Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sept 4 and 5 2009, logged dives 913-919 from Al Marsa LIVEABOARD dhow in Musandam

Photo credit: John Brodie

Sept 4, 2009 began the night before on the 3rd. We fought Ramadhan pre-iftar traffic getting out of Abu Dbabi just in time to make it to Dibba harbor after dark and slightly after 8. There, several hands helped us get our dive gear from the car to the Al Marsa dhow we would be living aboard the next few days We set sail not long after that and were soon enjoying a buffet dinner al fresco on the upper deck. Being Ramadhan we were not sure what beverages they would be serving aboard the dhow but we had brought a coolbox replete with our own. The 3.5 hour drive through Suweihan, plus the day’s work before that had exhausted us, so we were in bed early in our cabin, Bobbi and I squeezed onto a single bunk, lulled to sleep by the roll of the boat and the steady drone and vibration of the engines as we completed the 5 hour journey north. At 3 a.m. I awoke to notice that the roll and drone had stopped, but the hum of the a/c remained, and I easily feel back asleep.

We were up at 6:30 for coffee :-(instant) with the other dozen divers aboard, and at 7:00 we assembled for our briefing. We had sailed overnight to Sheesah Bay. A check on my gps showed we were just around the corner from White Rocks, out of sight past the headland we were about to dive. See:

This became our routine for Friday and Saturday, coffee at 6:30, briefing at 7:00, diving via short speedboat ride to the nearby first dive site, return to the dhow for breakfast on the top deck, relax until time for a noon dive, followed by lunch, more leisure and a 3:00 p.m. dive. On the Friday we also had a rest for an hour before the night dive, pre-dinner drinks, and dinner.

If you have to have a routine this will do! We paid for it of course, about $1000 for the two of us, Bobbi and I, two nights, 7 dives, 6 meals on a luxurious (remodeled in fiberglass but otherwise had the shape of an) Arabian dhow. Musandam is an incredibly scenic place with fijords lined with rock walls where you can see the exposed strata sheered into cliffs and turned at right angles on itself in upheavals over the millennia. The water there can be clear blue or, when the plague of red tide is present, murky and brown till the depth at which the tide stops.

The dives themselves were competently managed with regard to the dive leader Jay keeping people together and knowing the sites well enough to lead on them. He was also very good at spotting the small animals in sand and sea grasses, the scorpion fish and seahorses. But dive companies and dive leaders who work at them come and go frequently in the UAE, and Jay and his assistant, Phillipe (free lancing, working occasionally with Al Marsa and Divers Down) had perhaps not been in the area long enough to know that many sites, or they were being conservative with currents and avoided the more difficult sites. For example, at Sheesah Bay, they led two dives on the north and south headlands but didn’t take us on White Rocks offshore, though that rock stood mid-ocean just a few hundred meters off the headland and would likely attract interesting animals (and currents, but liveaboards tend to be patronized by experienced divers - see my logs from the only time I'd dived it before:

They bypassed some other good dive sites, like Mother of Mouse for example (Jay told me later it had been trashed by smugglers, who were using it as a base). The smugglers had weapons and sometimes harassed the dive boats, so Al Marsa went no further than Sheesah, and that’s a real shame, because the further north you go toward the Straits of Hormuz, the wilder the diving gets.

So we did two dives on headlands at Sheesah Bay and then headed for Ras Sirkan, but when we encountered red tide there, we continued south to Octopus Rock, which can easily be reached by speed boat on a day trip from Dibba. This is to say that whereas the liveaboard experience was thoroughly enjoyable, the ability to get into the north of Musandam to some very different and infrequently dived sites was capitalized on less than we'd hoped, so the diving was about the same as would have been possible on a speedboat day-trip from Dibba.

But still the diving was quite nice. And we did lots of it, 4 dives the first day including a night dive, and three dives the next. We were of course in great anticipation of our first dive of the series, up at 6:30 for coffee, finding ourselves at anchor in Sheesah Bay, and speedboat ready to take us around the southern point to Ras Khaysa, what a way to spend the morning!

Sept 4, Dive 913 - Ras Khaysa

The dive wasn’t all that interesting though, vis ok but not excellent, and not a lot there apart from some large honeycomb morays and the usual reef fishes. We hit a current that swept us pell mell across the rock face (perhaps one reason Jay wanted to avoid White Rocks later that day). One diver got forced by it into a corner with sharp rocks that bloodied his legs. The part of the dive where we were being barreled along was fun for Bobbi and I but things went by faster than we could absorb our surroundings. The turmoil of the current was perhaps why most divers ran out of air early and had to surface before the 50 min. dive time limit, and Nicki came up with cramping stomache, but Bobbi and I and a Malaysian lady who later told us to be sure and go to Perhentian Island and stay at Flora Bay, stayed down with Jay the full 50 minutes.

Sept 4, Dive 914 - Ras Ahrous

Back on board breakfast was served under the sun shade on the top deck, second dive scheduled for 11:00. That’s when I noticed from my GPS that White Rock was just around the corner, a km away, and I mentioned it to Jay, but he had already prepared a diagram for Ras Ahrous, the north headland of the bay, and besides he thought the currents would be strong at White Rock. So our second dive of the day was pretty much the same as the first. We saw an electric ray in the sand, and a couple of turtles. The reefs were pretty with soft blue corals and teeming with fishes, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Sept 4, Dive 915 - Octopus Rock

Lunch was served on the top deck while the boat steamed south to Ras Sarkan, midway between Shisha and Lima Rock. When we arrived at Ras Sirkan just in time for a 3 pm dive, it turned out to be covered with red tide, putting our leaders in a quandary, since that late in the day, options were limited. I suggested a site nearby I had dived with BSAC called Brenda’s Nipple (sorry, don’t know the story, but see the night dive at ;-),

There was red tide present there as well and by now we were heading for Octopus Rock. We arrived there before 4, found red tide there too, but with the sun nearing the ridge line of the mountains to the west, there was no choice but to dive it anyway. There was current here as well, Jay put us in the water in its lee and told us to hug the rock to “hide from the current.” All divers followed instructions and descended together and fortunately visibility turned out to be fairly clear just a few meters down.

Octopus Rock is usually a good dive (BSAC Divers used to call it ‘the Stack’). There are some resident sea horses, our goal for this dive, and Jay took us right to them, showing us two at 25 meters. We then negotiated the caverns playing carefully with the currents which are notorious around Octopus Rock. We had many photographers in our group, and divers with cameras were lagging behind Jay’s lead. Bobbi and I hesitated at one gulley and then another waiting for them to catch up, and the second time was awkward since there was stiff current there. Jay motioned us to head upcurrent to the left so we went on and left the group behind. Sometimes pulling ourselves along on the bottom, we found schools of fishes, blue triggers, big batfish, jacks, snappers, all milling about thick everywhere we looked as we finned hard into current and then headed parallel to it hoping to round the rock and be carried down the other side. It was here that in a place swarming with fish midwater we saw among them a free-swimming electric ray, looking a little out of place among the fishes, but no bigger or smaller than the others, and he was unconcerned when we chose him to follow.

We then rotated more with the current being careful not to be swept off the rock, which I turned toward to round it counter clockwise. We weren’t actually on Octopus Rock however, so as we came up the wall 50 minutes into our dive we ran out of rock at the top. It was at the right depth for a safety stop, so we clung there 3 minutes for our safety stop. I got out my submersible marker buoy but needed an extra hand, one to hold the bottom open, one to interject air by purge from my alternate air source (never again with the main one!) and a third hand to release the reel once the buoy became inflated enough to head smartly to the top. I needed a fourth hand to hold on to the rock in the meantime but Bobbi was helping with that by holding me in place. When our three minutes was up we had to let go and get carried with the current to ascend mid-water. At the surface we saw other divers nearby getting picked up in the speedboat, and Jay was already aboard with those who had run out of air first. They came over as soon as they could, all divers recovered.

Sept 4, Dive 916 - Ras Limah

Our three dives so far that day had all been to 27, 25 meters, but we had our night dive still to go, and back once more on the dhow had to wait an hour for the briefing. It was dusk when we all re-boarded the speedboat to be carried just a hundred meters away on Ras Limah to the drop in point for our night dive, the idea being to end up somewhere near the dhow. We descended in twilight and descended on top of a large honeycomb moray eel, then were soon scouring the bottom for whatever else might be living there. We saw a few more morays and again an electric ray, some parrot fish sleeping concealed in the rocks, but nothing really amazing (some people would find ANY of this amazing, I realize). There is one thing I always like to do on night dives -- Bobbi and I moved off from the others, and then we cut our lights and waved our arms and kicked our fins in the dark water, just to light up our limbs with sparkler phosphorescence.

To commemorate a great day. Bobbi and I showered and fixed ‘moonlighters’. We had missed our traditional ‘sundowners’ in order to be compos mentis for the night dive, but gin and whatever hit the spot with the full mid-Ramadhan moon rising over the cliff we were moored next to, the full moon just visible to us from the railing on which we leaned while sipping. Our dinner buffet was just a few steps away on the top deck. We had wine with that, and went early to bed. Others were feeling as comfortably tired as we were. This was not a late night party boat.

Sept 5, Dive 917 - Lima Rock South Side

The day dawned as the one previous, but the excitement today was in anticipation of seeing whale sharks. We had seen them on our past several dives on Lima Rock:

But we would be disappointed on this day. We blamed Nicki, who had chosen Bobbi and I as her preferred dive buddy for the day, and Nicki blamed Phillipe (got to blame SOMEone! :-)). Seriously, there simply weren’t any whale sharks around, because if they are there, being curious creatures, they come to the divers, and they often arrive at the start of the dive.

We were a bit deep for them, 25 meters or so, for much of the dive. I got to 30 at some point, thinking I had plenty of air, but breathed much of that when we mounted the wall and had to fight current to cut through to the north side of the rock. There were eagle rays there, some mid water, and two down in the sand at 20 meters. I went down to 15 meters to have a closer look despite being right at 50 bar at that point (and this is how I knew they were eagle rays, Jay insisted they were devil rays, I’m pretty sure I was right about these though, I clearly saw their pointed heads and the mottled coloring on their backs – something about the coloring of their heads can appear to be the silver processes of devil rays from a distance, as I had thought at first myself). After watching the rays swim around just off the sand bottom, I angled up and stayed high the rest of the dive, which we ended with a 3 meter safety stop starting 50 minutes into the dive, my needle hovering just off the red at 500 psi.

Bobbi wanted me to mention an interesting crustacean that Nicki found for us on this dive, a lobster out on walkabouts with no claws, a flat carapace at its head. It looked delicious but we all left it alone.

We returned to the dhow for breakfast, and the next dive was brought forward to 10 a.m. since most of us needed to get back to Abu Dhabi that evening (didn’t want to think of it!). At the briefing of our second dive, Jay brought out a diagram of Ras Limah, where we had done our night dive the evening before, but that wasn’t a popular choice, and I suggested Ras Morovi just to the north. On a clear day you can see it from Lima, but it was a destination that some weeks previously the boatman had refused to go to when we had been at Lima with Discover Nomad (too far, not included in the price, he had said, leaving us only Lima dive spots as options:

Today it was no problem, Jay agreed, and we headed there, ten minutes in the speedboat. Ras Morovi has an island to the east off the point with a channel between it and the mainland. Last time I dived there I went to the bay just inside the south headland and we worked our way out around the rocks to the west of the channel and found wonderful teddy bear coral and lots of fish on it. We had turned back from the channel due to currents and returned to the bay.

Sept 5, Dive 918 - Ras Morovi

Today Jay took us to the north side of the island and we started our dive in the channel heading south, diving its east side. The surface current was sweeping north but Jay expected it would diminish at depth and it did. It turned out to be our best dive of the weekend. There were schools of barracuda in the channel (see John's photo at the top of this post). We came on lion fish and scorpion fish and many morays, honeycomb, green, and grey. At one point Jay rounded a rock and startled 4 eagle rays who zoomed from their resting place in the reef out to sea. Jay had barely time to bang on his tank to attract my attention when zap, zap, zap, a delay, and then zap, one more, the big rays passed right in front of us and were gone in a matter of seconds. I was at Jay’s shoulder and Bobbi was right behind me, and of all the divers with us I think we were the only ones who saw them. Nicki, behind Bobbi and fulfilling photographer duties for us, didn’t see them and the rest of the group were behind her, too far back to see.

But Nicki’s powers of observation of smaller things enabled her to find a seahorse in the green whip coral just a little further ahead. Jay had gone left but I had continued straight to peer over a rock wall that plunged ten meters to the sand, hoping to see something big and interesting over the side, and so only those who followed us saw Nicki’s seahorse. No telling what we missed by not following Jay, he was also good at spotting things, but angling up the wall to begin our safety top at 5 meters we found morays and crayfish lobsters there. Nicki photographed one green moray in a broken bit of coral forming a shell, and she asked later if I’d seen the shrimp on it. I hadn’t so I hope she sends us a photo, and we thought this was a pretty good dive.

Picture credit: Nicki Blower

Sept 5, Dive 919- Lima Rock North Side

There was time for lunch, and an hour’s rest before our last dive at 2 pm. This time we would be diving the north side of Lima Rock. I always find this side a bit of a letdown. It’s shallower that the south side, where the boulders are more dramatic. I rarely see much of interest here, though I’ve seen rays this side and once or twice a whale shark (but half a dozen sightings on the south side). There’s always a chance of seeing a whale shark anywhere on Lima, but today it was not going to happen, and we had to be content our last dive with crayfish, lion fish, scorpion fish, and the usual schools of tropical reef fish. Except at the first of the dive Jay managed to find three or four seahorses. He knew where to look (in the sparce green whip corals in the sand at the north west corner at the start of our dive east). Apart from the two we’d seen on Octopus Rock the day before, I’d never before seen more than one on any single dive.

If you like diving and good company this is possibly the most enjoyable weekend available in the UAE. I suppose if I were leading the dives, I’d try and be more adventurous, like Mike Ralph used to be when he was leading dives in the area, but then again how Mike favored divers was not always in the best interests of his employers, except where they benefited from repeat satisfied customers (f there were spare tanks, he let us use them, no charge; he did the dives he himself liked to do, risky sometimes but everyone survived!).

Speaking of repeat, Bobbi and I will surely repeat this trip again, one of these days, when we feel we’ve earned a good pampering, in celebration of something, or when Nicki goads us into it again.

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