eastbound to “chase” the Moon’s shadow as it raced across the Earth’s surface at nearly 2,000 mph, in order to get a few precious extra seconds of totality.

However when I arrived in Oregon plans had changed, and when we had our production meeting with our Pixel Corp. video team we had settled that I would help to host the two hour long show, along with the “star,” veteran Natgeo broadcaster Cara Santa Maria.

Cara and I met for the first time the night before eclipse in that production meeting, and it was a good thing we did, to have time to develop some chemistry. I was frankly a little nervous about having to spend nearly two hours on air, I wasn’t sure I’d have that much to talk about, and there would be a lot of “uh, ummmm, well, it’s great to be here in Oregon, there are a lot of people here, look- the sun turned dark!” Boy were those fears unfounded. That time on air just flew by, the experience was really incredible to see in person, and as the program progressed (aired on Facebook, Youtube, and Periscope) we were told that we were the top trending channel on youtube and peaked at over 2M viewers at one time. It was a pretty cool intro for me into the world of live “reality” TV broadcasting!

Before I talk about the eclipse itself, I want to talk about a very unexpected and pleasant surprise from this trip. Oregon. I had never visited Oregon, and I must say it was a real treat. I now know places like Redmond and Terrebonne and Bend and Madras. Smith Rock park, Mt Hood national forest, the high desert of eastern Oregon. Places that I had never visited or even heard of, but that I fell in love with pretty quickly, and can’t wait to go back and visit and photograph and get to know better. But back to the main event….

I’d heard it said that on a scale from 1 to 10, a partial eclipse is an 8. And that’s probably true- if you have safe eye protection you can simply look up and see a big bite taken out of the sun, which is pretty amazing. If enough of it is gone, it starts to get dark and even a little chilly. About 10 minutes before totality Cara and I both had goosebumps from the drop in temperature. But it was still daylight during this “partial eclipse” phase, and you would not have even noticed anything was happening unless you were warned in advance. But a total eclipse- that is an entirely different ballgame. As in, the difference between 9 yo kid-pitch little league and the Big Leagues. It really is like a million on that same 1-10 scale, it’s just way beyond anything I had ever experienced in life. Shortly before the actual eclipse, I could hear people hollering and yelling; there were probably a thousand people up on nearby Smith Rock. I could see genuine emotion on the faces of some of the crew around me- joy and awe and wonder. It was something that really touched deep inside what we are as humans- some kind of primal fear at the sun disappearing and wonder and excitement knowing what was happening from a physics point of view and seeing this amazing sight for the first time.

Throughout this process I had been taking shots of the partial eclipse with a powerful sun filter- but I took that off and began to shoot the total eclipse right at the moment it happened (second contact for the astronomy nerds out there)- and caught a beautiful “diamond ring” as well as some bailey’s beads, caused by the sun’s light spilling unevenly around the Moon’s craters. And then I put the camera down and just stared in awe. I had never seen anything like that- the corona, the suns uber-hot upper atmosphere, was huge- and visible to my eyes for the first time in my life! It was incredible and surreal and frankly alien- it reminded me of what we might see through the eyes of a really creative Hollywood sci-fi movie director. We would chuckle and think “that’s neat but silly, cause it’s obviously not real.” Except, this was real, visible for the first time to millions of Americans with the Moon’s help.

And then I took a moment to look around. The sky was dark, but not pitch black. You could see a ring of orange pink dusk color around 360 deg of horizon, which was weird, because normally you only see that in the west where the sun sets. Seeing planets in the middle of the day was bizarre- Jupiter and mars and Venus and even mercury. But that corona- my eyes kept being drawn to the sun itself, seeing that bizarre black hole covering it, with a huge corona surrounding it. And a bright red-orange spot that was very evidently visible on the Sun; Cara and I both talked about it, and later I realized that it was a giant solar prominence, evident in the photographs I took. Just incredible, being able to see Earth-sized nuclear explosions shooting off the surface of the sun, with my naked eye. I’d raise my camera every few moments to take some manual exposure shots of the moon, quickly changing shutter speed, and then back to staring at the moon- eyes wide open and mouth probably agape.

It was interesting to see Cara’s reaction; I was right next to her, and she gave us all a heads up that she would be crying, just before totality. And sure enough, in the powerful emotional moments of totality, she did shed some tears. Of joy and wonder, not fear or sadness. It was just that kind of event. Impossible to describe with words. But once you’ve seen one you know what I mean. Something that I will take with me, in the recesses of my memory, til the day I die.

And as I sit here, knees bent, laptop in my stomach, hands cramped, typing in row 29 of my booked-solid airline flight back to Houston on WAY overpriced WiFi (is this eclipse pricing?), my next task will be to open up the internet and start looking for the next chance I’ll have to go see a total eclipse in person. For, though I waited nearly 5 decades to see this one, I’m hooked. And I’ll need to satisfy this new-found habit of mine….