Monday, June 28, 2010

Rays at Lima with Discover Nomad June 25 and Freestyle diving June 26, 2010

My dives #994-996 Friday; Saturday #997-999
Diving with Nicki, standing in as dive mistress
Certified Marika Backman and Natalie Naysmith, open water, June 25, 2010
Jonny Ing did two advanced dives (underwater naturalist and peak buoyancy) June 25, 2010 and completed his advance course with a Deep Dive June 26, 2010

I got up before 5 in the morning in order to pick up Nicki and Marika and drive them across the UAE to the Discover Nomad dive center on the east coast, getting them there just before 9:30 in the morning.  A sixth diver in our group had canceled at the last minute, so when we arrived we discovered we had been given two other divers named Bijal and Mooyad (according to the list on the whiteboard) but they never turned up, so at 10:30 we were given permission to head to port.  Nomad were kind enough to assign us our own boat as usual, which is a great advantage in planning the best possible diving for your group.  We got on the boat, the amicable driver Hassan joined us, but we didn’t leave, waiting we were told, on two more.  Because we were just over the border in Oman our UAE phones didn’t work so I had to drive back to the dive center to ascertain that no more were coming and get them to communicate that to the handlers dockside so we could finally leave after 11:30.

My o/w students were a little anxious about the prospect of diving in the real ocean but when at 1:01 they were dropping into a sea of clear vis, with very little current, waters so tepid I was wearing only a .5 mm lycra, concerns vanished with the schools of batfish and fusiliers and jacks.  I quickly ran my students through their exercises (just orally inflate bdc, mask flood and clear) and we were off on a lovely dive.  Buoyancy was fine, air held out, we finned a little into the current at first, found the calm spot, moved into the side where the current started gently easing us toward the east corner, and turned around.

We caught up with the French pair with rebreathers doing their two-hour dive on the reef at that moment.  Because they dive for so long they take their time in the water.  They take photos and one of them likes to get himself positioned wedged into the coral, and since they dive that spot almost every week, I hate to think of the damage they would do if they rest on the coral often.

I was ahead of my divers.  Jonny had gone high, low on air.  Nicki was engaging Marika and Natalie in some form of display.  They were enjoying themselves, but whatever it was it was preventing me from getting their attention, because in the next valley down there were three eagle rays cavorting as they pleased.

The rays sort of split off as I approached them.  I asked Nicki later how many she had seen and she said two, so one had already split off and I was swimming after the other two when the ladies noticed what I was up to.  They were slightly different coloring, the dark spotted one was the same we had seen last week I think, as he didn’t mind my trailing not far above him until he headed out over the sand and then they were all gone.

We saw no whale sharks this day but we ended the dive in utter comfort, spending at least 5 minutes rising up through schools of fish, thoroughly enjoying the wildlife so much that I had the ladies remove and replace weights and bcds there so I would have an excuse to snorkel more at that spot.

We went over to the north side of the rock and had our lunch of dubious canned meat wraps.  Nicki scarfed down three of them and mentioned regrets later.  Nicki wanted to dive that side, I agreed, and the others didn’t mind.  We descended onto a large crayfish well exposed in an alcove, and I handed the ladies a pipefish to fondle.  We came upon a number of morays, a large honeycomb in a hole, a green one under a rock, and a yellowmouth grey one feinting fiercely from his habitat.  We had worked out on the tables that this dive could be 14 meters for 72 minutes or 16 for 51, and the rocks bottomed out in that range.

I was heading out alone over the sand sometimes, but keeping high off it looking for rays, always returning to the wall without seeing much more than sandy bottom.  However my last time out like that I found a school of devil rays.  The water here was brown and murky where the thermocline started, and the rays were concealed in it.  I called the others over and when my team joined me 7 devil rays passed in formation just below us, a lovely end to that dive.

Because they had thought more people were coming, at the docks they had given us plenty of tanks, and my group got me to ask the boatman if he would mind dropping us by Wonder Wall for a third dive.  Usually the boatmen complain about this, but I think it was my polite Arabic, Hassan agreed.  We liked him!

The dive on Wonder Wall was not all that great because it was late in the day and as it was our third dive, I'd calculated we could do ten to twelve meters for 40 minutes max.  Due to this limitation we couldn't explore the sand where we sometimes see rays, but we found small morays in the rocks, including a black and white banded one that Nicki got pictures of.  Three dives in one summer day, lovely conditions, we enjoyed the ride back in the warm breeze.

Next morning we were up early and across the border where I had arranged to take Jonny and Nicki on an Inchcape wreck dive using Freestyle Divers at Dibba Rock.  It was only the three of us on the boat, but there were two others at the Inchcape already when we arrived, so we took our time kitting up and managed to go down the rope to the wreck as the last of those divers were coming up.  It was Jonny’s advanced o/w dive at 30 meters so I had him do exercises on deck and then we dropped into the cargo hold and found one of the huge honeycomb morays there.  These ones had grown; the other one was in the sand trying to hide under the hull.  The wreck was thick with fish as usual, though we saw nothing else of unusual interest. We headed up the line at about 17 meters, Jonny having completed the diving portion of his advanced course.

Back at Freestyle we collected the ladies for their first dive as certified divers. Nicki had a headache and didn’t join us, and when she dropped out I was thinking that would relieve me of deciding whether to do the front or the back side.  Nicki likes to go out to the back, but if there’s a current sweeping across the back side it can be uncomfortable for beginners and I wanted to show them a good dive on the shallow reef.  The water was clear where we dropped in; however, there was silt on the reef, which was not looking all that healthy.  We got dropped in at the green buoy which means a long westerly swim to reach the reef, where we managed to find some barracuda.  I brought us to the north and then east off the reef to the aquarium.  Here there were pretty fish in the rust colored coral, and decent vis, but nothing to write home about, so I returned us to the east and back over what used to be raspberry coral but what was now becoming a little skeletal.  We found no sharks, no turtles, not even cuttlefish there.  It had started out looking like a good dive but ended in disappointingly hazy conditions on the main reef.

So it was not that interesting a dive for us, and imagine our surprise to find that all the other divers on our boat had gone to the front side and were raving about the whale shark they had seen there. Doh!

Natalie and Jonny were keen to head home after that dive, and Nicki wanted to join them.  Andrew told me they’d never seen the whale shark there on two subsequent dives, but Marika wanted to see if we could find it, so I agreed to stay for the three p.m. dive.  It was just Marika and I and two other young lady divers who had come down on an afternoon lark out of Dubai, plus their dive guide.  The guide was talking up the chance of seeing the whale shark, but to make a long story short, we didn’t see it or much else besides.  I hung out at 7 meters thinking if it did appear that’s where it would be, but I looked for rays and jawfish in the sand and morays in the rocks, and really found nothing.  And then when I got home at 10:00 I was up till 3 a.m. writing  At least the diving was pleasant; it’s always worth it, and you never know what you’ll see, or won’t see ;-)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

6 Whale Sharks on Al Marsa Liveaboard Diving June 18 and 19, 2010

My dives #987-990 Friday; Saturday #991-993
See Nicky's photos of this weekend here:
Thanks, Nicky, for permission to post some of these here:

Bobbi has been itching to go see number #2 son in Korea, but I persuaded her to stay one more weekend by bribing her with a liveaboard diving dhow sailing two nights off the mountainous coast of Musandam.  She came out to PI where I work at Thursday afternoon 4:00 p.m. and by 7:30 we were at the border post on the Dibba corniche showing photocopies of our passports to the guard on duty.  Our passports were at the Brazilian embassy, we explained, awaiting visa stamps.  The guard could have turned us back, but he waved us through, and not long after that we were on the top deck of the dhow, enjoying the wine we’d smuggled across and having dinner with our friends Nicky and Greg and Peter and Allistaire, and half a dozen others we’d get to know better over the next two days diving together at Lima Rock and points north.

The dhow headed up to Lima while we slept and 6 a.m. found us anchored at Ras Lima.  By 7:00 a.m. we were all in a speedboat heading for the island and half an hour after that we were descending on the south side, middle of the island.  Current was mild, all divers were experienced, and all went to depth at 20 meters or so pretty quickly.

Vis was decent. We came to a big boulder and everyone went left, between the boulder and the reef.  I went right toward deeper water and came upon a cow tail ray at 29 meters in the sand.  Bobbi followed me around the rock where on its far side we found a large honeycomb moray half exposed where the rock met the sand.  We continued up the reef and met the other divers just before the first whale shark appeared overhead. It was a baby (small for a whale shark, big by any other standard).  We saw it first by its familiar profile against the light at the surface but most of us were able to rise to its shallow depth in time to see it move slowly back the way we had come.  It didn’t seem to want to stay and play.  We saw why a few minutes later when its mother appeared, slowly finning after its calf.  These were whale sharks on a mission, with some place to be, cruising along Lima Rock.  But by now we had achieved the correct depth so we were able to swim nearer the second one.

If you can log in to Facebook, check out Allistair's video of this whale shark here:

When the third whale shark appeared I was at just the right place to swim right up next to it.  I didn’t touch it, but when it noticed me right at its shoulder it decided abruptly to make its exit. It bolted as if I’d touched it, almost swiping me with a last powerful flick of its tail. (I brief my divers now, do not touch the whale sharks – it looks like I’ll have to add to that, keep a 1 meter distance; any recommendations on that?).

This was one of the most incredible dives we had ever made at Lima Rock.  Three whale sharks, a turtle, lots of the usual batfish, and at the end of the dive, when we turned to fin back against the current, 8 devil rays appeared just below us swimming in formation across our path, and keeping just ahead of us as they relished whatever nutrients they were getting from the current.  For the record, our maximum depth was 29 meters and we were down for one hour. And that was all before breakfast.

We did two more dives that afternoon, not as excellent as the first of the day, which would have been hard to beat.  After breakfast the dhow motored up to Ras Sarkan at the southern opening to Khor Hablain.  We did a dive around the ras and had to fin through a stiff current at the sea-most point.  We saw a couple of cow-tail rays in the sand, and had the opportunity to swim alongside one, at a point where we also encountered a school of barracuda.  Bobbi and I traveled with the group until 41 minutes into the dive I saw Allistair get out his submersible marker buoy, and I signaled him we would continue. He nodded assent so we kept at it for the rest of 60 minutes, having gone 26 meters at our deepest.

From our lunchtime roost on the top deck of our dhow, we saw yet another whale shark checking out our speedboat, proof that it is possible to see one while diving at Ras Sarkan. Meanwhile the seas came up and the boatmen decided not to head back to Lima just then. We had been planning to dive Ras Morovi but due to the waves we headed over to the north of the mouth of Khor Hablain, Ras Dilla. We dived a site called Muqtah which we reached by speedboat from where the dhow was anchored near a salient rock formation on a north/south wall inside Hablain, where south looked directly to Ras Sarkan. The boat took us around the corner and dropped us where we rode the current west, turned the corner, and headed north back toward the dhow, which we almost reached. This particular spot on this day was not very attractive. There was a lot of brown algae in the water so everything looked like an old photograph.

Because of the current at the start of the dive, Bobbi and I elected to descend rather than wait at the surface for the others, so we dived on our own for over an hour. There were a lot of fish but nothing of much interest apart from a remora that wanted to attach itself first to Bobbi and then to me, and a large turtle that swam up the reef when we approached it. When I shined my light in a small alcove full of fish fry, the kind that are like a dust cloud, that baffle your depth perception until you are finally able to focus past them, I saw that there in the cave was a small black bull ray. He was not happy about being discovered and kept moving around in the cave and rippling his skirts at me. He was hard to see because of the cloud of fish fry.  Later in the dive as we were about to do our safety stop at 60 minutes, we came on a bunch of squid near the surface, the kind who are curious of divers, and dart about us trying to figure out what planet we were from (or at least what part of the planet as far as they knew it).

I’m writing this on the boat after that third dive.  The boat has just developed a problem.  The rudder appears to have fallen off.  They are trying to get it to Ras Samid, in the Khor between Hablain and Lima, by steering it by means of a rope attached to the speed boat while the dhow proceeds slowly on its own engine power.  The guests on board are hoping this won’t compromise their diving.  The seas appear to have laid down a bit, and it’s fairly smooth out here at sea.  And I’m still jet lagged and sleepy, coming down with a cold from the extreme air-conditioning aboard.  I’ve been sleepy all day.

We anchored at dusk and got in a night dive at Ras Samid.  Neither Nicky nor Bobbi wanted to go, so I got to buddy with our buff Philipino guide, Brian.  That was a treat since I was coming to respect his skills.  He spotted animals so frequently that I didn’t have to think about what to look at.  One of his first finds was a … a what, not a lizard fish, but a flat fish buried in the sand, looks ugly otherwise, like an alligator head.  He found a couple of neat crustaceans, one a particular kind of hermit crab that likes to construct a feathered living shell.  I was shining lights in crevices lighting up the glass shrimp behind the red glow eyes there, and in one lair I found a couple of forearm length crawfish, deliciously just out of reach behind a wall of sea urchins.  Brian saw an octopus, but I missed that.  We found a lot of morays and lion fish decorating the walls with fluttery spines, wine red in the bright lights.  The sea temperature was so pleasant that after 45 minutes we didn’t want to stop the dive so much as get back on the boat and go after the food and drink.

In the morning we awoke surrounded by dhows.  Two had made the trip overnight to rescue our crippled one.  They were tied alongside when we reported above decks at 6 a.m. for coffee and briefing.  The plan was to go on our dive at 7 as usual but as we hadn’t made it back to Lima the day before we would do the first dive at Octopus Rock just south from where we were, current permitting.  Then we’d have breakfast and transfer our stuff to the blue dhow and proceed from there to Ras Lima and dive Lima Rock the second dive of the afternoon.  The third dive would be played by ear.

First order of business was the first dive, so we were all soon in the speedboat and heading out across the slight chop to the little pimple of a rock we used to call “The Stack” but the new generation of dives calls Octopus Rock.  People entered the water in good order and stayed near the rock despite a southerly current, which we realized was going to challenge us as we descended.  I have to admit, despite having dived here a dozen times, I don’t really know this site.  It’s got a couple of undersea hills to the east of the exposed rock, but I’ve never had a gentle day there where I could wander at leisure and figure out where they were.  Fortunately, our guide Brian knew the area well, and how to negotiate the currents.  He popped us right away into the green whip corals at 29 meters and Nicky had in no time found two large seahorses, top and bottom in the grasses in Yin and Yang position.  Right around the corner there was an interesting crustacean like a clawless lobster that I thought might be a vacant shell but when I swished it, it backed off. Brian led us from one outcrop to another, sometimes directly into a stiff current that sucked our breath away.  At one point we came on an eagle ray and startled it so, it took off straight up, bumping into Allistair in flight.  It rose like a rocket ten meters and leveled off overhead, leaving us just a glimpse of its diamond-shaped long-tailed profile.  In the valleys we found a few big barracudas, and morays in the pinnacles.  Somehow back at the rock after hopping from one outcrop to another, Brian signaled safety stop 41 minutes into the dive.  We clung to the coral for a last three minutes and the surfaced pretty worn out already after our first dive of the day.

We had our breakfast and then shifted all our stuff to the blue dhow for the slow trip back home.  This dhow took us to Ras Lima and moored in the shelter there, leaving the third dhow to tow our rudderless one back to Dibba without us.

The next dive was at Lima Rock.  Vis was excellent here down to 15 meters or so, where there was a chilly and murky thermocline.  Brian put in at the middle and told us the current was moving west but when we started that way it was into the slight easterly current.  I stayed above the pack because I’d been relegated to a 12 liter tank. They hadn’t filled the 15 liter monster I’d been diving from up to then due to their preparations for the move to the working dhow.  This was not of great importance for my diving except with the 20% advantage in air I’d been pushing the depths and staying underwater for an hour each dive.  This dive I didn’t see the need to go deep, if there was anything at 25 meters they’d call me, so I cruised along at 16 or so.  My priority was time in the water, not depth.

This put me in great position, when the first whale shark was spotted, for me to swim over to it, since it was at about my level and moving at a leisurely pace. Most of the other divers were at depth. I don’t think anyone else came up to the whale shark.  I followed it glancing back to where I’d now lost sight of the other divers though I could still see their bubble streams.  They were below the thermocline, and the whale shark was above it in clear water.  After a minute or so the whale shark went into the thermocline and wasn’t so easy to see, so I returned to where the other divers were.  Bobbi was easy to spot, good buddy that she is, she was the one looking around for me.  I’d forgot to mention to her that I was heading the opposite way for a few minutes, but did I mention the whale shark??

The next thing to happen along was a devil ray, cruising with the current at about 25 meters.  By now we’d passed the point where the current split heading to each corner of the rock and we were now being carried slightly with the current in the direction of Lima headland.  The effect of the current was getting more pronounced.  I wasn’t leading the dive so I guessed that Brian intended to let us be committed to the current, which would take us to the Lima end of the island (west) and we would then go around to the north side of the rock.  Brian let me speculate to myself on his intentions for about 5 minutes, when he cocked his thumb back the way we had come in a signal to reverse out of there.  The current had by now got stiff so it was hard work powering against it, but I went at it, checking back now and then to see that the others were keeping up.  I knew the current would lessen shortly, and when we reached the middle of the island then we’d be in the current going our way that we’d finned against at the beginning of the dive.

Bobbi stayed with me but I have no idea what happened to the others.  They didn’t follow us, must have seen another whale shark. Meanwhile, Bobbi and I found ourselves in a world of batfish, 12 meters depth, visibility clear as a swimming pool, a very beautiful part of the dive.  The bat fish are engaging creatures.  They get big, school in groups resembling schooners, like to come close to divers, like to hang out at cleaning stations and get serviced by blue wrasse.  They vacated the cleaning stations when we came on them leaving us in clouds of wriggling blue triggerfish.

Below we noticed a spotted eagle ray.  Normally skittish, the ray didn’t notice us, and we were able to descend on it, 16 meters or so.  It never fled, just headed out over the sand.

We were coming to the end of the dive, being carried now by the easterly current.  I signaled that we should move up to safety stop depth – 5 meters - and I noticed also that we were coming up to the wall around which I know the current really picks up.  At first I thought we should avoid that but the current was now too strong to fin against.  Best thing then was to prepare for it.  I sent my marker buoy up and as we rounded the corner had to tug it a couple of times to free where it wanted to snag on outcrops.  It was a good thing I was watching for that, I was able to jerk it free twice by catching it in time.  Now Bobbi and I were caught in the rapids being carried along at 5 meters depth and counting down three minutes for our safety stop.

Just ahead of us at the end of the island was another whale shark, keeping itself pointed into the current, positioned to take advantage of it by extracting whatever morsels that the current brought it.  We let ourselves be swept right past it.  What a safety stop! Nice dive, Lima does it again!

There were some choices for our last dive. Ras Morovi and Wonderwall were two good sites just north and south of where the dhow was anchored in Lima headland.  However these were not convenient to our hosts.  Seas had not been exactly flat as we motored back from Lima island to the headland, and we were told it wouldn’t suit the dhow to take it to the south facing Wonder Wall, where it would be more exposed to open sea.  If I’d been running the show I’d have either sent the speedboat there or at least back across the protected stretch to Ras Morovi where people always seem to enjoy their dive.  But it was decided we’d just dive where we were, off Lima headland, which has some nice boulder formations going down to 20 meters and on a clear day, colorful fish within, and sometimes some barracuda off the point. But this was not a clear day.  It was in fact a brown algae day, murky, everything a shade of brown. Some on the boat said afterwards that the dive was boring.

However, Bobbi and I got lucky.  Since the boulders were cloaked in brown I decided to head over the sand in search of sting rays and we were soon off on our own. I was checking out all the deeper clumps of rock, coral, and grasses at 20 meters deep, well off the wall, and here it was that I lucked into a resting leopard shark.  What a nice find, I hadn’t seen one of those in a long time.  Bobbi and I watched it from a distance when Greg Golden and his buddy Johan appeared, and I conducted them to where the shark lay.  Bobbi had just found a knife in the sand and I was using this to bang on tanks to attract the others, but none from the main group came. Meanwhile we were drifting nearer and nearer the leopard shark and finally, as leopard sharks do, this one became mildly annoyed at having its nap disturbed and lifted off the sand, did a small circle and came back to rest exactly where he’d been a moment before. That happened to be where we were by then on top of him, so he repeated the maneuver, this time gliding gently right at us, around us, between us, circling us, coming close enough to where we could pet him. He didn’t react adversely to that, but eventually he ended up in a different spot a few meters away from the first. We could have played with him like that for some time, not much else to do on that dive, but we didn’t want to intrude, so we moved on our way and left him in peace. Leopard sharks have mild personalities, but this was one of the most docile and playful leopard sharks I’ve met yet.

Thanks again, Nix, for the use of your photos :-)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

June 5, 2010 - Certified Elizabeth O/W at Bateen Breakwater off Abu Dhabi

My logged dives #985-986

Cyclone Phet had been churning through Oman and its tail had brought the surf up along the coast of Musandam, but Abu Dhabi was little affected apart from wind, which by Saturday had largely passed. So I engaged Allistair and his Al Mahara boat to take us from Bateen Harbor to the breakwater where conditions allowed us to dive the Bateen Box on one dive and around the corner on another.

The breakwater was pleasant with excellent vis and warm temperatures 31 degrees. We were diving in 6 to 8 meters, 45 minutes each time. Allistair had a student Merwan and I was conducting Elizabeth's last two dives for her course, and Marika and Natalie's very first open dives. We had spent much of Friday in the pool where Natalie had breezed through the first three modules of the course. Her boyfriend Jonny was with us, doing his advanced boat and navigation dives.

The batfish entertained us as we cruised through the exercises that can so well be done in shallow relatively calm conditions. There was not much to write home about, but the day went successfully. Elizabeth qualified with honors and the others made progress in their training.

And did I mention the watermellon?!! This seems to be a steady feature on Al Mahara dive cruises, and a delicious tonic to counteract the effects of inhaling salt and dry air for 45 min underwater, and the munchies after diving, very considerate of the Russells to have on board!

Afterwards I left Allistair to tend to his boat engines and raced home for a quick shower and then to a villa nearby where Rachel and her friends were putting on a string quartet for us in the true tradition of chamber music (ca va dire, dans une chambre). Between the diving and the wine, Bobbi and I found ourselves in bed not long after sundown and now I'm writing this in the early hours of the morning.