Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 27-29, 2011 UAE East Coast - Dibba and Khor Fakkan

My logged dives #1045-1048

Godelieve and Rossane wanted to dive with Bobbi and I this weekend. Chris had booked his Nomad hostel out completely to a large French group and there was no room at the inn for us this weekend, nor space on his dive boats going to Musandam, and Godelieve had never been to Khor Fakkan, so Bobbi and I decided to revisit our favorite dive sites there and see how the fishes had survived the triple whammies of Cyclone Gonu, the months-long red tide epidemics, and more recently the spate of hotel and harbor constructions taking place all along the east coast of the UAE.

It's still a beautiful area, relaxing, moves to a rhythm all its own, and all your own if you make it so. Our rhythm is to sleep to a normal hour on Friday, our first weekend day off, which for us means waking up when the sun rises and lying around till the early sunlight tells us it's 5:30 or 6:00, then getting up and checking email, watching the news on TV while packing our dive gear and clothes for the weekend, fetching the car from overnight parking across the road, loading it up and being away by 8:30 for an 11:30 arrival in Dibba. Lulu is our first stop there, the new hypermarket that has become the focal point of Dibba cuisine. There we could get tasty tiny round pizzas for a dollar apiece, spicy chicken and prawn, watermellon and grapes for a pittance, cold fresh juices, and still arrive at the dive center at noon for their 12:30 dive.

Which turned out in typical Freestyle rhythm to be an after 1 pm dive, but ma'alesh, we had little else to do that day than kit up and wait and get on the boats, and then into the water for an hour's cool relaxation, then back on shore, repeat, add water, relax.

We were told we should have been there last weekend. Everyone was telling us vis had been 20 meters, plenty of animals around, ideal conditions. For our first dive we put in on the right side mooring south east of the island and set our course west in slack current to meander among the coral bommies in shallow water near the island. Surge was a problem and vis was disappointing, but we still enjoyed schools of fish, a lone batfish under a rock, shoals of snappers and jacks criss crossing one another as we dropped into the aquarium, big lumbering porcupine fish moving in close out of curiosity, parrotfish, fusiliers, etc.

From the aquarium I headed back west toward the loud clacking which intensified as we moved in over the coral rubble where the beautiful reef used to be with its sharks and devil rays, undoubtedly the best diving I ever did in the UAE, and certainly the most consistently best including there and Musandam. But that was back when Terry was alive. Now it's sad that Terry and the reef as it was are both gone.

But the reef is bouncing back in one place, if you follow it south from near the aquarium and if you can find where it turns east (hard to do in bad vis, just possible on our noon dive today) you come upon a patch of purple raspberry coral that's pretty like it used to be. But at noon today there were no sharks or turtles on it. When I found it I circled it looking for critters, but apart from healthy reef fish, nothing caught our attention. Eventually we reversed and retraced over the barren parts, and then our time was up and we surfaced.

The 3 pm dive, which got going at around 4 (good to see that some traditions are honored ;-), was not as easy as the first. We had planned to go around to the back side of the island on this dive but when we arrived at the south east corner mooring, conditions had changed and there was a stiff current that would prevent us getting to the back side that way. The current was so bad that when Godelieve and Rossane entered the water they got carried astern and would not have been able to reach us at the bow line except that I yelled for a line to be thrown to them, and to his credit Terry's son Andy had one tied to a buoy and tossed it astern and recovered our divers. Bobbi meantime had descended to await us out of the surface current, and shortly we joined her by pulling ourselves down the rope against the current.

We retraced our steps from morning but this time had to fin toward our right in order to avoid being swept off course. We passed the same coral, with some effort to keep our path through it (the batfish was still there :-). Vis had got worse so at the aquarium it wasn't as attractive as earlier but here at least we were in the lee of the island and had some relief from the current, so were were able to find our way to the back side that way. We entered though thermoclines of bracingly cold water. I was wearing just lycra and a rash vest, Bobbi had on her shorty, and we were cold. At depth, just 12-13 meters, we went out a little into the sand but not so far where there would be rays because the current went against us when we left the shelter of the wall of boulders. We found morays in the wall but turned back when the current started to push us back even there.

We were picking our way back over these boulders when I saw a flash of grey and black streak and realized a black tip reef shark was passing. I wheeled after it, and Rossana just 12 years old, was right at my shoulder trying to keep up with it. Recharged now, we resumed our heading back to the aquarium, but Godelieve had put weight in her pocket and it had slipped out. I saw her and Rossana suface, nothing we could do, so Bobbi and I carried on and saw a second shark as we were coming back on the aquarium. Pushing up against our allotted hour we passed over the clacking reef rubble and I saw a third shark right about where it should be. Bobbi missed that one, and our time was now up, but we surfaced thinking that a mundane and almost unpleasant dive had been rendered almost exciting simply with the appearance of our favorite inhabitants of our once favorite reef.

Back on shore Andy and his staff were offering beer and making the motions of preparing barbeque, but the Royal Beach Hotel where the shop is prefers to keep prices high (800 for a single bedroom) and endure less than full occupancy rather than offer dive packages that would allow divers to stay on the premises, so it's hard to accept hospitality from the dive shop when we have to not only drive into Dibba, but check into our accommodation there as well. Two bedrooms at Seaside Apts where we stay (not by the sea, they always remind us, when we call there), with kitchen with microwave for heating up the interesting Indian dishes we can buy at Lulu's, is only 330 in May, or 82.50 each for four people. I hope Andy can restore the social scene at Freestyle though. We would like to have stayed with them, but logistically it was too difficult, with Godelieve having to cook special pasta to feed Rosanna, and everyone being tired and not wishing to drive on UAE roads under the influence.

Before we departed we learned that their Musandam trip that day had encountered 2 whalesharks (they're back!) but we had arranged to dive Inchcape 2 and Martini Rock next day with Divers Down. We had selected that over a trip with Brian and Tatsiana at Neptune Divers, who were going to Musandam on Saturday, but we were going to Khor Fakkan.

So no more about that (but checking old dive logs, lots of whaleshark sightings in May and June, this one in 2003:; and these just last year for example:
Anyway, we turned up at Divers Down well before we needed to be there. They were just setting up shop at the Miramar, on the same beach as the Meridien Al Aqah, from where Al Boom sends boats daily to the sites were were planning to dive. Must say Divers Down agreed to my exact requests for dive sites, which was why we chose them, and the boat was ours apart from an open water course being run from it, whose divers were not diving the same dives we were. But we still had to share those sites with the hoards from Al Boom's boats.

The dives were nice, though we were going through motions of previous dives Bobbi and I had done dozens of times before, but like everything else in the UAE, the dives were not like before. The Inchape 2 is the wreck in 22 meters near Martini Rock. It's got a lot of animals on it, writhing with morays, and surely much else, though most of the life on it today was human. We had planned a dive as in the old days. Descend on the wreck and for Rosanna who had no computer, understand from the wheel that she could spend 30 min max at 22 meters, then ten minutes at 16, and then exhaust the tank for as long as it takes at 12 (the dive would be 37 minutes NDL at 22 meters if diving on tables). In the event we had circumnavigated the wreck in the sand, done a tour of the decks, and even investigated the holds with overhead escape access, acquainting ourselves with most of the morays in the process, in the first 20 min of the dive, at which point we headed off on phase 2, a 240 degree compass course in the sand about 5 min to the wall of boulders. The plan here was to find jawfish in the sand just short of those boulders. There were none that we could find. There were more morays in the rocks, but when we turned the corner into the bay to the north of the wall, the rust and blue corals were there, but nothing much to write home about. Nice dive, but not like in the past.

We motored over to Martini where bananas, watermellon, and oranges were laid out for us and we enjoyed a surface interval in warm but overcast May conditions. Our dive on Martini rock was again cold though. Too cold. The purple and white soft corals were there, and very beautiful. Morays were plentiful. But not much else. I scoured the rocks for scorpion fish. They used to be everywhere on this dive. We used to see turtles and honeycomb morays. On this dive today, we encountered mostly Al Boom divers and reef fish. It was pretty but pretty cold too. We're waiting now on the reports from Musandam of whale shark sightings :-(

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 20-21, 2011 - The Damaniyite Islands from Al Sawadi Beach Resort

My logged dives #1041-1044

Extra Divers has taken over the concession at Al Sawadi Beach Resort.  We had encountered them last year at the Oman Dive Center and they enrolled us in the ‘club’ and gave us a card with a number that when we present it at any Extra Divers shop worldwide, we get a 10% discount off our diving. So we had the card to reduce our dive costs, plus they have made it convenient for divers from the UAE to come up mid-day and dive with them in the afternoon.

Jay and Matt Fortin were flying in from Doha and agreed to meet us there Friday afternoon.  They landed in Dubai and drove down to Al Ain to spend the night on Jebel Hafeet instead of having to drive the distance Thursday night. And Bobbi and I were able to leave our house at 7:00 a.m. on Friday morning, and at 9:30 a.m. we had hardly any holdup at the Omani border.

We could have reached the resort at a little after noon but there was construction at the turning for the beach resort from the Sohar to Muscat road so we had to drive down it an extra 17 km all the way to Barka, u-turn in the roundabout, and drive the 17 km back, 34 km out of our way due to the blocked turn across the main highway.  Next time we turn at Musanneh and take the slip road to where we need to turn left.  If you try it and get to the Shell station and Arab World Restaurant you’ve gone a few hundred meters too far.

Still we got there at 1:00 for what we’d been told would be a 2:30 dive. There was plenty of time to check into our room and go for a swim.  We were at the dive center well before 2:30 but at that time they were still having customers fill in their forms.  So it was after 3:00 before they got us all on the boat and about 3:30 before they put out to sea, kind of late in the day for a two-dive afternoon off islands that take over half an hour to reach.

Sira Island (what we used to call Jed, or Fed in some of my old dive logs)

The first dive started out tropical, remarkably clear vis, and fish and coral everywhere, like in Egypt Red Sea or the Philippines or Mozambique, very beautiful.  Various kinds of corals were easily visible in 20 meter clarity, housing some large honeycomb moray eels. Turtles were swimming there, and other kinds of morays.

But when we pushed into a current at the end of the wall and reversed direction up the opposite side we hit an environment that resembled the north side of Lima Rock, bland coloring and boulder terrain with lots of fish but not that much to write home about for much of the dive.  We pursued this at about 16 meters until we found some pots with holes in them sunk there possibly to create an extension of the reef, or as someone’s fisheries experiment.  Jay and Matt were signaling low on air at this point and headed up the reef, but Bobbi and I stayed in the sand because two of these pots had honeycomb morays poking out of them, craning their necks and moving their mouths the way the big morays do. But just beyond that I noticed a brown ray partially covered in sand.  We swam up to it and it started pivoting and flapping its wings slowly and soon it had liftoff and was moving ahead of us, sand trailing off its back as it went.  It didn’t seem alarmed, just mildly annoyed, as it zig zagged gracefully ahead of us and wheeled as if inviting us to come across for a better look.  It played like that for a minute or two, until its excess speed got the better of us and we lost the chase.

We kept on from there, getting down to 25 degrees cold in the thermoclines so I was was glad I’d put on lycra under my 3 mm, until our hour was up, and we took four minutes to reach the surface up through water exceeding 30 degrees, in terrain reminiscent of the back side of Dibba. On surfacing we found we had gone halfway from Sira along the wall in the channel to Jun island, which we could have reached in another half an hour.

Walid Jun (Jun is the big island nearest Sawadi Beach resort, Walid Jun is the son of Jun to the south)

Because of our late start that afternoon, this dive started half an hour before sunset and ended in dusk. Jay and I had both brought small torches and we needed them on this dive.  I switched mine on to look under rock ledges at first but eventually just left it on, like on a night dive. We illuminated a few morays, and Jay’s beam located a small black ray under a rock, possibly a juvenile bull ray.  My beam picked out a a turtle cruising the reef just beyond that. Fahad found a crayfish in a hole, and called me over for my torch to illuminate it brightly for all to see. At another point my beam crossed a scorpion fish.

We had been briefed that at the end of the dive if we encountered a current, just ride it, so we did, Bobbi and I drifting neutrally buoyant over a patch of cabbage coral, crisscrossing it with torch beams.  We were almost an hour into diving when we surfaced, last divers to come up.  The boat was just ahead of us, visible against a horizon tinged with orange. I shined my light on our heads for pickup and we clamored up the ladder at the back and rode home to a buffet dinner and well-deserved liquid refreshment, and well deserved rest afterwards.

Next morning we had meant to get up early and use the wifi in the lobby but we slumbered in bed past 8 and barely had time for breakfast before we had to get back on the boat and go diving again.

The aquarium (a shallow reef off the island south of the ranger station)

This started as an odd dive due to the inadvertently deceptive briefing.  Fahad was a great leader in the water but his briefings were comical.  He would hold the charts right side up but someone would notice in mid briefing that north was not actually at his back but at ours, but once we figured that out, we could do the geometry and understand what lay beneath us more or less.  For the aquarium dive, it wasn’t Fahad per se, but the chart.  He showed us the island behind him and the wall just behind us to the west.  We were in the northwest corner so the idea was to follow the wall south and when we reached 100 bar reverse to the north, ascend to the plateau, and return to the boat, which would remain at anchor (anchored right on the reef we saw, they need a mooring at that beautiful spot). It seemed to be a typical out and back plan.

The first part of the dive went seemingly to plan.  We entered the water in 7 meters clear as a swimming pool, made our way to the wall, and dropped down to the sand bottom at 20 meters or so, more cloudy and colder down there.  There was a slight current against us, which made perfect sense to head south and turn mid-dive to return on the northerly current. We found several morays at depth including some large honeycomb ones, our favorites, and near where we stopped to look at a smaller speckled yellow-mouth moray lying exposed on the sea bed, a large bull ray came swimming toward us.  We hovered while it came right up to us.  Not in a hurry, it wheeled about and sauntered back the way it had come, but not so fast that we couldn’t keep up with it for a ways, but it had more stamina in the water than we had air for it, so we stopped and let it mosey on ahead and out of sight.

It was about this time that I noticed we were heading north, creating for me a disorientation dilemma.  It’s so easy to get confused underwater. I purposefully recalled we had definitely started on a southerly heading, direction of Muscat, definitely to the south.  Was there something wrong with my compass?  I manipulated its direction; the needle stayed pointing the way we were going.  We must have rounded a point then, in which case we’d be heading up the back side of the island.  That would be wrong, so I signaled my divers (Bobbi, Jay, and his son Matt) to double back on ourselves.  I figured we’d see where we went wrong and we could carry on going south at that point.  It felt odd though to be going south, intuitively back toward the boat, but according to the compass, away from it.

I led us higher up the reef, still going south but with the reef on our right not on our left, as it should be, but with shallower depth came greater clarity.  We were in no time back at the nets we'd seen at the beginning of the dive that unfortunately have fouled parts of the reef in splotches the size of basketball courts.  Here we saw other divers, and Fahad leading his group shallow.  The reason was obvious.  There were beautiful soft purple and yellow corals here, and dozens of large honeycomb morays, some poking out of rocks, some swimming freely.  There were other morays as well, green and white, and even a couple of black banded ones trying to hide with their heads in the rocks, not out like the other morays, and not commonly seen.

We soon got oriented here.  We were not on a north-south wall as implied in the briefing diagram.  We were on a cone with encircling sand at 20 meters.  Had we known that we could have simply carried on at ever shallower depths and circled the boat in corkscrew fashion.  Confusion allayed we enjoyed the rest of the dive, swimming amid the morays and hovering with a beguiling school of batfish.

Toward the end of our allotted hour we joined up again with Jay and Matt, conserving their air nicely, but by now diving in their own team-pair.  Bobbi and I meandered until our time was up but the anchor line and the boat’s shadow served to always orient us, which allowed me to bring us up slowly right under the boat.

When I noticed that many of the divers were jumping in the water to cool off and duck dive around us, I figured there was no rush for us to get back on the boat, so I suggested to Bobbi via our standard hand signal that we hang out another three minutes under the boat in a 5 meter safety stop.  The batfish joined and amused us, while we relaxed neutrally buoyant and eventually exited the water after 70 minutes diving on our computers.

Police Run (a wall dive from the east side of the island with the ranger station and round the corner to the bay where the station is)

It was warm back on the boat in our wetsuits so when I put some baby shampoo in my mask I decided to just go in the water to rinse it out, and then I might as well just put it on and check out what was there through my mask and snorkel.  Others had done the same, and soon everyone was watching a cuttlefish in the clear water there.

Fahed was trying to organize us back on board and we were soon back in the water where we found the cuttlefish more in his element.  Again vis was clear and the corals were healthy and varied, and it was easy to see out over the sand at 16 meters where we hoped the leopard shark would be.  Bobbi and I used to almost always see one or two in the course of two days of diving at Al Sawadi beach. I thought back to the time I got my picture made with one once, back when leopard sharks were plentiful here.

Picture credit: Hilal Matta 

I had made that trip alone. For some reason Bobbi didn’t join me in a long National Day weekend, which I had started out by driving on my own to Al Ain after work and running the Al Ain HHH in their annual ‘Nash Hash’ event.  I slept that night in my car at the site of the on-on in one of the wadis in Oman but short of the official border post.  I awakened early to drive through that post at dawn and on down to Al Sawadi Beach Resort to try and get on a dive on spec.  I arrived by 9 but they were fully booked -- but by chance one of the divers had a stomach issue and dropped out, so I got to take his place and go on the trip.  It was on one of those dives that my dive buddy took this pic and kindly emailed it to me afterwards. 

After diving that day I went into Muscat to see friends but ended up camping near Nakhal, sleeping again in my car.  I drove that morning into Wadi Bani Khurous as far as the town of Hijar at 900 meters and walked from there up the mountain to Aqabat Talhat at 2300, which I revisited recently with some friends from our local running group (on Earth Day, when we made a cleanup of the area, which had been crashed by a large group of hikers who left their Pocari Sweat cans and Tanoof water bottles lying all over the place,  I then walked back down again, same day, and drove home to Abu Dhabi that night.  Those were the days.

Back to this dive where Bobbi and I were keeping a lookout for leopard sharks, we hadn’t seen much of great interest apart from more morays, when we arrived at a cave Fahad had told us to watch for so we could swim through it.  I was first on the scene and entered the cave poking my light into the soft corals looking in places where rays might like to hide. I had come through the cave and was doing the same on the other side when Bobbi pulled my fin to show me the eagle ray. Bobbi said later it had come right at her, but saw her, and bolted.  She had grabbed my fin meantime or I wouldn’t have seen it since I was focused on my torch beam.  When those things move, they move fast. I saw it escape overhead and up the reef, bulky white underside plain in the clear vis.  I rose up the reef with computer beeping a bit, a little too fast from a nitrogen point of view, to see where the ray had gone, and caught glimpses of it as it made its way quickly along the wall, now obscured in the distant suspended matter.

We continued the dive now apart from the main group, and when Jay and Matt turned up the reef Bobbi and I carried on together.  We were keeping in the sand in a last hope of finding a leopard shark, but eventually we decided we had better to surface.  The boat was still picking up divers from further back on the reef when we noticed below us a very large ray.  So we didn’t see our leopard shark but we descended for one last time on the ray and left our Damaniyite diving on that note.

It was a brown cow tail ray, similar to the one the day before, and like that one, it simply moved seaward, but not so fast that we couldn’t keep up for a minute or two.