Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fun diving from Phuket on Koh Bida Nok and Turtle Rock on Koh Phi Phi Leh

Logged Dives #1601-1602 February 24, 2019

Our dives today were here


Our dive sites, Koh Bida Nok and Turtle Rock, just north of Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh, are described at the link from which this map was taken, with attribution:
https://www.phiphidiving.com/phiphi-diving-map.htm

We decided to dive today with Sea Fun Divers, https://www.seafundivers.com/.  We chose them because we wanted to dive at Koh Phi Phi this Sunday and they were one of the only shops with their own boats going there. Also they immediately answered my email which I sent out on return to Patong from our half day diving with Merlin Divers in Kamala. I sent the mail while we were getting cleaned up from our diving with intent to go walking around to different dive shops in Patong, but I was able to arrange to dive with Sea Fun via email without leaving my hotel room. So instead of working up a sweat, we settled our next day diving with no hassle and celebrated with cheap beer from the downstairs 7/11 up at the pool on the roof of our Patong Mansion hotel, where we liked to enjoy the sundown from the lip of the waterfall pool there.


Sea Fun Divers had only booked a baker's dozen of divers on the trip. Dive groupings were made in teams of two to four divers. Bobbi and I were concerned at first about the other divers we were paired with but on the 2 hour trip to the site we got to talking to them and our concerns evaporated (they seemed to know what they were doing). Meanwhile our dive guide Jurgen had told us that if there was any disparity in air, since I was carrying a surface marker buoy, Bobbi and I could just carry on with our diving. In the end none of that was necessary, but it was nice to know that Jurgen was flexible enough to accommodate such contingencies, always appreciated when pairings are potentially inappropriate. Ours turned out to be fine.

Koh Bida Nok


Jurgen telling us what to expect at Koh Bida Nok

Fortunately there was a professional photographer aboard the boat, named Johan Torfason. Johan was working for an insurance company in Sweden when he decided to take a leave of absence for 6 months to try making a living at underwater photography in Thailand. One Christmas day a snorkeling boat he was on sunk in high waves and he and 35 others were rescued by sea gypsies who live in south Koh Lanta. He stayed on Lanta for a while, must have liked it but went back to Phuket, went back to Sweden, asked for another 6 months leave, was refused, so he quit and returned to Thailand and now he is the resident photographer for Sea Fun Divers. His Facebook page is here:

Johan asked everyone aboard, one by one, if he could take their pictures. When he came to chat us up he figured we'd be taking our own photos, and we thanked him and told him we were unlikely to want a complete set after the trip. Two things changed my mind.

The first was, as I was standing on the platform, all kitted up, about to make a giant stride into the water, I pulled my camera out and switched it on and got an error message, no memory card. This reminded me that when I was backing up photos the night before on my computer in our hotel room I had forgot to replace the memory card in the camera. Duh! I instinctively slapped my forehead. This jarred me back to the present so I left my hand where it was to hold my mask in place, and took a giant step into the water. Mai pen rai!

The second thing was, after the dives, when Johan showed everyone aboard his photos from that day in the dry cabin amidship, they were superb. He got some great shots of Bobbi and I after all. And he also got some excellent shots of the sharks many of us saw on that first dive. I had had missed an excellent chance to video black tips up close, but Johan got them, and us watching them.







These sharks were reminiscent of the black tips we used to see frequently in very shallow water at Dibba Rock in UAE, but the ones in Dibba were more evasive. These were on patrol. And Jurgen knew where they would be and manipulated our route, despite an unexpected current change that caused us to switch direction with reef on the left, not on the right as we'd been briefed, he made sure we ended up where the sharks were.








The sharks at Koh Bida Nok were the high point but there was more to see there than sharks




Turtle Rock on Koh Phi Phi Leh

Turtle Rock was kind of a set piece dive. Diving is always great, and this would be a great site if you had it to yourself, but there were many other boats all congregated on the same spot so that there were dozens of divers in the water, making it necessary for us to be micro managed, for example when a turtle was found, we had to wait our turn to come around it. Johan got some great shots though; here are just two of many :-)



We anchored for lunch and surface interval off Maya Bay, now closed with a rope across it with floats, to try and get it to come back after the depredations of so many tourists since Leonardo de Caprio made it famous as The Beach. There were dozens of boats, speedboats etc. not just dive boats, all anchored at the edge of the rope. Here is one of the islands there.


When it was time to dive we moved a few hundred meters toward the north end of Koh Phi Phi Leh and dived from there to the south. Here's Jurgen explaining the plan. 


I took this photo. All the other diving pictures on this page were from Johan's collection

We dived as a pack on this dive. Here are Bobbi and I swimming with the pack (green fins and black fins)


One of the first stunts was to have everyone swim through a tunnel. Johan had positioned himself to take pictures of all the divers passing into the tunnel. I decided to show off. These pictures, and the shark ones, are the reason I decided to buy Johan's pictures and put them here with his permission.




That's me, mask and reg back in place, disappearing down the rabbitfish hole
and completing the manouevre


One thing that I missed filming, and Johan missed it as well, in fact only I saw it ... was a huge crayfish in a cave I discovered by shining my lamp inside. It was easily as long as my arm. It looked delicious, but there you are.

Next day, after a 24 hour surface interval, it was time to say goodbye, Phuket to Penang on Firefly, in one of these birds (my picture again). This saved us two days on buses, Phuket to Surat Thani to Hat Yai, overnight and from there next day to Butterworth and Penang.


Saturday, February 23, 2019

Fun diving Phuket on Whale Rock and Tin Lizzie with Merlin Divers Kamala

Logged Dives #1599-1600 February 23, 2019

Today we decided to dive from Kamala Beach, which appears in the upper left on this a map of our diving from Phuket Feb 22, 23, and 24, 2019,
https://www.screencast.com/t/YufC3nOPd0
Annotated after borrowing, with attribution, from this web page

Why Kamala?

When we were making last minute arrangements in Siem Reap to go diving somewhere we could get into and out of quickly, and I started writing to dive shops to see what I could line up, Robert Klein, owner of Merlin DIvers in Kamala, was first to write back. I had focused on Kamala as not too far from the airport and possibly a less developed area of the island than some of the others, possibly a comfortable place to stay. Indeed we eventually found that it had a nice beach with some low key food and beverage establishments shoreside and reasonably priced accommodation inland from there. However, as I started to get more replies to my emails I came to realize that Merlin were booking us with other companies for trips to the standard dive sites shown in the map above, and we decided to base ourselves in Patong because there was a large cluster of dive shops there where I could negotiate prices directly with the ones who had their own boats, whereas there were only two or three operators in Kamala. 

On the other hand, Merlin divers offered diving from long-tailed boats to sites off their beach, a very different flavor of diving from the crowded cruises heading out to the busy dive sites, and a chance for a later pickup at our hotel in the morning (a chance to relax over breakfast) and earlier return from diving than that done from Chalong harbor, so we decided to set aside a low-key take-it-easy day for them.

What we found

Merlin divers had a pleasant and professional setup in a cluster of shops fronting the busy main street but opening at the back of the shop right on the long sand beach. Accueil, preparation, and execution of the diving was up to the expected standard. There were few diving customers that morning, only Bobbi and I and perhaps one other. Most of the dozen or so divers on the boat with us were in training for divemaster or on other professional level internships, which meant we were in good hands, almost too well looked after. But once we'd been in the water for a few minutes we were pretty much left to get on with the diving. The guides were good at pointing out creatures so we had no interest in doing anything but follow. 

As usual I'm with my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens, today wearing a yellow mask. Bobbi is not to be confused with dive guide Luke, a South African who wore his long blond hair in a pony tail and was also wearing black mask with yellow trim face frame, similar to Bobbi's :-). If there is any problem with the video embed, the direct link seems to be working: https://youtu.be/jSLNAJSuvCM



We went on two dives. The first was on Whale Rock, resulting in the video above. The site isn't listed on Merlin's list of dive sites
https://phuket-diving-thailand.net/scuba-diving-kamala-beach/kamala-dive-sites/ but it was a nice site for relaxed, unhurried diving, and here is what we saw: young barracudas right at the beginning of the dive, puffer fish, clown fish in the anemones, scorpion fish lurking on the rocks, nudibranchs, a cuttlefish, schools of snappers, a moray, and some Pearsonothuria graeffei cucumbers toward the end of the dive, among many other creatures of the not-so-deep.

The most salient moment of the dive for me was when I came across a little head poking out of a rock and turned around in the surge to examine it. Bobbi was hovering above me, but the others had moved on, so I gestured for her to call them back with her tank-banger. But having taken my eyes off the hole, I couldn't find it again but then I spotted a carefully constructed hole rimmed with rocks that could only have been placed just so by the animal who lived there. So I switched on my light and shined it into the hole. This provoked the resident mantis shrimp to come charging up to the rim as if to complain about the unwanted lighting, or perhaps just to see what the source was. Now I had a great view of him, but I had my lamp in one hand and my camera not in the other, and he had withdrawn back inside by the time I got my camera into position. Bobbi had joined me by now and when I shined my lamp into the hole we could see the mantis in there. But I was never able to juggle the light and the camera and deal with the surge in such a way that I could get a coherent video from it. Maybe these few hundred words will suffice in lieu of a picture.

The second dive was on Tin Lizzie, which Merlin's web site says is"the remains of a Tin Dredger at about 14 meters. Tin Lizzy is absolutely covered with marine life. You can find large numbers of Bat fish, Lion fish, large Puffer fish, Scorpion fish and Barracuda here. Many artificial reef blocks are placed around the wreck dive site and have become home to many fish." Our boat crew referred to those reef blocks as "cubes". Here is how my camera saw it: https://youtu.be/FESKm5lWxlk


The dive begins with dive guide Luke helping Bobbi descend on the rope and at the bottom telling us to get together and follow him but leaving us alone after that. He leads us to several forlorn puffer fish, nests of lion fish, lots of snappers schooling in the 'cubes', a few scorpion fish, a few banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus), an eel, tiny flounders, a nudibranch, and through a big cloud of silt that settled over us toward the end of the dive, though most of it was in relatively clear water. 

Overall impressions

This seemed to be a well-run dive shop, friendly, and well situated away from the madding crowd in Patong just over the hill to the south. The location was to our tastes, since we only drank beer at 60 baht ($2) in the tall 600+ ml bottles from the 7-11 near our hotel, the pleasant and quiet Patong Mansion. We avoided the 80 baht for half pint offerings in the bars and restaurants (120 for a pint, twice the price of the larger bottles in the 7/11). If like us, you're there for the diving and can do without the bars, Kamala struck me as a pleasant base, limited in scope and in diving, but earns points on relaxation. The two dive sites we tried were not the best Thailand has to offer, but we were happy with our half day out, nice to be catered for personally, and of course you pay less for that than you do on the boats going from Chalong Harbor. If you were staying in Kamala, the owner could arrange your diving on other days on the charter dive boats, with pickup from your hotel. 

About the videos

GoPro videography by Vance Stevens
PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181

For best results, view these videos using highest HD setting on YouTube





Friday, February 22, 2019

Fun diving off Phuket on King Cruiser Wreck, Shark Point, and Koh Dok Mai wall with Local Dive Thailand

Logged Dives #1596-1598 February 22, 2019

Bobbi and I haven't been diving since we were on Tioman last September (http://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.com/2018/09/diving-from-salang-tioman-malaysia-with.html), so we were itching to get down and get wet. Our choice of dive location, meaning where on the globe, was governed mainly by ease of access in and out of the area. Having just come from the CamTESOL conference in Phnom Penh we were considering diving off  Sihanoukville in Cambodia, something I think we'll want to do at some point given the novelty of the sites there and the low cost of travel in Cambodia, but working out the time it would take to travel overland (from Siem Reap, which is where we were when making our plans) vis a vis the low cost of air fares in and out of Phuket from Cambodia and onward to where we live in Penang, we chose Phuket as our base for diving this time around.

It wasn't our first time to visit there. I dived in Phuket in my early pre-logged dive days way last century, but it's been some decades again since our trip to the Similan Islands which the four of us in our family reached on a liveaboard from Phuket in around 1990 (when Phuket was relatively cheap and not so built up), and its been a few years since we dived Koh Lanta, which brought us up to the southern reaches of Koh Phi Phi diving (http://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.com/2014/12/bobbi-and-i-on-holiday-fun-diving-on.html). So we thought we'd give Phuket a go, for convenience and for old times sake.

Here is a map of our diving from Phuket Feb 22, 23, and 24, 2019,
https://www.screencast.com/t/YufC3nOPd0
Annotated after borrowing, with attribution, from this web page


Why we chose Local Dive Thailand for our first dive this century from our base in Phuket

We chose to dive today with Local Dive Thailand, who graciously offered me a professional discount and matched Bobbi and I with one of their best dive leaders, Born. The program for the day was one of the Phuket set pieces: King Cruiser Wreck, Shark Point, and Koh Dok Mai wall. There were about 35 divers on the boat and a dozen staff, or about 47 people in the water on each dive site from our boat alone. Though there were also divers from other boats as well, Born managed to ingeniously conduct our dives so that we were detached from the mobs and felt almost as if we were diving alone.

King Cruiser Wreck

Here are the videos I made from the first dive on King Cruiser Wreck (use this link if the embed doesn't work):
https://youtu.be/hWbBW0XkkDc


In this dive the overriding consideration was deco time. It can be a deep dive down to 32 meters, but we planned to take it only to 24 so as to not be annoyed by deco problems on the remaining two dives. We planned to surface when we reached 7 minutes no deco time and after achieving depth we were constantly easing upward, chasing our computers against the agreed upon limit (or at least I was, mine being more conservative than Bobbi's). Consequently we were back on the line after 35 minutes diving, but we saw a lot of the wreck and its resident creatures.

In the video you can see that we encountered several lion fish, swirling schools of yellow snappers, a big grouper, a fishball devouring a jellyfish, some large fish I think were mackerel, a concealed scorpion fish, a moray eel, and picturesque whip and colorful soft corals. It was overall a pleasant dive, but the best was yet to come.

Shark Point

The next dive was Shark Point, or No Shark Point as Born called it. She said there had been no sharks at that site for the last several years. As I mentioned earlier, Bobbi and I were just happy to be diving again, and this is what we saw (use the direct link if the video embed doesn't work): 



In this video we descend on a nest of blue spotted sting rays and watch them abruptly change locations. We encounter lots of schooling fish, clowns, a couple of cowries on the seabed, and an orange ghost pipefish which is hard to see, partly due to my videography vs. midwater buoyancy control and inability to see clearly where I'm pointing the camera. This is followed by video snippets of various morays, schools of fish enjoying a jellyfish dessert, crabs in the anemones, more schooling fish, several ominously lurking scorpion fish, gorgonian fan corals, a bemusing cuttlefish, some lion fish, a school of large barracuda, more anemone crabs, more jellyfish abuse, a HUGE scorpion fish resting on a barrel coral, a puffer, more barracudas, a green seahorse that I couldn't see and didn't know what I was filming till the very end of the clip, more lion fish, and even more barracudas and other fish at the safety stop. This was our favorite dive of the day.

Koh Dok Mai

Our final dive of the day was on Koh Dok Mai, on the dark side of the wall. Here's the video (and at this link in case of problems with the embed): https://youtu.be/JNFl8ev6Q50


The video begins with our lamps eluminating a free swimming moray on the dark side of the wall, a seahorse, a peek under a coral outcrop where there were 3 bamboo sharks that Born knew in advance would be there, a little eel that bites (Born demonstrated, and I mimicked; I can still feel the sensation of  tiny teeth), a ghost pipe fish, more white-eyed eels, some glass shrimp, another swimming eel, schooling fish, a trigger fish, fan coral, a couple of nudibranchs, a couple more eels, a scorpion fish, and Born being surprised by a sea snake while showing us yet another grinning scorpion fish on the safety stop. The end of the video shows us surfacing to the beauty of Koh Dok Mai halfway between Chalong harbor and the Phi Phi islands.

Overall impressions

Local Dive Thailand were a great outfit to dive with. They have their own boat, they conducted the trip competently, and there was a dive guide for every two to four customers, or maybe just three. The only problem was that they over-feed you on the trip :-). There's breakfast on the long journey out from Phuket halfway to Koh Phi Phi and something to eat between dives. The second surface interval is accompanied by a filling meal of delicious Thai food. And on the way back, if you can still consume more, there were pancakes. There was always watermellon and other fruits, and free flow tea coffee.

A few days later I saw their boat off Koh Phi Phi and snapped a picture of it there



About the videos

GoPro videography by Vance Stevens
PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181

For more scuba diving videos 
like this one, see 
http://VancesDivebLogs.blogspot.com

For best results, view these videos using highest HD setting on YouTube



Friday, September 14, 2018

Diving from Salang, Tioman, Malaysia with Scuba Guru Grahame Massicks

Logged dives #1591-1595 September 10-11

Bobbi and I have just arrived in Malaysia and set up residence in Penang. We had a hankering to get wet so as soon as the opportunity presented itself we arranged a trip to Tioman. We googled diving there and found Scuba Guru Grahame Massicks, and as we often do, chose to dive with him because his blog at http://tioman-scuba.com/ showed a depth knowledge of the area, and basically because he answered his emails and kept us updated daily on various aspects of our getting there and diving with him. He asked if he could team us on boat dives with his advanced open water students, but it was really no big deal to us, and I don't know what our alternatives would have been with most of the diving on Tioman being focused on training, but we enjoyed our five dives with Scuba Guru over the three days we were there.


Bobbi checking out the swing at the end of the jetty on arrival in Salang, Tioman

We arrived on the island at around lunchtime Sunday September 9, 2018. It happened to be an eid weekend and the boats to Tioman the day before had been full, so we had spent an extra night in Malacca, taken a bus to Mersing on Saturday, where the harbor is, and made our way to the harbor after breakfast Sunday to catch the 10:30 a.m. Bluewater ferry, which made several stops on Tioman, Salang being the furthest north and the last stop. Grahame had emailed that he would meet us at the Salang Dreams restaurant right at the end of the jetty, where he suggested we take some lunch on the breezy veranda. Wherever we decided to eat in Salang, all options were at tables under shady roofs open on all sides to the pleasant weather.

Grahame had arranged our accommodation. The first night we stayed in an air-con room at the Mutiara Resort, through it was more like, and was in fact, a last resort. The Mutiara was almost as far out the paved surface as you could walk from the jetty, but still only about 5 or 10 minutes. There were campers on the beach just outside our room, and immediately opposite there was a table with fixed benches and a shade overhead, where local lads liked to congregate and play hip hop at high volume on their cell phones. The cottages shared walls with the neighbors, so we heard them as well, but at night the place was quiet, and the air con could be set at 24 degrees and it would keep the room at exactly that without blowing all over us, so it was ok for sleeping at least. But the facilities were poorly maintained, the toilet spewed water all over the floor when flushed (clean water, but still ... ) and the hairballs covering the drains and on the floor of the bathroom could easily have been removed before new guests checked in. The Mutiara also had the distinction on Trip Advisor of having no 'excellent' or 'good' ratings. All their ratings when we checked them out before we got there were 'average', 'poor', or 'terrible.'




But Grahame said it was the only room left in Salang that night in that price range, 130 ringgit because it was air con. And it was right next to Ella's place, the farthest place up the paved walk, where he had booked us into a fan cooled room for 80 rm a night the next two days. It was near the cottage where Grahame stayed, and also just steps from the dive center. Ella's was a much more pleasant and quieter place, with stand alone cottages providing some privacy from the neighbors (who happened to be Oscar and Frances, the advanced students whom we dived with Monday and Tuesday). Ella's Place took us back to our hippy travel days with colorful sunsets from our porch which we enjoyed over beer that Grahame kept cool for us in his fridge in his cottage, and banana pancakes in the morning from the rustic restaurant about ten paces from our room (no music or late nights there, thankfully, and any noise in the morning got drowned out by the whir of the fan).



Posted on Facebook September 11: Sunset from our bungalow and breakfast views from Ella's Place, where we shifted after a night at Mutiara (last) resort. Note the archetypical banana pancakes and fruit platter, throwbacks to a simpler era of travel. One more day of diving then we ferry back to the mainland and grab whatever buses will get us back to Penang via KL BTS.




So once we were settled in at the Mutiara our first day there, we walked with Grahame down to the dive center where he proposed a choice of shore dives, one off the jetty (a lot of boat traffic there, didn't appeal) and another about 100 meters due west from the dive center, where a confiscated boat had been sunk in the sand. It had mostly decomposed, but it had attracted a lot of fish, including a school of young barracudas. Grahame describes the site on his blog, calling it the Salang Bay Wreck dive, http://tioman-scuba.com/salang-bay-wreck-2/. As this was my first dive since last June, I didn't really care where we went as long as it was wet, and we ended up enjoying the dive and getting to know Grahame and his methods. And of course, he was checking us out as well.

Our first boat dive the following day was on the Sipidan Wreck, deliberately decommissioned and sunk recently to create an artificial reef as a substrate for the propagation of fish life. Here is Grahame's write-up of this dive site: http://tioman-scuba.com/km-sipidan-wreck-2/ and here is the link to our video, 
https://youtu.be/h1WHKFajghA

On this dive, Grahame was guiding his PADI advanced o/w students Oscar and Francis on their deep dive down to 30 meters. Grahame brought his students up after 20 minutes but he told us we could stay as long as we liked on the wreck as long as we avoided deco. It was similar to the Inchcape wrecks in the UAE, and we basically descended and looked around it. It's a pretty typical wreck, with a fish ball of jack fish off its bow and more jacks at the stern. The video is herehttps://youtu.be/jnx4ZSEoj28



Our second dive of the day was at Rengis Island. The video is here, https://youtu.be/3mVfKD7_mTw, and here is Grahame's write-up of the site: http://tioman-scuba.com/rengis-island-2/



This video shows me, Vance, diving as usual with my favorite dive buddy Bobbi and with Grahame's PADI advanced o/w students Oscar and Francis. On this dive, Grahame points out a small critter in the sand, not sure exactly what it is. This is followed by a remora looking in vain for a host. Then suddenly a blacktip shark makes a surprise appearance and vanishes. Then I film a puffer enjoying a wrasse cleaning station, and pan to an unusually curious cuttlefish who seems to be fascinated with the camera. At the end of our dive we spend our safety stop in a long visit with a turtle

Videos from our next day diving on Tiger Reef and nearby Labas Island are posted on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/eRiou839JNI

Grahame's write-up on Tiger Reef is here: http://tioman-scuba.com/golden-reef-and-tiger-reef/, and for Labas Island, with its swim-throughs: http://tioman-scuba.com/labas/Mine follows:

On Tuesday September 11, 2018, the five of us dived together on Tiger Reef and Labas Island. Visibility was limited on both dives, but the first site, Tiger Reef, had a stiff current, which proved challenging for the just-certified in open water advanced students. The dive was short but nice and featured juvenile barracudas, morays, and blue spotted rays. The site is approximately mid-way between Sepoi and Labas Islands, which explains the current in the channel.

Back on board the boat, we motored over to the shelter of Labas Island, and after a brief surface interval we dived from where the boat was, which I presume was not just any place, but a place where Grahame knew we would find numerous swim-throughs. For the next hour he led us in a world of pretty blue anemones and a variety of soft and hard corals.  Here you can see for yourself:





Getting there

Bobbi and I spent all day before our trip booking bus tickets to Malacca, accommodation there for two nights, and the onward bus from Malacca Sentral to Mersing, and accommodation in Mersing. Then we had to figure out the Tioman ferry schedule (changes daily according to tide, or sometimes cancelled or delayed due to weather) and book the trip out, confusing if you haven't done it before.

There are several options leaving Penang. We live between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi so in order of distance we would have to travel to catch the bus, we could go to the Georgetown jetty on a public bus or Grab and get the boat to Butterworth where there should be many buses to KL or all the way to Malacca. Timing on this trip would be difficult to gauge, since we'd have to catch a ferry, frequent, but hard to book the bus in advance. Or we could try to get a bus in Komtar, the business district on the far side of Georgetown from the Jeti but not that much further from where we live, and go to Meleka or KL / Meleka from there, or we could go to the main bus station in Sungai Nibong in the south of Penang Island, where there were numerous buses to Meleka or KL. That would be the most distant ride from our house.

We decided to book a bus all the way to Malacca from Komtar. We woke up early and packed and got down to the gate to our compound in plenty of time we thought, but it took almost half an hour to get a Grab driver to come up there. We still made it to Komtar with time to spare but there was construction on the roads in the area that had consumed the address we had for the bus station. We ended by going to a street with bus ticketing agents to see if they could help us find our bus. It turned out the bus would stop right there, so we were relieved, and even had time to run over to a food court and pick up some nasi lemak, rice packs in banana leaves, and some other snacks we could try out on the bus to Malacca, unfamiliar to us but delicious. After all you can hardly go wrong on Penang street food.




We had booked a homestay place in Malacca, a bit of a risk, but this one turned out to be a jewel. It's called The Paradise on Booking.com, at $35 for two nights. It was a short walk to the Jonker Street heritage area but was in a quiet residential part of town with many restaurants nearby. Our room had a bath and was air-conditioned, one of just three or four bedrooms in the house. We could use the kitchen and relax in the common living area. The manager was friendly and helpful when he was there, but most of the time there was no one there but us.




We spent two nights there so we had a full day in the town. We walked as far as the floating mosque a few km away but mainly spent time along the river. 




One little Thai restaurant with tables on the river bank had a promotion on pints of beer, only 8 ringgit each, which is just a ringgit or two more than it costs in the supermarket. It was very tempting to relax there watching the bateaux mouches go up and down the river carrying tourists who thought taking a boat ride might be a good idea. That didn't appeal to us but there was much about Malacca that was appealing. 




The riverside restaurant with the beer promotion was just down to the left from this building in Malacca

Other things worth noting in Malacca were the street art and the ridiculously decorated hello kitty pedicabs (another kind of street art),





At dinner time we noticed that one of the best hotels in town had a buffet of Thai and nyonya food for about $25, but half price for seniors over 60. That's not bad for an all you can eat buffet, see http://www.casadelrio-melaka.com/special/riverside-bbq-buffet (and you can also get half price if your birthday falls within the month you eat there), so that's where we ate, and just a short walk back to our homestay.

There were only two buses a day to Mersing from Malacca, one early morning, and the other at 12:45 pm. We had booked the latter so we had a leisurely start to our day with Malaysian coffee, bags dropped into cups of water heated in our kitchen, and then we caught a Grab to the bus station where we had time to have lunch in the food court. We had no trouble catching the bus, it wasn't full, and we arrived in Mersing well before dark. We walked out to the ferry terminal a km away from the station because someone told us there was an extra ferry sheduled that night, so we should be able to get our tickets for the next day. It was worth going there and showing them our voucher which we had to have printed (according to their web site, one of the many anxieties we expected to have to deal with to catch the boat). We found the man at "counter 21" actually an office, who helped us with an explanation of what to do next day. We should be there an hour early for a 10:30 ferry he told, us and assured us he would be there to help us on the morrow.

The only problem was that we had taken a hotel, the Merlin Mersing, a couple of km north of the jetty complex. Tripadvisor feedback suggested it was quiet due to its isolation. In fact it was too far out of town for having to get back there next morning to get a ferry. Fortunately, the Merlin provided transport in the morning after telling us initially there was no one available to take us, relenting only when we showed them where they advertised on their web site transfers to the ferry terminal. It wasn't that quiet either probably because of the eid weekend. The hotel was crowded and families congregated at the balconies outside our room. Still after a nice meal and a couple of beers we slept well, and had a buffet breakfast before having to set off in the morning.

Next time we do this it will be easier. But once at the jetty we had to meet the man at counter 21 who guided us to the place where we would get our ticket and another window where we had to pay a marine reserve fee. Outside there were a lot of people waiting around but no obvious signage on where to catch the ferry. We asked at an agent's in the terminal building and she said we had to go to the next building over. Eventually we worked out that this was what we had just done, but someone showed us the departure terminal where a line was forming, so we got in it. This line was to exchange a ticket for a boarding pass, but the agent when it was our turn merely tore our ticket a certain way that only agents know how to do, and pointed us to gate 4, where the ferry was waiting outside. 

Once on the ferry the whole process seemed simple and efficient. Next time we'll know how to do it and what to expect. Anyway, we had got that far, and next stop would be Salang on Tioman.

Getting away

To get back home, we got up at 4:30 a.m. to be sure and catch the boat leaving from this jetty to Mersing. We were told it would leave at 7 but in fact it left at 6:30, so good thing we were on hand for its departure. 

From the jetty in Mersing we got a taxi to the bas steson, good thing there as well because we were able to get a 10 am bus to KL we would have missed had we walked the km to the steson. 


Bobbi on the bus from Mersing to Kuala Lumpur

We arrived in KL at 4:15 pm. We bought a ticket for a bus to Penang leaving in 10 min, but KL TBS terminal is amazingly efficient. Buses less so because we didn't reach Penang, Butterworth actually, till 10 pm, then sat on a stationary shuttle bus for 30 min, to take us to the ferry leaving at 11:10 pm for the Georgetown jetty, That gets you to the Georgetown Jeti bas steson just in time to miss your last bus going wherever it is you're headed, because we weren't the only ones caught out by the unexpectedly long delay crossing the channel. 

Fortunately Grab provided a driver to take us way out to Tanjung Bunga and home for just $3.25. The whole trip home cost $10 each per bus or ferry ticket (except the shuttle in Butterworth was free and the Butterworth/Penang ferry is about half a dollar for two). Frankly, beats plane travel. There's no airport on Tioman anyway.


Coda

The videography here is by Vance Stevens, PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181
For best results, view these videos using highest HD setting on YouTube

Incidentally, I'm using a Rollei camera on these dives, a handheld camera similar to GoPro but different in some respects. First, it was a lot cheaper than a GoPro, and has markedly better battery life, but it is not as reliable and seamless to handle as is GoPro. If it's not monitored during the dive, it can switch off and possibly loose videos. When it switches off pressing the record button switches it on, and if your subject has appeared suddenly you might not notice that it's not yet recording. To use it effectively I've got to keep its display on throughout the dive. That means I need to check for display frequently and if I notice the display has gone off, I have to press record to wake it up. Only in that mode is it ready for quick deployment, but if you don't wake it up in time then it powers down and you have to essentially restart it, and functionality becomes unpredictable.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Turtles, Rays, Batfish, and Honeycomb Morays at the Aquarium, Daymaniyat Islands, Oman

Logged dives #1589-1590

Diving was cancelled Friday due to bad weather, but had cleared enough by Saturday June 23 to make for a pleasant day out from Global Scuba in Al Azeiba, just behind the airport at Seeb near Muscat where I shot these videos mostly on the Aquarium reef in the protected Daymaniyat Island chain.


This might have been my last chance to dive the Daymaniyats, something I have done often before. When we pulled up to the Aquarium anchorage, the boatman pointed to the water nearby and said there was a whale shark there. On most boats I've been on the boat would have gone over there and let us all snorkel with it, but our guide proceeded with anchoring the boat on the site. I figured we'd see the whale shark once we were in the water, but our guide made a fundamental error. He entered the water to check the current, and reported back that it was "small". However, when I entered the water, I found it was big, and I had to make a deliberate effort to fin myself to the anchor line and hang on. 

When I am in charge, I often enter the water without scuba, just as our guide did, to check the current, and when I detect one, I make a point to tell all the divers to go directly to the anchor line and hang on there, in order to prevent what happened next. My buddy entered the water after me, found himself in current, and tried to descend in it. However he was under-weighted and being unable to descend, was getting swept astern from us. The boatman should have thrown him a tag line, or been standing by to assist divers with any weight problems, but the boatman had entered the water with the mother of one of the divers, who had paid for a snorkel trip, so there was no one on the boat. I ascended back up the anchor line and got my buddy's attention and got him to swim to me at the surface and take my extended hand. I pulled his to the anchor line where he was then able to pull himself to the bottom, but by then all the exertion had cost him a lot of air, and buoyancy issues took a lot of what remained

There were three of us in our group. The third was a young lady beginning diver and the guide was essentially monitoring her (her mother had joined as the snorkeler). The Aquarium is a shallow reef about 6 or 7 meters at its top with walls to the north and sloping coral to the south. In order to manage this group, our guide opted to take us to the shallow side of the reef away from the wall where whale sharks like to hang out. As you can see in the video we enjoyed a lot of fish life as we rounded the reef and came up the other side. At one point I saw a marble ray at about 20 meters and popped down to it, but from there we spiraled back up to the top where at 35 minutes into the dive we had to send my buddy up the anchor line. The guide then led us back down the shallow part of the reef but returned us to the anchor line at 45 minutes because the young lady was low on air. I showed him my gauge with 110 bar remaining. He signaled me to swim around the top of the reef, so I stayed down.

I understood that the guide would accompany the young lady on her safety stop on the line, and I expected he would come back to join me, but after some time I realized he was not returning. I had been wandering around the reef top enjoying the mesmerizing schools of batfish with mackerel circling overhead, the huge honeycomb morays, and turtles, and when I eventually left the reef top I found cuttlefish, sting rays, and a scorpion fish in the plateau below. Being alone I didn't want to push out to the walls and risk not being able to return to the boat in the current, but having a chance to thoroughly explore the top of the reef as the only diver on the site was a rare opportunity, and a unique way to dive the Aquarium, as you can see in the videos.

Map credit, Teresa Zubi (2013): https://www.starfish.ch/dive/Oman.html

Our second dive was at Guno's Trace, but visibility was poor there, compared to the clarity of the Aquarium. We found more turtles, rays, and honeycomb morays, and I included some of those videos in the one I posted to YouTube. I didn't take all that many. My camera battery was barely holding out, and I was using it abstemiously in case we came across a zebra shark (which we didn't). Still it was a lovely day out diving.

Cat saga

Bobbi and I had an unusual reason for going to Muscat that weekend. We are leaving UAE, and we have been able to find no one where we live in Al AIn to offer a happy home to our gentle cat. The fact that most people we know are leaving soon for their summer holidays makes it inconvenient for them to take on a pet when they are anticipating being away for a month's vacation. However our son Dusty and his wife Michelle offered to come and get the cat and take him back to Doha with them. 

Since Donald Trump's visit to KSA a little over a year ago, followed closely by the Saudi and other GCC countries announcing a blockade of Qatar, there has been no direct contact between UAE and Doha, making it difficult and expensive for us to see our children and grandchildren there. Oman has profited from this state of affairs in the year since the blockade was imposed since anything going from UAE to Qatar has to include a detour through a neutral country such as Oman, Kuwait, or Ethiopia (take your pick). Qurum Vet Clinic in Muscat has been able to capitalize on this by expediting shipment of pets between the two countries. It's expensive, but Dusty and Michelle offered to pick up the tab from their end and in response to such a gesture of concern and affection for our cat Lars (a.k.a. Lardy Bardy or simply Puddy Tat) we reciprocated by having the cat vaccinated, taken by a vet in Al Ain to the UAE border and back for paperwork and health check prior to our driving him ourselves to over the same border after work on Thursday and into Oman, where we had to import him (2.5 hours at the border and 400 dirhams in fees) and then drive him to Muscat where Dusty and Michelle had taken an apartment and were waiting for us with our grandson Kai, whom we hadn't seen since last Christmas. We used used to see both our sons and both grandchildren often when Doha was just a 45 minute flight away from UAE airports.

The rest of the family were unable to make it on Saturday when I was finally able to go diving. Michelle was returning that afternoon to Doha with Kai and needed to be at the airport before my boat would return to base. Dusty would not have been able to do more than one dive since he was flying later that night, and he needed to help Michelle organize last minute documents for the cat and take here to the airport, and Bobbi opted to maximize her Bibi-time with Kai. So it was only me to pitch up at Global Scuba for the trip to the Aquarium and Guno's Trace, where I took the above videos.

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My reply: 

Vance Stevens It's a problem everywhere. We've been diving in this area for 30 years. Oman and UAE used to have truly remarkable corals last century, but construction on the coastlines and encroachment of fishermen even in protected areas, their decimation of shark populations, impact from shipping (bilge flotsam turns up on beaches) plus the impact of major storms and red tide (which in turn is a global warming issue) have all caused significant deterioration in what divers can still enjoy here.