Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tubbataha Reef, Palawan, my logged dives #949-962 - March 29-April 1, 2010


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I've wanted to go to Tubbataha Reef for such a long long time. The first time I came near the place I landed in Manila Airport with an 8 year old Dusty in tow, found a yellow pages, called some dive shops from the airport, discovered that no boats were going to Tubbataha that time of year (couldn't just look it up on the Internet back then) so Dusty and I ended up at the Ati Atlan carnival in Kalibo and I went diving in Boracay that trip instead.

Now it looks as though we've got our chance. Puerto Princesa is pleasant, cheap, easy to get around in with tuk tuks buzzing like hornets, the Philippines seems to never change, perennially southeast Asia even when the old classic haunts like Thailand are developing both tourism and infrastructure so the really laid back places are no longer the famous ones. Philippines remains crowded, noisy, teeming with traffic in the cities, but friendly and pleasant.

We're diving with Sakura Charters.  They have pictures of their boat and some of the wildlife visible at Tubbataha here: http://www.sakuracharter.com/?page_id=5. We chose this boat because it had space (a premium on short notice!) and it was sailing at times convenient to our brief holidays.  It happened to charge a lot less than the other boats that conduct liveaboards to Tubbataha reef.  There were compromises in comfort accordingly but for what Bobbi and I like in a dive trip (the DIVING!), we found very compatible people and friendly crew, diving in small groups, able to avoid the crowds on the huge group charters.  We got wet sleeping (trying to ;-) our first night and lost a few dives our first day because the boat was susceptible to adverse sea conditions, and we couldn't stay long at the south atoll for similar reasons, but on one of our dives last day we were cruising along a reef and found ourselves descended upon by dozens of divers from the cruise ships, some carrying big video cameras, and we felt like we were drifting through a star wars set, it was so odd to be surrounded by locusts trailing bubbles, as it were. I really liked the small scale diving we did, the humor and care of the crew, and the companionship with others who had chosen that boat for economic reasons, or whatever.  The divers were all quite experienced, we learned a lot from one another, and the diving was excellent.

(14 logged dives numbers #949-962, 11 for Bobbi, she didn't do the night dives)

 ... starting with my logs from Wed March 31, we started with a cracker of a dive on the southern atoll.  The boat moved in the night so we slept fitfully to dawn, then up for coffee and cereal before getting in the small boats just opposite the lighthouse shoal.  We motored to the NE corner of the atoll to where there was a wreck and entered there, a site called Dinsan Wreck or thereabouts, descended to 30 meters, and came out on a swirl of white tip sharks, huge tuna and some bigger sharks, perhaps bull sharks, and even a large marble ray, icing on the cake. The place had the look and feel of Blue Corner in Palau, teeming with big animals.  We held on to rocks into the current and watched the circus, perhaps two dozen animals in evidence cruising just off the reef.  Then our guide Johan signalled we should move, so we rose to 25 meters and stopped just under a silvery cloud of barracuda.  We watched those and then moved off along the reef.  Chunky white tips cruised by frequently, but not with the same intensity and frequency as at the start of the dive.  At the end we found a turtle, a bonus, but nothing exciting for Bobbi and I (we see them all the time at Dibba Rock ;-).  Still what a dive!

We returned to the boat for breakfast on board. The tuna omelettes were good, and then we chilled out over 3 in 1 coffee for the the 10 o'clock dive.  By now the weather was grey and overcast, the wind had come up, and the waves were choppy.  Florin the novice joined us for the Southwest Wall and had trouble getting down so Bobbi and I and Suzanne and Fumi descended to depth without our guide, who drifted ahead of us in a strong surface current taking good care of Florin until we lost sight of their legs.  So I led the dive, 25 meters, and we saw a couple of sharks including one who had parked his snout in an alcove but left his tail and half his body sticking out, but that was all of note until we found Johan hanging on to Florin in the current waiting for us so he could show us a small bull ray (small, that is, for a bull ray) that he was hovering over, waiting to show us.  We let the current carry us until we got out over coral rubble and there picked up some back wash so we found we had to reverse direction.  Johan surfaced with Florin at that point so I had us fin up current into the lagoon, hard going for a minute or two, but we escaped the current there, and we ended the dive in the shallows. Apart from the sharks, not that interesting a dive (hey, just sharks, are we getting jaded or what?!!), and disorienting at first without a guide.

So we returned to the boat for more good food, chicken in coconut curry this time, tasty, and then the boat moved into the whitecaps for us to dive a site called Black Rock. It took us half an hour to motor over there.  When we got there seas were rough enough for Florin to opt out of the dive, leaving just the four in our team with Johan. We descended close on the heels of the other group and found great vis and surprisingly mild current.  We descended between 20 and 26 meters and finned along a wall with beautiful coral.  Others in the group were ahead of Bobbi and Suzanne and Fumi and I and I thought all nooks and crannies would have been peered into so imagine my pleasant surprise to look behind a rock hiding a ledge and find a 3-4 meter shark lying there.  There was some dispute if it was a nurse shark or a leopard one.  I got a good look at him and thought the latter, though I found on returning to Pto. Princesa that he was indeed a nurse shark, looking exactly like the one in the picture here: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/nurse-shark/ (long scimitar tail and two dorsal fins close together, a rounded head with catfish like processes either side of his oval mouth, and no spots).  After taking all that in, I got out of the way so others could get in and take pictures and Bobbi and I started moving slowly along the reef.  Just then someone got in too close with a camera and the shark bolted and  passed right beneath Bobbi and I and took the first sand slope up to the top of the reef, a significant animal in comparison with so many much smaller species.  I sped up and watched him head up the sand and turn right at the top of the reef and disappear.


This dive turned out to be almost as good as the first.  Bobbi and I carried on ahead of the others now aiming for a shark leading us along the reef at 20 meters.  We came into an underwater headland and it seemed there was another shark there.  We raised up to 15 meters to follow it up to the top of the reef and passed a sand spot full of garden eels.  There were a lot  of sharks here resting in the flat sandy spaces. We came on a dozen or so, seeing several at a time lift off the sand valleys to join others circling among the hilly terrain.  We found a turtle here, some barracuda, tuna, and treveli, plus the common reef fish.  Superb dive, pleasant, not stressful, sharks everywhere.  We complained to Johan though, no Mantas yet this trip.

This was our 2nd full day diving.  We had left on Sunday, March 28 (I forgot about Webheads that day, but we were on the boat at sea by then).  Our passage to Tubbataha from Pto Princesa was miserable to say the least.  We had high waves oncoming, lots of people got seasick and missed dinner (more shrimps for Bobbi and I, delicious!).  One of the guests fell on a slick ladder, bumped her head in three places, and the pain and blood combined with seasickness made us consider concussion and evacuation, but she soon recovered her balance and opted to carry on.  No one on board felt like drinking anything alcoholic, which would have compounded the vertigo, and the only recourse seemed to be to find a flat space and ride it.  We had been allocated the forward compartment, and the only access to ventilation there was via the hatch that opened at deck level.  Waves washing up on deck made sleeping there untenable, unless we closed ourselves in, which became stifling quickly, and opening the hatch, even a crack, caused water by the bucket to be poured down on us as we tried to sleep.  When our bedding became soaked, we went in search of any kind of space.  One of the guests, Steve, had abandoned his bunk in the dorm to lie out in the open air topside, so Bobbi and I grabbed that one, lying with our heads at either end squeezed into this tiny space.  But amazingly, we both slept like zombies, awakened only by alarms that kept going off to a power supply beneath the ladder leading to the dorm below decks.  Each time that happened, I had to go find a crew member to switch it off, and then I'd fall into exhausted sleep again, and some time later, more alarms. 

We were supposed to arrive at Tubbataha in time for a 6 a.m. dive the first morning, but the rough seas and mishaps caused us to take 22 hours for the journey to the Northern Atoll, not the 12-14 anticipated, so we didn't get to dive Monday March 29 until 4:00.  We dived from our shelter just off the Ranger station. I don't recall that it was a particularly great dive, though I'm sure we saw sharks - we saw them every dive at Tubbataha. 

We night dived afterward, me and Kala.  Bobbi didn't want to go, which was good because the company didn't supply torches.  I was surprised that a liveaboard diving company that provides unlimited diving including night diving (at $1200 per pax) didn't supply torches for 12 divers aboard, but that was the situation (and they mention this on their website, but I hadn't see that, and I had left my torch back home -- would have preferred to rent, assumed full supply of batteries that way) so I had to scrounge light each night,  as did others who wanted to go.  This led to bonding rituals between divers.  Some had spare torches, some had batteries, so first night I got Xenia's spare, and the second night Susanne didn't want to go so she lent me her torch in return for replacing its batteries. The third night Johan the dive guide let me lead the group (he didn't really want to go) so he let me use his torch.

The first night, we found a red crab and a small spotted sting ray but not much else.  The other group we had wandered off from got  themselves surrounded by 4 sharks plus a 5th huge one and were talking about  their dive days later. The second night was much better (for me).  I was buddied with Josh, who'd borrowed a light from Fumi, but it didn't work, so he just tagged along in other's light beams in the full moonlight ;-). We found a couple of octopuses, always entertaining when they get out of their holes, and a black-banded sea snake that led us on a meandering journey through the coral rubble.  The third night I remember finding a number of large crayfish out of their lairs, would have been an easy grab for someone with gloves.

Tuesday March 30 we did 5 dives (Bobbi did 4 but not the night dive).  We started on Amos Rock.  Second dive started on the Malayan Wreck with a  shark on it and a blue spotted ray under some jetsam. The third dive we moved back past the ranger station to a place called Staghorn and worked our way back to where the boat was moored.  I think the 4th we moved out to the corner to the right of the station. We could write about these dives as one.  Lots of grey white-tip reef sharks, a turtle, some barracudas.  Nothing special until we moved to the South Atoll over night and had the best diving of the trip.

Now we've just finished our 4th day of diving having sheltered back at the North Atoll.  We started a way back from the corner to a place called shark airport, a wall with some possibility of cruising mantas, and then the airport where the sharks come in to land and can be seen parked on the runway, so to speak, specifically resting in alcoves and sandy ledges, and in the sandy spaces between the coral outcrops.  We saw a few sharks our first dive but it was the second dive when we went further out the point that we saw the manta.  Mantas are really beautiful animals.  This was a small one, just 3 meters across (and with a crumpled tail, Dino asked later if that was the one we saw),  but he flapped gracefully along the top of the reef, where we watched for almost a minute as he approached, let us swim near and alongside, and then disappeared at the edge of visibility continuing on his merry way.  After that, we saw the usual sharks and several turtles at the end of the dive, shallow, to 26 meters only briefly, mostly at 13-20, and lasting the usual 45 minutes plus safety stop plus sightseeing an extended 3 minutes.

We were the only people on the boat to have seen a manta the whole trip, so having established that they were present, our last dive of the day and of the trip, we hoped to go to a cleaning station and wait.  Chances of sightings were diminished because several other liveaboards were parked there, keeping divers in the water almost constantly, so we had been lucky indeed, having dropped in as most others were having lunch.  For our last dive, Johan took us just a little ways down the wall and we went to token depth, only 20 meters or so, and had a look along the wall, found the usual white tips cruising or sleeping in lairs, and ended up at the cleaning station.  Here we spent half an hour exploring the crannies, finding all kinds of life there. Bobbi uncovered a flounder with eyes both on the flat side of its body and chased it across the seabed to a rock under which was a small blue-spotted ray.  There were several sharks resting here (until we disturbed them).  But one under a ledge was well wedged in and not going anywhere.  Incongruously there was a red moray resting alongside there, head jutting out from the shark's midsection.  Susanne found an octopus but couldn't entice it from its hole.  We were hoping for mantas but didn't see any more of them.  Still the dive was anything but disappointing, and a great way to end the trip.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Whaleshark off Lima Rock Saturday March 19, and PADI Course at Dibba Rock on the 20th


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March 19, 2010, Lima Rock, Musandam, diving with Discover Nomad, my logged dives #945-946

We opted this weekend to start with Chris's Nomad Divers in Musandam.  All my divers were keen to go there.  Chris had posted on Facebook that the whalesharks were back.  One had been spotted the weekend before.  We could get lucky.

Bobbi and I met Daniel in the parking lot outside All Prints at 6 in the morning.  I had certified Daniel only the month before.  January, another of my students from the Philippines, texted that she and Keith were on their way.  We found Rebecca, a teacher I had certified some years ago, in the ADNOC station in Dibba, and we all met up at the Discover Nomad hostel for equipment rental. We popped from there to the nearby port, where at 11:00 we departed from Oman Dibba harbor on a speedboat Chris had assigned just to us for the trip with Waleed, sea captain, up the coast on a cool sunny day, calm seas, destination Lima Rock.

We arrived in the rock in ideal conditions, stopping right in the spot on the near south side where whale sharks, if they're around, are usually spotted.  Lima can have bad currents and my students were beginning open water so I jumped overboard to find a very slight seaward current.  Scrambling back aboard I had Waleed take me nearer to the west end and tested the water current again there.  Here it was fairly non-existent, a good place to start our dive.

It took a while to get everyone kitted up, though I allowed divers who were kitted and heating up in wetsuits on the boat to buddy check and enter the cool water.  Waleed had a bit of rope aboard and I strung this out as a trailer and made sure my divers in the water either held it or stayed near it.  Daniel was first in the water, followed by January, still in training.  There was no current, the divers enjoyed the view through mask and snorkel, and stayed near the rope.  Daniel noticed a problem with his regulator, air escaping out the high pressure hose, going from 200 bar to 180 in ten minutes, but I always bring a spare so I was able to get his tank back on board and change it over.  Bobbi helped Rebecca in the water, I helped Keith.  Then it was just me to get myself wet, Bobbi teasing from where she was keeping our group together that it was always me keeping everyone waiting ;-)  Finally I entered and as I was about to signal us down I told everyone to keep an eye out for anything large and covered with white spots.  I joked if it had a long tail it would probably be an eagle ray.  I called out the time on descent, 12:33.

All divers descended just fine.  Vis was good, I dropped down to 15 or 16 meters but kept everyone at about that level for all the dive, or shallower.  We meandered between 12 and 17, enjoying the purple soft corals, the clown fish in the anenomes, the numerous trigger fish, and especially the many really big batfish around. We found morays in the crevices, and a big honeycomb wrapped up in himself in an alcove.  I pointed out where one bat fish was getting worked on by a pair of cleaner wrasse.

Eventually, as we worked our way east, we picked up a bit of current.  It was half an hour into the dive and I turned us around and had the group fin into it the direction we had come until we returned with some effort to calm water.  I also had us rise in the water to shallower depth, as some were getting low on air. We were back in the calm water and heading at a low angle along the reef aiming in the direction of the surface when I looked up and saw the unmistakable sillouette of a whale shark about to pass overhead. It was a small one, just 6 or 7 meters, and I beckoned my divers to follow it with me.  I chased after it till it turned and came back towards us, gaping mouth scarfing up plankton.  In moments it was alongside me, so I swam alongside it, its eye on its stalk taking me in. I swam right next to it for a several seconds but then had a look around for other divers. Keith and January had almost surfaced but were coming back down.  Bobbi and Rebecca were near me.  I saw Daniel at the surface but I saw the shadow of a boat near.  I knew him to be too low on air to come back down so I figured he was ok where he was. The rest of us continued our dive near the surface, starting a safety stop 43 minutes into it.  I was buddied with January, my only trainee on this dive, and she and I ascended through a school of batfish.  Meetiing up on the surface, I asked my divers if I had mentioned the whale shark in my briefing.  All were chuffed / stoked after such a great dive.

I had the boatman take us over to Ras Morovi where we entered the cove and had our lunch.  January was keen to do her module 4 and 5 confined water skills so she could make the next dive her third for the course,  Since it was just us on the boat, and the boatman was cooperative, I had him motor to some shallow water where January and I did the no-mask swim, hovered, and ascended on buddy breathing.  We passed our tanks up onto the boat and practiced duck diving.  By now it was just past three and a group of fishermen had arrived and were arguing with the crew of the dive boats there. They wanted to lay nets across the cove.  The dive captains relented and we moved around the headland to inside the channel.  January and I rekitted and did our module 5 skills on a shallow sand ledge there.

Our actual diving here began at around 3:30 down onto a carpet of brown corals in relatively flat terrain going out to sand at 12 meters.  There we found a fish pot and January did her compass heading and return on the reciprocal.  We headed north over the coral and eventually found boulders with lots of fish and sand that ran deeper.  I decided to take us out over the sand and we were soon rewarded with brown rays scurrying to get out of our way.  One came low and inside over the sand just beneath us flying fast to join up with his mates.  This was the memorable part of that dive, down to 18 meters at that point.

I turned us around and headed us back to the rocks and up to where I was running low on air.  Ascent for me was at 59 minutes (56 not counting the last 3 minutes at 5 meters). I had promised January a controlled emergency swimming ascent so we re-descended and I used my reel and SMB sausage to make a line we could ascend on from ten meters. She tried it a couple of times until she got comfortable with the technique. 

The ride back was cool and we arrived at almost dusk. The rest of the evening was good food and grog amongst fine company.  Tanja and Richard and their kids Euan and Hana showed up in time to taste Silviennes' excellent creole shrimps.  Bobbi and I sat up till the last person left the area and we slept well till morning when Bobbi's alarms started going off, so I got up and wrote this.

March 20, 2010, Dibba Rock, diving with Freestyle Divers, my logged dives #947-948

Saturday's dives were planned with Freestyle.  Rebecca had to get back to Abu Dhabi but after breakfast Keith and January and Tanja and Euen (with her husband Richard and their daughter Hana) and with Daniel riding with us, Bobbi and I drove across the border and down the coast to Dibba.  It was a nice day, sunny with relatively cool temperatures, and calm seas, ideal for diving.

Except that the vis on Dibba Rock was not particularly good, very hazy.  Tanja and Euen were diving for the first time.  Euen is ten years old.  He's determined and fearless but has lots of issues with masks and other equipment that doesn't quite fit him, so he sometimes had to surface during the dive.  At the outset it was difficult for me to monitor my three students.  Despite this January did her module 4 mask removal, and hovered as we were about to ascend later.  The mooring had changed and so when we finned off after descent I couldn't find the reef.  There was a stiff current and as divers surfaced it became hard to orient once we re-descended. We were wandering over boulders and coral rubble for some time but the good news was that we were eventually swept onto the reef.  We saw a huge barracuda there but when one student ran low on air I had to bring all three of my students up with me, after only 40 minutes diving and ten or twelve on the reef itself.  Bright notes were that January managed to get certified as a result of it, and Euen and Tanja had a successful first dive in that they settled into the drill and acclimatized to the unusual environment, which would make their next dive much smoother.  But for me it was not my best dive on Dibba Rock.

The next was not much better unfortunately.  Daniel had so enjoyed the sting rays in the sand off Ras Morovi the day before that he was keen to do the back side, so we took him there.  But again the mooring was positioned a bit far from the lip so we had to work ten minutes to get down onto the sand at depth (12 meters).  Here we found some bat fish and schools of snappers but colorless ambience and not much else. Nor was there anything in the sand but, well, sand.  We returned to the wall and my 2 students and I managed to lose Daniel and Bobbi, so we continued around the rock, me keeping an eye on Euen's pressure guage.  He was also cold so when he reached 50 bar I had him and his mom ascend on alternate air source breathing.  We were almost at the aquarium at that point and I intended to take Tanja on with me to see the fish there and then proceed onto the reef for the last ten minutes of our dive.  But as it turned out while waiting for the boat we drifted off the spot and when we finally got Euen safely out of the water and Tanja and I resumed, I was again not able to find the reef from this new and arbitrary location, and that dive turned out to be yet another disappointment for me, and perhaps for Tanja.

But not for Bobbi and Daniel.  When we reunited with them they told of how they had left us on the back side to go see a cuttlefish.  Then they had rounded the rock as we had but they carried on to the acquarium, where vis improved and they saw many fish species.  But instead of cutting over to the reef as I would have done, they were following their own rule: Keep the rock on the left.  This took them into the shallows where I hardly ever go, but here they found even clearer water and 4 sharks all together that were swimming to and fro and playing with them in vis as clear as a swimming pool. Bobbi talked about that at length on the drive home and on into the evening and I'm sure it's on her Facebook somewhere. So SOME people enjoyed the dive (and glad to hear it ;-)