Sunday, December 11, 2011

Certified Tim and Laura Charge with Nomad Ocean Adventure December 8 thru 10, 2011

My logged dives #1101-1104

We had another lovely weekend in the company of our friends at Nomad Ocean Adventure this weekend. The occasion was the training of Laura and Tim Charge, recommended to me by Graham Mullen through the grapevine at the British Embassy. Laura and Tim agreed to do the elearning online and meet me at NOA on Thursday. Bobbi and I managed to get there by around 7:30 pm even though I had to go back to town and pick up my passport (new 3-year UAE visa!) and Bobbi who was able to get off work before 4 pm. We had to leave Nicki behind though, we would have arrived in Dibba too late for pool training, but she came up with Andy the next morning.

Laura and Tim had completed their test and form filling by the time I got there, so we were able to get confined water dive #1 done in the NOA pool Thu evening, before sitting down to a delicious meal of Mauritian cuisine. A winter chill has touched the evenings and mornings in the UAE and we had to get up at 7 am to do modules 2 and 3 in the icy pool, so we were tired before getting down to the harbor and motoring out to the dive sites mid-Musandam.

December 9 we went to Lima Rock and Ras Lima with Theo in charge. Vis was poor in both places. At Lima Rock we got our team into the water for what was actually my students' second time ever on Scuba since they had done a discover scuba course previously in Malaysia. Still they were well aware of their limitations. Plus to counter the cold 17 degrees in the pool and 24 degrees in the ocean, Laura and Bobbi and I all had 5 mm wetsuits which are like balloons in shallow depth, requiring more than the usual degree of buoyancy control, so the new divers were going up and down between our max depth at 16 meters and the surface whenever I led the dive shallow. Still we saw batfish being cleaned by blue wrasse, a copious variety of trigger fish, morays, and many more of the usual fish suspects. It was not an exciting dive for Bobbi and Nicki and I but Laura and Tim seemed to enjoy it. Their air lasted not bad for new divers, around 42 minutes, and when I took them up to the boat, Bobbi and Nicki waited for me below, since we three still had 100 bar. As I was delivering my student divers back onto the boat at the surface Theo warned me about a down current to the west of Lima Rock, the direction we were headed, and when I submerged I found Nicki and Bobbi not below me where I had left them but at the edge of my vis in that westerly direction. I was able to call them over and get them headed back to the east, the way we had come. Thus we dived another quarter hour without incident, apart from Nicki finding a nudibranch on a rock that I wouldn't have seen had I looked straight at it for 5 min, but she's good at spotting small stuff in busy backgrounds. Back on the surface, we heard tales of divers who had been swept deep by that swift westward down current, so lucky we turned back.

We motored over to Ras Lima for the surface interval and had lunch moving in and out of sunshine as the boat drifted into the shadow of the headland, and divers complained of cold and the boatmen moved out into the sun again. We did our dive from where we were on the headland. Bobbi and Nicki went on together and I took Laura and Tim to do some surface interval skills but conditions weren't right, there were stingers in the water, and we didn't accomplish them at the beginning of the dive. So we went underwater and did the dive #2 skill set, and then dived in shadow and through algae bloom in kind of dreary conditions, limiting ourselves to 14 meters. We had another 45 minute dive, relaxing, and with much better buoyancy control from Tim and Laura. When we surfaced the boat was nowhere to be seen. Conditions were better though, so we completed our surface skills there.

The boat ride home was cold so when we arrived back at our accommodation we just wanted hot showers and cold drinks, and then another great meal at NOA. There was a french group there who had been diving all week from Chris's place, showing slides each evening of what they had seen that day, and today one of them had promised photos of a 'petit poisson' which turned out to be a whale shark that just two of them had seen and photographed that day at Octopus Rock (not a good place to take beginners unfortunately).

The next morning we started again at 7 am, a lie in for Bobbi and I these days, with Laura and Tim doing much better in the pool than previously, completing the last two modules well before 10 am. An hour and a half later (after Pascal showed us where they hide the espresso machine at NOA) we were motoring off toward Lima Rock on an exceptionally lovely morning. Aliona was in charge of the diving for the day. The sea was calm and glassy, and we could see Lima Rock from just out of Dibba, the sky was so clear. Usually it's too hazy to see it before we reach Fishhead Rock.

We weren't actually going to Lima Rock through. We had mostly students and novices on board so we agreed to start in the protected bay on Ras Morovi. Aliona was proposing to lead the advanced divers out to a place where barracudas are almost always seen. I didn't know that spot and offered to take my students there by following Aliona as far as 18 meters. Most of the divers wanted to do something similar so they all went in the water together. Nicki and Bobb were in that group but delayed descent waiting for Tim and Laura and I, who were last in the water. When we were in position at the surface they had all gone down and we were set to follow, but we had adjusted weights in the pool that morning and despite best guesses for needs for an ocean dive. Laura was underweighted, and since the boat was right there and we hadn't descended yet, I surfaced and got 4 more kilos from the boat, stuck 3 in my pocket weight belt, and gave one to Laura, which made her descend perfaectly, but by then the divers had all gone. So we set out on our own dive.

It was a nice one and the best of the course. The coral at that spot is lovely, green whips, cabbage coral, purple soft corals, green tree coral, and coral boulders, all swarming with fish, triggers, big pufferes, surgeon tangs. I led into the sand looking for rays but turned back when we reached 18 meters. We continued a very pleasant dive, rounding the far underwater mountain, heading back to the north, and encountered Nicki, Bobbi, and Pascal, who were chasing a moses sole (flounder). I noticed then that my divers had gone down to nearly 50 bar, so I conducted them up the reef into the cabbage coral patch, sometimes a good place to see turtles. They controlled buoyancy sufficiently to make a safety stop there, and then I had them ascend on alternate air source. Their dive time was 31 minutes, 34 with the safety stop.

I still had 100 bar so I went back down to look for Bobbi and Nicki. On this foray I saw a turtle, and after I'd caught up with Nicki and Pascall, I spotted a scorpion fish hidden in the coral. Pascal photographed it and we all got a very close look..

Back on the boat, we had lunch against a setting of karst rocks rising from placid water, skies of blue, and warm sunshine to counter the chilly breezes. Winters in UAE can be quite pleasant.

We planned a last dive at Ras Sanut (Wonderwall) utilizing Nicki as divemaster. Nicki would go in first with her reel and set me up a line for CESA. Bobbi joined her at the surface and the students and I followed. I left Tim to do cramp removal, and weight and BCD replacement at the surface with Nicki while I took Laura down for her CESA. She was having ear problems and breathed on the ascent as often it happens that students need to repeat the exercise. She didn't want to do it right away because she seemed slightly overweighted. She was on her third BCD from NOA. All of them leaked and this one didn't support her properly at the surface, which contributed to her distress. So she gave her weight belt to Nicki to remove a weight while I took Tim down.

It wasn't that nice a dive actually. The algae was blocking out most of the light and there wasn't anything interesting to see apart from a moray eel. My students completed all their skills for dive number 4, Laura led us in a compass heading over the sand and back, and we carried on for half an hour underwater before people got cold and tired. When we surfaced we found we were last on the boat, so it was time to motor home to port, and from there drive 4 hours to reach our flat in Abu Dhabi, have dinner, and get 5 hours of solid sleep before crawling out of bed at 5 in the morning and head for work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Andaman Islands via DiveIndia from Havelock, November 5-10, 2011

My logged dives #1088-1100

Eid Al Adha was fast approaching. Nicki was going to the Andaman Islands and had booked her trip long ago and sent Bobbi and I her details, but there was nagging uncertainty over whether and when I'd be employed (interview Sept 11), and once employed (not until Oct 16, at which time I needed to apply for a UAE visa sponsored by HCT, my new employer), when my vacation would be, and whether we'd have passports back in time to travel at that time. As that seemed increasingly unlikely before the Eid, our passports were simply returned to us without UAE visas, and some Eid trip was now  required for us to renew our tourist visas to UAE. We were told to present our passports for residence visas after the holiday and it was touch and go then whether the Indian embassy could issue their visas in time for us to go there.

Meanwhile we had booked flights and committed money to the trip in the form of a non-refundable down payment to DiveIndia, the outfit that would organize our diving It was incredibly reasonable, and we could probably have even done it cheaper, but Nicki had organized a package for about $100 a night per person, and this included airport to airport transfers, which meant we got ourselves by plane to Port Blair, and the dive center would pick us up there and get us to the port for the 2 hour ferry ride to Havelock, then pick us up there and take us the few km to the resort, and reverse the process in a week's time. Plus they would take us on two dives each day we were there, plus a night dive, plus let us eat three meals a day at will from the incredibly varied menu at their island-reknowned Half Moon Cafe, plus sleep on a nice double bed in a luxury tent with attached bath and electrical lights and extension cords. What more could you want? (short of Internet - there were some satellite dish possibilities just off the beach we were on, but they cost 5 rupees a minute, almost $10 an hour; I ended up checking my mail, occasionally, at the "Activity Center" store in town over a dialup for 2 rupees a minute)

We arrived at this laid back place after an all-night flight and a 2-hour ferry ride on the evening of Nov 4 and were shown our accommodation, a very comfortable tent with mosquito netted windows and door, plus a net for the bed which we never needed. With the fan there it made a pleasant place to sleep, open through window flaps to the night breezes out of doors. Temperatures there were ideal. We could wear tee shirts day and night, maybe long sleeves at sundown when the mosquitoes might nip, though they were never a nuisance. Even the water temperatures were a pleasant 28-29 degrees Celsius. I wore a 3 mm suit when diving but others wore less. No one complained of cold (and diving related, I discovered that I was fine with 3 kg weight wearing nothing but my 3 mm wetsuit).

One of the great perks of Vinnie's Cabanas was the open air Half Moon Cafe there. Divers on the package could have three meals a day of whatever they liked from the menu. There were traveler's, American and Indian breakfasts. My companions favored the lemon and honey or Nutella pancakes, easily carried onto a dive boat in case of hurry, but I settled after a while on just a bowl of fruit, since there were always samosas on the dive boat for after the first dive. The boat would get back from the morning's dives around 2 pm and there was nothing to do then but shower and order lunch. The choices were phenomenal: succulent curries and tikkas of fish or chicken, kabobs in various marinades, veggie dishes to die for like capsicum in roasted eggplant, aubergine and yogurt salad. We ordered lots of foods we'd never heard of just to try them, and we were never disappointed. We munched it down with garlic nan or coriander parota, washed down with fresh lemon or fruit juice with ginger and honey. Vinnie's was unlicensed (served no alchohol), which was probably a good thing.  The tables outside under the palms seemed appealing at first until we noticed that coconuts would sometimes land with a thud nearby, and also the flies were considerably diminished when we stuck to the tables indoors.

This would carry us through to almost sundown, which came early in the islands, around 5 pm. By that time we might have made our way to a beach, or into town to the friendly, active market, or to a bar for sundowners. Nicki, Andy, and Bobbi and I would generally hang out socially till we were bloated on frothy liquids and could think of nothing better to do than go back to the Half Moon Cafe where we could order dishes we hadn't tried yet from the menu, of something one of us had tried earlier that day and swore to the others it was not to be missed. We were never actually hungry before dinner but we ate as connoisseurs and because it was 'included' and always with an eye on the clock, so we could be early to bed, because mornings started early.

Vinnie's compound was dead quiet at night until things would get started at 6 a.m., maybe a dog bark, or tanks banging at the dive center. This was not a place for late sleepers, but perfect for divers! We'd get up eventually and go order breakfast, then go to the dive center to organize our kit. It was always organized for us. They took better care of our gear than we did! Our BCDs and regs always ended up on tanks already on the boat and at around 7:30 we'd just carry our other stuff out to the boats wallowing off the sandy beach, climb aboard, and be transported through the channels to wherever we were diving that day. The islands are forested with low hills, so the trips were always scenic.

There is a downside to diving anywhere this day and age. Reefs worldwide are deteriorating. The Andamans is not exempt. Probably the best days of diving here have passed already. The dive guides speak of the old days when mantas were seen on every dive and the coral was colorful everywhere, before tsunamis and corals bleaching, so that the number of viable sites has diminished to just a handful within an hour or two of Havelock. It's that way around the world. If you can find a site with thriving corals and lots of sharks, the surest sign of a healthy reef, go there. Fast. (And leave a comment about it in my blog please, so we can go there too :-)

This is not to say we were disappointed. November 5, 2011, our first day of diving, was a mind boggler. We arrived on a day of clear vis and were taken to one of the best sites, Dixon Pinnacle. Dixon, Jackson, and Johnny are three dive leaders who pioneered the modern era of diving here and whose names are attached to three of the best dive site in the area. They all worked for DiveIndia, and Johnny Poayasay was to be our dive leader throughout our stay.

The routine was the same for almost every dive. We rolled off the water from the local sampan-style boat with a solid wood prow, essential for protection from scrapes on shallow reefs. We grabbed the tag line to keep from being shot downcurrent and hauled ourselves to the mooring line. Usually, there were mooring lines with plastic water bottles tied to them to make them visible. The islands are on a campaign against plastic water bottles, mainly encouraging their recycling through being refilled with filtered water, but this was an obviously appropriate use for them. Once we were all in the vicinity of the line, we started our descent, pulling ourselves down a rope sloped 30 degrees in the prevailing currents, and toward the bottom the current became less pronounced below 18-20 meters, and we finned toward the reef, whose sand bottom was usually between 25 and 30 meters.

Dixon Pinnacle was beautiful in the clear visibility, reminiscent of Egypt or diving in the Caribbean in the 1970s. The coral was colorful and varied, and the fish life abundant. Schools of fish were all about, and little mantis shrimps and nudibranchs and other small creatures could be found in the rocky substrate. Tiny crabs were living in the anemones, much less obvious than the clownfish always present there. Cleaner shrimp and tiny wrasse flitted about the mouths of moray eels. There were all kinds of trigger fish there, blue ones, fanciful clown triggers, and the hulking titans. On our second dive there, we saw a pair of eagle rays and in the same tableau, our first glimpse of napoleon humphead wrasse, which we saw on almost every dive in the area thereafter:

We didn't mind at all doing a second dive on that spot. The top of the reef was at about 16 meters but the real show, the thing that made this such an eye-opening introduction to Andaman diving, was in the open water between the reef heads. Here we could swim through huge schools of barracuda and then make our way over to clouds of batfish. Between the large relatively stably drifting schools, dog tooth tunas and giant trevally roamed. The trevally were particularly interesting, large, easily a meter long, dozens of them, swimming right up to us. In clear water, where we could see the different schools of fish as part of a larger complexity, this was the most fascinating part of the dive. And these fish were present midwater on almost all our dives near Havelock, which contributed to making this always an interesting place to dive.

We revisited Dixon a few days later and found a completely different scene. By now a red tide had drifted through obscuring the large schools, if they were still there. The current kept us closer to the reef and allowed us only north – south compass swims to find the bommies. On the second dive we saw a large green turtle at the top of the reef, and a number of humphead wrasse, but perhaps we'd seen too many pelagics by then to fully appreciate them our second time. So Dixon turned out to be almost our best but also our most disappointing dive of the trip.

After coming up from our second dive we settled in for the long ride home. Sometimes there was a fine spray that would blow in off the bow and disturb our sleep but normally the trip back took over an hour and we four would usually use the time for napping. Even our valiant dive guide Johnny would sometimes succumb to the call.

We would then collect our kit in the burlap bags they gave us and wade in from the boat up the beach and wash it in the fresh water barrels, hang it out to dry, and then forget about it till next day when we would find our kit all dried and back in its bag. The staff there had remarkable memories of who belonged to what.

The restaurant was a stone's throw from the dive-shop area and it was best to walk over there and order before making the equally short walk to our lanais, unzip the mosquito flap, and wash the salt off in the shower mandi in the back. Then it was back to the restaurant, refreshed and chuffed from the morning dive, to join Andy and Nicki for a prolonged lunch, a journey of culinary fantasy through the various provinces of India, with succulent chicken and fish tandooris and kabobs, which would again take us almost to sundown, and the cycle repeated itself day after day for a week. Not all that stressful, really.

On November 6, our diving day two, the cycle repeated itself more or less, getting up at 6:30 to double-check our gear and have breakfast from 7 a.m., with 7:30 departure in the slow boat with blue canvas shade for tag line descent into two dives on Johnny Gorge, not all that different from Dixon, except that the coral was not as colorful and there was a red mist obscuring the shapes that were just on the edge of where we could see that Johnny knew there were sharks. I was a bit disappointed after the first dive when I only saw a couple of these ghost shapes, but I was first down on the second dive, the visibility had improved, and as I hauled down level with the top of the reef I saw a white-tip move over it and off to one side. I tried to follow where it had gone and somehow missed that it had returned and was passing just beneath me, but I soon got the picture when my dive buddies were all pointing at it, just below me and clearly visible.

We saw more white-tips there. Johnny was able to spot sharks quite well, even when they were obscure slivers of silhouettes resting on the bottom as seen from 15 meters above them. There was much to see on these dives on the reef and midwater, the big and small animals that were characteristic of the area. I managed to find where DiveIndia and others have posted some videos of some of their dive sites on YouTube; e.g. this one:

The following day, November 7, was again quite remarkable. We did our first dive on Jackson Reef , a similar spot to the others, but also home to dozens of blue spotted rays I've seen this kind often before, they are not the most attractive of rays, but they were a great surprise in just their sheer numbers. Often we would be looking at one when another nearer one would bolt because we were swimming over it unawares. The visibility here was again not bad, and we finished the dive in the company of couple of large humpheads before ascending slowly amid the trevally and barracuda.

We moved the boat to the second dive site of the day, called Broken Ridge. Today the sea was like glass and we could see there were dolphins in the area. Nicki decided to enter the water to snorkel down her surface interval, and when Johnny entered, Bobbi and I joined him. The water temperatures were comfortably tepid, so snorkeling there was delightfully pleasant. We kept moving toward the dolphins, and then suddenly they were swimming below us, 4 of them, moving swiftly side by side. We kept above them and they didn't seem to mind us until they wanted to surface, and then they looked at us in some confusion, as they started their ascent, noticed us, and then swam off together looking for an escape to somewhere we weren't.

That was exciting but it got better as we began our dive. Coming down the rope we saw they were still there. One went upright on its tail and pirouetted in midwater. Another danced nearer the surface and checked us out in the depths below in reverse of the position we'd all been in when it was we observing from the surface. And then they disappeared and let us get on with out dive, which proceeded pretty much like the others, a litany of creatures large and small, then ascend, ride home, long lunch, and enjoying some cold ones before yet another fine meal at the Half Moon Cafe, the place where when you die that's where you want to spend eternity in heaven.

The next day, November 8, was the day of our return to Dixon reef, which we found less attractive than on our first day. But our evening routine was broken after lunch with a night dive. We were having lunch from around 2 to 4, and the night dive was a perfectly timed 4:30, and just steps away to the dive center to get our gear, not quite dry from morning, then back out on the boat and moving toward the Wall just off the ferry harbor as the sunset to the west was turning the clouds orange and purple.

The night dive was relatively devoid of fish life, except when we came on sleeping puffers, a large scorpion fish that refused to acknowledge our lights, and at one point, a sleeping Napoleon wrasse lodged in a rocky niche. But the macro life was thriving there. When I shined my light in rocks I might see glowing eyes and find the body behind, and there were lots of tiny shrimp, and miniature crabs in the coral fans, and little legs crawling on coral stems, all somehow more evident when attention is focused on a light beam. Also, it was easier in lamplight to see the tiny seahorse faces on the pipefish, the size and thickness of a needle. We had seen pipefish already on our dives, as they freeze in position and then move abruptly, so it's hard to get close enough to make out their features. One of the more interesting finds was a pair of dimsum nudibranchs that Nicki somehow distinguished from other blobs on the reef. They were orange and glutenous, looking almost exactly like a pair of dimsums with the feather-like processes characteristic of nudibranchs.

On November 9, our next to last day diving, we were grouped with other divers we had met at their table at the restaurant and put on a speedboat for sites that would have taken 2 hours in the putt putt local boats. Our first dive was on White House Rock, a small table rising up from the ocean floor. Our group I suppose was considered the most experienced, or at least the most efficient, and we were pretty much ready to jump when we arrived at the spot and were given permission to enter the water first. So it proceeded pretty much like all our other dives, the 4 of us pulling down a mooring line against a current, all the usual fish making the reef interesting, but vis not ideal, with haze starting at around 20 meters, plus a cool thermocline sapping our enthusiasm for diving deeper, so we essentially circled the rock. Johnny called our attention to the black corals there, which ironically appeared as white feathers reaching out from the rock. There were also some nice gorgonion corals here, and some of the corals were crawling with purple worms with crowned heads which they waved in the current whenever they lifted them off the rock.

We found 2 octopuses on this dive. The first had gone in a hole when I got to him. I shined my light in on him to find two eyes or blowholes blinking back at me from a body crimson in the light. We thought this one would stay where he was for a while so we left him, but we found the second one sitting exposed against a rock, looking like a grey blob that shimmered translucent whenever we hovered too near. Octopuses are amazing creatures. They can look like silly putty but suddenly stretch and look like an entirely different animal when they decide to move, as this one did, to reach the safety of a rock, where again, he took on a different form still while Nicki poked her camera at him, and at one point, she says, he reached out and poked back.

Having a light is handy. When we saw white antenae protruding from under a rock I was able to shine my light in and find not one but three huge crayfish hiding there, and illuminate them as they tried to crowd deeper in their hole.

The second dive on the nearby Inchkett Wreck was even more interesting for all of the small animals that inhabited it. This was a Japanese freighter that had come to grief and strewn a cargo of coal over the surrounding seabed. Johnny said that it had been upright before the tsunami but now it was lying on its side, more shattered than before. Still it was a substantial pile of rubble that started with a hunk of metal just meters from where we went in off the boat. Hanging on the mooring line, on snorkel preparing to descend, I saw a pair of white antennae protruding from the shallow top of the wreck, and on descent examined further to find these attached to a blue crayfish ensconced in a chink in the encrusted metal.

Exploring the superstructure, we circled the wreck in the sand and found an interesting crocodile fish there. There were tableaux of lion fish in the metal, and again using my light in the dark places, I found a huge hulking fish under the stern hull, at least a meter long and half as bulky. We couldn't identify it but it had a jutting lower jaw with prominent teeth, and it seemed dark purple in my torch beam. There were various nudibranchs and one niche was hopping with at least 3 different types of crustaceans: small grasshopper shrimp, a more elegant leggy daddy longlegs one, and some of the finely picturesque red and white striped crabs. A salient feature of this wreck were its propellers, impressive indications of what must have been the size of the ship itself to require that sized propeller. 

Back aboard the boat a couple of the ladies were talking about how they had seen a manta, or maybe it was a devil ray, they weren't sure. The dive guides were saying that mantas were never found there, and if you're not sure, it's not a manta, then. You have to see one to understand that.

November 10, 2011, our last day of diving, dawned cool and overcast. We had our breakfast and set out under grey skies, just the four of us again on one boat: Nicki, Andy, Bobbi, and I with Johnny our gentle dive guide. We were heading for Johnny's Gorge where we'd seen sharks on a previous dive, and then planning to move over to Broken Ridge where we'd seen dolphins a few days back. We were expecting nothing special, though each day so far had presented something new. Johnny had joked earlier that if you want to see something badly you don't see that, but you see something else. There was an invertebrate on the fish charts called “boring clam” and we decided that was a good choice for something we should ask to be shown, rather than articulate what we really wanted to see, which every diver who comes to Andaman wants to see, but few do.

By then it was looking like we were going to depart there without seeing manta. We were told this wasn't the season for them. There were two months of the year where they could be seen on almost every dive, we were told, but I'm sure if we came back then, we would be told, well, sometimes they are here at this time, but not this year. It's kind of like predicting whalesharks in Oman.

I realized as we were kitting up that my computer and small dive light were back in Havelock on my bed where I had stupidly left them, so Bobbi and I agreed I should stay above her and dive on her computer. It wasn't a kosher plan, but Johnny always entered the water first and waited for us, and he didn't notice I was diving without my computer. It wasn't a big deal, but these were taxing dives, 24 meters deep minimum, and with current almost always present.

The reef was beautiful as we descended on it. Vis was almost clear, maybe 25 meters before turning into a milky haze. We descended near a school of barracuda and pulled ourselves along to near the bottom of the line, Bobbi and I diving as a team, leaving the line at about 18 meters, approaching the reef at the level of its top. Johnny wanted us to descend out of the current and in the sand near a large bommie we saw a big marble ray covered in sand. Johnny kicked current its way till it moved and shook the sand free, and settled into an alcove. Nicki took lots of pictures but Bobbi and I, at Johnny's suggestion, started pulling ourselves over coral towards to the top of the reef. This gave us a view of the other side, a classic blue water reef terrain of boulders full of tropical fish and coral. We knew that anything could be here. Johnny started pointing excitedly at sharks that only he could see, until finally we saw one sleeping in the sand. There was also a huge cod / grouper, that Johnny pointed at, causing us to think he'd spotted something much more exotic. Nearing deco, we rose a bit off the coral bed finning against the current in free water at about 16 meters. This was taxing, and 37 minutes into the dive Andy was at 50 and was at around 70. I was uncomfortable without my computer unable to calibrate my own depth and air consumption against remaining deco time. Johnny set us into a drift and of course we drifted right onto the line and headed up it, thanks to Johnny's excellent guidance.

The DiveIndia speed boat we'd been on the day before was a little ahead of our slow sampan and the boat was just bringing divers up from their first dive on Broken Ridge, our second planned dive of the day. They had dived in two groups and one group had just seen a manta and three sharks. They were preparing to do a second dive on that spot, but we were due to enter the water first as we were already a half hour into our surface interval. Our group didn't mess around with kitting up. Bobbi and I were in the water and on the anchor line before the 1 hour was up and when Nicki and Andy looked to be ready Johnny sent us down the line to wait for them at 5 meters. There was no mooring line and the boats had anchored separately just off the reef, pulling hard on a strong current so that we descended over coral splotches only to come on the reef rising up ahead of us as we pulled on the line to overcome the current.

Once we were near the coral reef and could hide behind it the current slackened at depth and we were able to fin ourselves over the tabletop reef. It was small, about the size of a couple of football pitches side by side, and dropped away on all sides to the sand a few meters below. We were skimming the top of it to minimize current impact when we saw what looked like an airplane approaching out of clouds, clearly a large manta. It turned and flapped its wings, easily three meters across, and headed away from us. We tried to follow but it easily escaped us in the milk-mist. So we slowed up and looked for it wherever it might have gone. Since I was calibrating my deco on Bobbi's computer I elected to rise above her to about 16 meters where the water was clearer and where I could get a better overview of the reef on all sides. Within minutes I saw it approach at my level, coming directly at me. I don't carry a camera but I like to describe what I see. It's mouth was wide open, I was staring down it, and the flaps at either side of its jaws were still. Sometimes mantas like to curl those around This one came straight at me but when it realized I was in the way it changed course to move around me, so it slipped off to the side, where I could see it was almost solid white on top. Often there is dark coloring there, though they are white on the bottom. I exhaled to descend slightly and saw its gill slits there as it passed away above me now. We all got a great view of him, but he didn't linger long and never returned. This video, found on YouTube, gives you an idea of what seeing a manta is like in the places we were diving:

Soon another diver diving alone with a divemaster from another company descended and made their way around the rock, nothing much there. And as we ascended the large group from the other DiveIndia boat were descending but they didn't see it again either, on that dive.

Meanwhile we burned out air bobbing about with the napoleon wrasse there, and admiring the barracuda and trevally and whatnot midwater, as we burned off our air feeling chuffed we had seen all we had come to see in the Anamans. A manta! And what luck, on our last dive, and such a clear encounter. I hope Nicki posts photos I can borrow for my blog.

In a what-next gesture I wrote on my slate and showed it to Johnny, “Boring clam”? Johnny laughed through his regulator, as wed been kidding him about showing us boring clams to avoid articulating what we really wanted him to show us, a manta. But on the trip back, as we were coming into Havelock harbor for our last time, he pointed out the boring clams in the reef we were passing over. They are actually interesting, as they bore into the coral and become essentially a blue mouth sucking up nutrients at the same level as the coral. Not much was boring on this dive trip, not even the boring clams.

DiveIndia's descriptions of their dive sites:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Certified Ed Lewsey in PADI O/W diving at Freestyle in Dibba, October 21-22, 2011

My logged dives #1084-1087

This weekend I had the pleasure of certifying someone who not only already knew how to dive, but was fit enough to keep up with me :-)  Ed had done a discover scuba diving course three years ago on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and went on to do five dives with an instructor there.  He called me up early in the week and was so keen to start the course that he did the elearning in the week before the weekend and caught a cab to the airport in time for Bobbi and I to pick him up at 7 a.m. there and take him over to Dibba.  Bobbi and I met him there because we were living near the airport in temporary accommodation in the new city rising from the sand there called Khalifa A.

It's always nice to see our old friends at Freestyle Divers.  Andy and his team are accommodating of my small groups.  This weekend it was me diving with Ed on the course, and Bobbi diving with Vaughn, an assistant instructor who is new in town and got in touch with us through Froglegs Scuba Club, and was tagging on for a weekend of diving.  Coincidentally Vaughn was getting a visa put in his passport, as were Bobbi and I for my new job with HCT / CERT / Naval College, so none of us had passports that would give us the option to cross a border to dive anywhere in Oman, Damaniyites or Musandam, that weekend.

Ed didn't seem to mind.  We were at Freestyle and kitting up before 10 a.m. since from the airport it takes less than 3 hours to reach Dibba.  There was a brisk breeze blowing from the mountains, causing mild chop between the shore and Dibba Rock, but the water was relatively clear.  I reminded Ed how to assemble his gear and don it and we traipsed down to the seashore for a quick run through the module 1 skills, which had to be completed before we could go for a dive at noon.

The vis wasn't bad, and water temperatures were ideal, probably about 29 degrees C, refreshingly cooling for me in my .5 mm lycra.  The outside temperatures were balmy, the only discomfort was the wind chill when exiting the water or walking around wet.  Other than that the sun brushed us mildly, but was not intense.  It's that time of year in the UAE when it's great to be outdoors and diving, a short-lived period before winter sets in and diving gets chlly again.

We were dropped at the acquarium mooring, a lovely place to begin a dive, teeming with snappers and golden treveli and puffers and parrots and rainbow wrasse. I led us the usual route along the acquarium and then to the west where the clacking of the animals living in the coral could be heard loudly.  Bobbi and Vaughn saw a shark there but Ed and I were ahead and missed it.  Bobbi said later she saw cuttlefish and flounder later in the dive, but meanwhile we as a group went to the southern point of the L shaped reef but I couldn't find the way to the east out the L. It petered out on me and I reversed but again couldn't really identify the reef, so I turned north and ended up on compass over sand bottom. I was lost and decided if I headed north I would cross the reef, but that didn't happen, we started getting to around 10 meters, which was too deep, and I noticed Ed and I had lost Bobbi and Vaughn.  So the two of us continued and when we got to 11 meters I realized I was on the west side of the reef and I should go east to find it.  East didn't help much, it seemed to be getting deeper, could I have gone past the island on the seaward back side?  By now the sand seemed to be sloping slightly to the south so I headed that way and happily ended up back in the acquarium and familiar territory, where we found a big crayfish hiding under a rock.

Ed and I had been diving for 45 minutes now but Ed's air supply was holding out so I led back past the beautiful fishes and back to the reef as at the start of the dive.  We passed over the reef and sort of hung out there.  I led to the shoulder, what I now call Shark Shoulder, because that's where this weekend we would go to see sharks. We hadn't seen all that much this dive, I had got us lost, it was Ed's first dive in a while and he didn't seem to mind, but we were coming up on 58  min of dive time with not much to show for our house reef.  At 59 minutes, we needed to go up.  And that's when the shark appeared, coming in over the reef pretty much at our fin tips where we hovered, and flashing off to the right just as the 60 ticked over on my computer, and I signalled up.  Ed was chuffed.

Between dives, Ed and I did the next two pool modules.  They went smoothly with him.  We went in off the beach where he took his mask off and breathed for a minute in no time, and we decided to go up to the pool for module 3 for fresh water and a look at the young buff Russian girls in their thong bikinies. The only problem was it was almost 3 pm.and we'd have to hurry so as not to hold up the last dive of the day.  I've had a lot of experience with Freestyle and it almost never happens that a 3 pm dive leaves any earlier than 3:30, and Ed was speeding through the pool work. All went according to plan.  Ed completed the pool training in 15 minutes, and with over 170 bar in our tanks we were back at the Freestyle beach.  The time was precisely 3:19.  I know because that was the time on my watch as I looked over the top of it at the Freestyle boat which was at that moment pulling away from its mooring right off the beach with a boat-load of divers on board.

They could have cut the engines and taken us aboard.  We were fully kitted, buddy checked, and still wet from the pool, ready to hop aboard. Later I heard from those on board that the boat was full (uh, we'd booked the dive), and from another perspective, there was an instructor on board who thought a dive scheduled for 3 pm should depart at 3 pm and according to that reasoning, we'd missed it.  Whatever, the boat left without us.  So we decided to just swim out to the rock.

The wind was the main problem, blasting in from the west, so we had to angle slightly on our northerly heading so as to keep moving toward the left shoulder of the island. Other than that, there was not much current, and Ed managed to get in a 300 meter plus plus (about half a km actually) surface swim with mask and fins, and also a surface compass heading, albeit somewhat more extreme than we usually have beginning divers do.

The dive itself was not all that great.  The wind had churned the waters and a silt had moved in, clouding vis a bit.  We managed to find one of the raspberry coral reefs to drop in on but there were no big animals there.  We worked our way east and then north along the reef where the only large animal mid-water was a lone cuttlefish on a mission (to find another, perhaps) beelining over the reef.  Still the schools of snappers and treveli in the acquarium were captivating, and there we reversed to head south and west back over the L shaped reef.  We made our way west until we found the spot of raspberry renewing itself and hovered there observing the small fishes and hoping for something larger.  When our air dipped below 100 bar, and 50 min into the dive, I signalled a southern heading back over the sand.  This should have got us home but the current was pushiing to west and we angled past Freestyle so that after a long underwater swim we ended up in the bay of the palace overlooking the sea.  We surfaced on alternate air source as called for in PADI o/w dive #2, and the hardest part of the dive was finning against the current to get us back to Freestyle divers.  People there had been watching for us.  They had seen us miss the boat, all kitted and ready to go, and I had mentioned to Bobbi that if that happened we would shore dive.  They hadn't expected us to swim all the way out to the island though.  Ed was pleased not only with the accomplishment but that he had saved 100 dirhams on the shore dive.  The price of that trip has doubled in the ten years we've been dving this spot.

Ed and I weren't finished yet though.  We went in the pool for his last two pool modules and then we cleaned out kit and stocked up on beverages from the off license. We returned to Dibba and foraged for food at Lulu's, and then settled into our accommodation at the Seaside for the night.  Despite a morning prayer call and sermon from the mosque outside our window, Bobbi and I got some blessed sleep, a break in our routine of up by 5 each weekday morning on account of my new job.  In the morning we were back at Freestyle to knock off the rest of Ed's dive course.

Conditions in the morning were lovely.  The wind had died down a little and water visibility was restored.  Ed and I were looking forward to a great day diving.  We had decided to start off with a controlled emergency swimming ascent, which takes a little time, so Bobbi and Vaughn decided to go off on their own.  Andy moored the boat on the buoy nearest and to the east of Dibba Rock, so our CESA was performed in the aquarium.  Ed wanted to try diving the back side of the island but first we wanted to check out the raspberry reef at the north shoulder of the L.  I'm starting to call this "Shark Shoulder" because this is where we've been seeing those creatures most consistently.  We were not disappointed on this dive.  We were practicing hovering in the spot where they usually appear when two appeared, swam off, and then reappeared.  It's nice to see two sharks together.  We waited neutrally buoyant for them to return but when they didn't we headed back toward the aquarium.  Here a third shark came into view, swimming right across our bow as they often do.

We spent the rest of the dive on the back side of the island without seeing much of anything.  Ed was now just one dive short of certification.  On this last dive the boat discharged its divers just west of the reef on one of the moorings midway down the L. The four of us, Bobbi her buddy Vaughn diving with Ed and I moved in over the ruins of the once thriving reef.  I was ahead and saw a large, at least two meter long, Spanish mackeral cruising over the reef.  I think the others missed it.  That's pretty much all I remember about that dive, except that we went to the back side of the island, and all divers performed well. Ed was enjoying himself at the end of the dive, which we called to a halt as our computers ticked into 60 minutes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Diving in Damaniyite Islands with ExtraDivers at Al Sawadi Beach Resort, Oct 8, 2011

My logged dives #1082-1083

Tourist visas in UAE are granted for one month at a time (with a ten-day grace period) and while we are between jobs as it were, Bobbi and I have to exit the country and re-enter every calendar month.  We are in the habit of making this our excuse to regularly dive the Damaniyite Islands in Oman. Someone has to do it!

We decided  to spend most of Friday in the UAE.  Bobbi and I needed to sleep just a little later than usual due to the hectic lives we’ve led since having to vacate our home the past 13 years in All Prints.  In the morning we unpacked a few boxes in our new but temporary 1-br apt in Khaliyfa A, the new township near Abu Dhabi airport while watching BBC news and draining a pot of coffee, and then we loaded the 4 dive bags we keep in our apt, each containing a full kit of Scuba gear, and drove into town to where I’ve been teaching part time and both of us got on the Internet from there. Then Dusty called from the Thai embassy where he and his lady friend Michele were enjoying a Thai food festival, and some of our old Thai friends and their spouses were there, and it was on our way to the highway to Oman, so we dropped by there on our way out of town to have a delicious meal of homemade Thai.

We had pre-arranged to pick up Dusty there, the 3rd of the 4 dive bags were for him (and the other was our spare gear). We were on the road by 3:30 and to make a long drive and border crossing short, we arrived at the Suwaiq motel at the edge of the mountains right off  the Batinah coast about 4 and a half hours later.

The Suwaiq motel used to be a dubious place to stay.  When we slept there once before we didn’t know it had two night clubs, one for Indian and the other for Arabic clients. If you arrive at night they will both be pumping loud music at once, and the only way we could tolerate the rooms into the wee hours was that in addition to the a/c, we also had a fan we could run all night by the head of the bed.   It was tawdry accommodations and the only advantages were it was much cheaper than other hotels, and the loud bars sold beer for just a riyal for a tall can, less than $3.  Another advantage is it’s only about 40 min from Al Sawadi Beach resort, which charges more than 4 times the price of the Suwaiq motel. That includes dinner, but you can get a great meal of dhal, freshly bbq chicken tikka, biriani, masala, purata, and fresh mango juice for just the price of a beer at the Suwaiq Hotel.

Imagine our surprise when we checked in at the Suwaiq hotel, had a look at our room, and found it had been remodeled.  It was tastefully decorated with comfortable new double beds.  The baths had been remodeled. The old mouldy rugs were gone and in their place shiny tiles.  Best of all, the lanais had been enclosed into small TV rooms, with new flat screen TVs with cable vision, and this extra room between the bedroom and the music had been especially designed there to create a buffer between sleep and the music.  And it worked, when we turned on the a/c we could sleep soundly, couldn’t hear the music.  Best of all, there was a new bar there with tasteful decoration and no music.  Smoking had been banned from the public rooms for a long time, but here was a place to enjoy a nightcap without even the annoyance of loud music.  If you’re reading this don’t tell anyone else about this place.  We don’t want it filling up, which at only 200 dirhams a room, it should do.  We’ll definitely stay there again next time we dive the Damaniyites.

Speaking of which we had two dives on Saturday morning.  One was Tina’s Run (not quite its name) on the north side of police island, starting from the east and moving west and the other was the mousetrap, the wall running underwater from Sirah Island to Big Jun.  T-Run was especially good.  I was pushing the edge of the reef, looking over the side down onto the sand, and into caves, looking there for leopard sharks and rays.  These were all at the top of the reef.  Fortunately Bobbi and Dusty found them and got me back up there. The ray was a black bull ray in a cave.  The leopard shark was a small one at rest in a patch of cabbage coral.  He posed there for the dozen divers that came to visit and never moved.  Leopard sharks have not rounded but sculpted bodies, moulded for grace, in my opinion among the most beautiful gentle creatures in the ocean, and when not bothered, among the most imperturbable.

We didn’t see a leopard shark on the second dive. On both of them, some divers saw turtles, there were big sting rays, honeycomb morays and all kinds of other eels, lion fish … Dusty swam into a cave with huge bat fish, creating an interesting tableau.  There were endearingly ugly cuttlefish, wary of intruders, going iridescent and rippling off if we got too close. I shined a light into one hole and found a large purple crab staring back at me. Vis was great, water temperatures were warm above the thermocline at 15 meters, 26 down there.  Not a bad way to turn around a visa if you are in that position in the UAE.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Froglegs Scuba Club participates in EDA - ADGAS’ Abu Dhabi Islands Clean Up Saturday September 17

Vance's logged dive #1081

Froglegs participated in ADGAS’ Abu Dhabi Islands Clean Up Campaign on Saturday 17th September 2011. We joined EDA and Al Mahara Dive Center in their dive against debris in the waters around Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club marina area and Lulu Island.

Top cover: Anna Elwood
Divemaster: Nicki Blower
Buddy teams:
  1. Instructor: Vance Stevens
    1. Rescue: Bobbi Stevens
  2. Advanced: Roger Norkie
    1. Open/water: Stephen Elwood

Bobbi and I dived together in fairly murky water underneath the boats and against the jetty forming the marina.  Depth was about 3 meters and time 30-40 min, including surfacing often to resolve buddy separations.  There were a few small fish there that liked to nip the top of my head when I blew bubbles.  We also found a pair of miniature cuttlefish each the size of a child's fist.  Like cuttlefish everywhere, they ranged cute to iridescent. We surfaced three bags full of discarded garbage.  Actually for a harbor, it wasn't that filthy.  Under the boats we found broken carapaces of dozens of crabs, the remnants of someone's meal(s).

Here is the map to parking and registration information:

For more information:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bobbi and Vance fun diving in Musandam, Oman: Fanaku, Musandam Island, Ras Sarkan, Ras Morovi, Lima Rock, Sept 9-10, 2011

My logged dives #1077-1080

We had a great weekend diving with our good friends at Nomad Ocean Adventure. We had been planning a trip to the far north of Musandam for weeks beforehand, to have three dives, starting Friday at Fanaku or Kachelu, and then doing two more dives as we worked our way back down the coast toward home port. This was set to start at around 8 a.m. Friday so we'd be driving down on Thursday. As soon as people could get home from work Thursday evening, Bobbi and I started collecting them. Nicki rode with us in our car and we met Gillian at the Club entrance for the 3-hour drive across the UAE to Dibba on the east coast, arriving over the Oman border just in time for a dinner of baked chicken served at Nomad. After a bit of conviviality with our friends we went to bed and slept very soundly till time to grab coffee and a croissant and meet at the harbor for our three-dive day.

We set off with 12 divers and 36 tanks. Divers included Bobbi, and I, Nicki, Ian Wing, Daniel and Randa, Gillian Hendrie, Jonathan Seda, Bob, April, and Lucy and Sara just there for the day. Sea conditions were a little bumpy on our bums as we endured the hour and a half up the pristine coast of Musandam till we finally shot the gap between the mainland and Musandam Island and steamed ahead to Fanaku sitting all on its own just to the west of smaller Kachelu. We pulled alongside the east side and while Ivor was giving the briefing the boat was swept the length of the island, so we decided that divng there was maybe not that good an idea. So we swung around to the calmer west side and selected a likely spot at the northwest point for an entry. Here the current was mild and we had no problem entering the water and forming into buddy teams before descending in our groups.

Diving conditions were excellent all weekend. First of all, it was a relatively warm 27 degrees in the water with cooler temperatures in thermoclines at depth. I was wearing my thin lycra under my three mm overalls, plus long-sleeve top to complete the combo, for a total of 6.5 mm on my torso, but it was warm, so for the next dive I replaced the 3 mm top for a half mm rash vest, and the following day I skipped the lycra and just wore the combo. I was warm at the surface but glad I had it at depth. Bobbi started off wearing her 5 mm wetsuit but had changed that for 3 mm the following day. And secondly, the visibility was excellent, 15, maybe 20 meters in some places, and no less than 10 meters in case silt was at all present.

Depths in these islands are as you like them. Bobbi and I were diving in a group with Nicki keeping an eye on Gillian. Bobbi and I went ahead and down and stopped short at 30 meters with no end to the wall in sight. Not much to see there so we angled up to pick up Nicki and her group, who had made it to 27 meters as Bobbi and I angled up to conserve air and no deco minutes. It was everyone's first time at this site and no one knew what to expect, so we were all probing, wary of current (in the briefing Ivor warned us about our bubbles going down, indicating a down current, and meanwhile back at the hostel, Chris told us a story about how he got caught in one with two advanced students, managed to catch them at 35 meters and shepherd them to the surface, had them both breathe from his only two oxygen cylinders, and the following day himself developed symptoms of decompression sickness and he had to go into a recompression chamber).

It was a lovely dive, lots of bright red rust coloring the reef, masses of reef fishes, and pretty easy despite a current which at its worst Bobbi and I pulled ourselves through with the help of a long rope someone had lost on the bottom. This caught us up with Sara Gough and Lucy, the only others from our group that we saw from that point on in this dive. We outpaced them, hit a still stronger facing current and rode back on it till we reached the end of the island in a colorful coral patch, and had to come up, near the end of our hour. All our dives on this trip were an hour or more with safety stop.

We retreated to Musandam Island for our lunch break, to a place that Chris and Ivor have christened Sphinx Bay due to the profile of a guano-covered rock in the vicinity. After sandwiches and pasta salad consumed in the 1 hour surface interval, we dropped in for our second dive over a bottom pockmarked from thousands of hollow footprints left by coral since disappeared, and strewn with nudibranchs. We saw a few dozen of the thousands that must have been there. Again Bobbi and I pushed to 30 meters depth, found it just kept going, and turned around to angle back up the reef and meet up with April who had joined the other two girls Lucy and Sara. A remarkable feature of this dive was a fault seam at 8 meters that we followed for some distance, where we found caves, not just alcoves, but actual tunnels you could swim into. One of them had a huge batfish inside sharing space with an oversized puffer. Another ledge had two very large crayfish inside, unreachable, yet fully visible in their lair.

It was 3:30 by the time we came up and joined everyone back on board and motored south. It took us an hour almost to reach Ras Sarkhan on our way home. Ivor suggested we dive the point and work our way back toward the mountains. Meanwhile the boat drifted back from the point and people started entering the water. We were no longer at the point but they were stuck with it but Bobbi and I and the three ladies were still on board, so we had ourselves taken back to the point as planned. The point is where the action is most likely to be, but it is risky because there can be currents here (that's what brings the fish) and you never know if the current will be coming in or going out, though Ivor thought it would be a return current. So I briefed our divers to be prepared for anything and we all went over and down.

We were lucky. The current was slack, and we had no trouble finding our way to the point, with its constant swirl of fish in the blue soft coral. We found a huge turtle sitting on the bottom at 30 meters, his back covered with white barnacles. We angled up and out the point and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of treveli swirling past. At the point itself a stiff resistant current told us it was time to go back. We stayed high on the reef and came across another turtle. Toward the end of the dive we found a large cow-tail or feather-tail ray in the sand. He let us settle in next to and in front of him before he started to ripple, taking his time to eventually rise out of the sand, turn, and head out to sea. We followed close behind and he turned and headed back to the reef, then headed up it, silhouetted nicely against the bright surface, putting us on a nice show in graceful motion for 30 memorable seconds.

That was it for diving for the day. Unfortunately the gear box on our boat malfunctioned and we limped back to Lima over the next hour, but Ivor got on the satellite phone and the boat owners sent another boat out to get us, intercepting us just off the town of Lima. We transferred our gear to the new boat and it was 45 minutes before we finally made it home in the darkness. Back at NOA there was still time to chill out in the pool before dinner, which occupied us until time for bed.

Next morning we had arranged an earlier than usual boat departure so we might get back to port earlier that evening for driving back to Abu Dhabi, but we were still able to sleep in past 8 in the morning. Bobbi and I rolled up in the dining area to check email and have our coffee and meager breakfast. We were joined this morning by Nicki, Ian, Daniel and Randa, Jonathan, Bob, and April and Gavin, her chef boyfriend. Lucy and Sara had returned to Dubai the night before, and Gillian had developed sinus problems and couldn't join us diving. The boat was supposed to leave the harbor at 10 and it was only a quarter hour late when it finally did pull away, not bad. An hour later we were passing Lima Rock on our way to Octopus Rock, but we found the current there a little strong, so we retreated to Ras Morovi to start our first dive in the bay where I often take my beginning divers. There was almost no current there, and the visibility was again excellent. Had there been rays in the sand we would have seen them. We went south along the reef without seeing much of anything, but at the point where you can opt for the saddle to the left to take you into the channel or keep going south to round the submerged island, we came onto a large school of barracuda.

We rounded the submerged hilltop keeping at about 25 meters, a bit high off the sand at 30 meters. It was beautiful, but again nothing striking until Bobbi found a crayfish in a rock, and then spotted a turtle ahead. Later she found another big crayfish under a rock, I spotted the second turtle, and we found several morays and lion fish. We came all the way up the channel to the north but as we rounded the corner we hit a stiff current. Although 40 minutes into our dive we both had plenty of air left so we dropped to almost 18 meters in the sand and just powered through it. Eventually it slackened and we ended our dive in a bay full of coral and fish life, especially swarms of blue triggers. When the boat finally came for us over there we got some oblique compliments from the younger divers regarding our stamina in finning through that current, as they had all turned back at that point.

We had our sandwiches and a tasty potato salad listening to Ivor's jokes (and Gavin's, and a few of mine), bobbing gently in the water, in the bright sunlight surrounded by mountains rising out of clear blue seas. Then we headed over to Lulu Island just across the bay toward the fishing village of Lima but there was a boat there already picking up divers way north of the rock, suggesting they were having trouble with currents, so we decided to go to Lima Rock.

Here on the sheltered north side we had the best dive of the weekend, thanks to Bobbi's sharp-eyed fish spotting. The first thing we saw was a turtle and we were following that when Bobbi pointed into the void. That's how she and I were the only ones to see at least two devil rays passing. As on all our dives we saw coronet fish, and batfish and puffer fish being cleaned by cleaner wrasse. The most fun part of the dive was when we encountered a school of squids. They entertained us in midwater and later we found them gathering around a rock. They seemed to want to get under the rock, Nicki thinks to lay eggs there. Due to their focus on whatever they were doing there, they didn't seem to mind us coming close and hovering. They were captivating. We spent 5 or ten minutes watching their antics, motionless, breathing little air. At the end of the dive we found a large honeycomb moray and did our safety stop above its lair. He was being cleaned inside his gaping mouth by a tiny blue wrasse, which escaped unharmed.

Our Roster

  1. Vance Stevens (PADI instructor)
  2. Nicki Blower (PADI divemaster)
  3. Sarah Gough - (PADI divemaster)
  4. Bobbi Stevens (PADI rescue)
  5. Ian Wing (SSI Master Diver, including SSI Deep Diver, with PADI Nitrox)
  6. Bob McGraw (PADI advanced o/w)
  7. Gillian Hendrie (PADI advanced o/w)
  8. April McMahan (PADI advanced o/w)
  9. Jonathan Seda (PADI advanced o/w) - driving up Friday morning
  10. Daniel Jewers (PADI advanced o/w)
  11. Lucy Hives (BSAC sports)
  12. Randa (o/w)

Well, ten days of the month our gone, and we have to be out of our apartment by the end of it, so apart from helping Kathleen with an EDA beach cleanup next weekend, Bobbi and I won't be doing much more diving until we emerge into October.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bobbi and Vance fun diving at Damaniyite Islands, Oman, Sept 2-3, 2011

My logged dives #1073-1076

Bobbi and I had a week off for Eid Al Fitr so we crossed the border into Oman to dive at one our favorite spots in this part of the world, the Damaniyite Islands, just off Al Sawadi, about an hour's drive north of Muscat.  The islands are a protected marine reserve 40 minutes by boat off the coast, known for great visibility and rich marine life.  We used to see leopard sharks here on almost every dive.  Now it's rare to see a leopard shark, and fishermen are encroaching on the reserve despite the police post on one of the islands, visited by police for only a part of each day.  The worst problem on our most recent visit though was the visibility.  A green algae had bloomed in depths down to 17-18 meters, stopped by the thermocline there which plunged us into temperatures in the low 20s when we went that deep.  Vis was at least good at the bottom, though the light was clouded by the algae.  We had not anticipated the cold.  Bobbi had left her 5 mm wetsuit at home.  She at least had a shorty she could wear over her 3 mm.  I had a half mm lycra and a half mm rash vest over which I could put on a 3 mm overall, and over that a 3 mm longsleeve top, so I had 7 mm on my core, but still got chilled in the limbs and head, so second dives each day were hypothermic for both of us. 

We got up before 6 a.m. to leave Abu Dhabi before 8 in order to arrive as requested by 2 pm on Friday, only to be told that we didn't really need to be there until 2:30, but they always told people coming from UAE to arrive a half hour before they wanted them there.  In fact, that was to meet a boat departing at 3:00, so we could have slept an hour longer that morning.  

While waiting we encountered good friends Robin and Ann, whom we knew from BSAC days in Abu Dhabi. They had dived there several days already but were giving Friday a miss due to the cold and disappointing vis.  They painted us a pretty poor picture of what to expect, but we soldiered on.  Robin and Ann were still around on Saturday but didn't dive that day either.

I can't say I blamed them.  We were thinking to give Saturday a miss as well, but we were there, and you never know what you'll see.  Actually our first dive was the best of the 4 we did, because the family spending the week there at Al Sawadi and getting their kids certified wanted to go to the Aquarium. This was a long trip for an afternoon dive.  It meant that we weren't diving until after 4:00, so our second dive didn't start until almost 6, and was essentially a night dive.  To Extra Divers's credit, they did have torches for everyone, fully charged, and I had brought my two from home.

The Aquarium is a submerged reef lying just outside the protected area so it's getting covered in nets and fish pots, and whereas it still has a lot of honeycomb moray eels and smaller fish, we didn't see any turtles, and the bigger fish are sure to be caught or driven away between the divers and fishermen.  Still there were interesting things to see there. Bobbi found a large seahorse as big as her forearm.  We saw some large cuttlefish as well, in groups of two and finally four just at the top of the reef.  We saw a lot of honeycomb morays, one free swimming, and a large pair wavering like flags, right at the end of the dive.  We found plenty of green and grey morays as well. We found hard-to-spot flounder and scorpion fish, hard to see camouflaged in cabbage coral. It was a great dive despite the poor vis, and Bobbi and I came up only when our time expired at 1 hour, everyone else already on the boat.

Our night dive was at Little Jun, far right corner, south I think, east (far wall) back toward Big Jun, direction of Sira.  We felt freezing cold on this dive, but didn't see much ourselves.  Bobbi found a pair of hermit crabs in fluted cone shells, with small shrimp living on the shell. Said the dive guide reported a massive sting ray that went right over his head, corroborated by Marian and her daughter who were with him at the time, but none of the rest of us saw it. Bobbi and I were chilled and came up after 45 minutes.

Saturday, we dived with a group of video photographers, one of them named Khalid Al Sultani and his wife, Sara from Germany, who were lingering over small animals in the dive and got some stupendous video, check it out

an Ode to the little things from Khaled Sultani on Vimeo.

Our first dive was at Police Island, same corner as Little Jun day before.  Bobbi and I dropped through the algae murk and onto a big honeycomb at 21 meters.

Our favorite fish on this dive was one we've seen before in Thailand, which the dive guide said at the time was "look like shark, not shark".  I thought it was a cobia, such as this one, It was 1.5 to 2 meters, circled us high up on the reef, around 7 meters depth, but had a small mouth like a nurse shark (not a jutting jaw as in this picture), and a dorsal fin a little far back from that of a shark (not fanned as in this picture, that I noticed), and also it was not skittish as sharks tend to be.  I'll try harder to track this one down.  Also, the lady who was diving with Bobbi and I and our guide Roshan while her husband watched the 2 year old back on shore at the resort, found a lobster (crayfish).  They went up early while Bobbi and I finished out the hour underwater.

Our last dive was at three sisters on Police Island, encroaching on another site there. The first thing we saw was a torpedo ray being videoed by Khalid, one of the video divers. Roshan was snapping pictures of nudibranchs which was essentially how we spotted them.  As on the other dives there were numerous lion fish, morays, often two together, trigger fish everywhere, napoleon wrasse, and lots of scorpion fish.  Poking my light into caves we found a big puffer fish in one, and a huge grouper hiding in another.  We saw flounders on all the dives, on this one three together in the sand.  The guide was teasing some clownfish and oddly, one of them bit his finger (amusing, surprised Roshan). There were nice swim-throughs on this last dive, but we were COLD on this one, and glad when our hour was up.

We got back to port right at 3pm, hauled our gear up the road (no car waiting), didn't wash it, and headed back to the Millenium hotel, where we showered and just barely made our late checkout time of 4:00 pm.

The Millenium Hotel was very nice, just half an hour's drive north from Al Sawadi on the Sohar road. We used to like Al Sawadi Beach Hotel a lot, spent many nights there with our young children in Oman, and had some great feasts back in the all-you-can-eat lobster days, gone now. The Al Sawadi as it gets older diminishes in value as it also gets more expensive, now 95 Omani riyals a night for two, half board (US$250). Last time Jay treated us to accommodation there, so nice of him. This time we checked around online and found the Millenium for 65 Omani riyals ($170) for the two of us with dinner and breakfast buffets much better than at AlSawadi, great rooms with seaview upgrade free, quite luxurious, similar to Meridien Aqaa but smaller scale. We had a view of the boat harbor out the window. The bar and restaurant were pleasant with outdoor decks, but furniture spartan, and drinks expensive. We splurged 14 Oman riyals ($40) for a bottle of Argento house wine. They had our room number but we didn't sign the chit before leaving the restaurant so they sent 'room service' up with the bill and doorbelled us out of bed at 10:45 that night to come to the door and sign the check, jeez. 

If you stay at the Millenium be aware there are no top sheets on the beds or inside the closet (where they provide a spare blanket), and the duvet is too hot for summer, but the AC is too cold without it. Next time we'll request a sheet before sleeping (and ask there be no room service we haven't requested ourselves).

Travel logistics: The borders were quiet on Friday morning when we made the trip. We left the house at 7:45 and were over the border just after 10:00. it took us half an hour to drive from the Oman border down wadi Jizzi to the Sohar Road, a trip that used to take 45 min on a winding road. At the Buraimi turnoff it takes almost half an hour to reach the triumphal portal on the far side of Sohar and another hour from there to reach Al Sawadi Beach turnoff.

Just beyond the Sohar gate there's a bull fighting grounds just off the road on the beach side that was active at 5:30 on Saturday evening as we were coming back, but I think it might have still been Eid celebration in Oman, probably not a regular occurrence, but something to watch for if in the area on Fridays.  Bullfights tend to happen every other week on a Friday.

Heading south from Sohar you eventually come to the Suwaiq roundabout. There is a turning to the right signposted for Rustaq there. It's a back road to Rustaq, not the best way to get there, but a little way up that turning, past where the boulevard ends and where the road curves, the part that goes straight takes you to the Suwaiq motel, a colorful place to stay but potentially noisy.  If planning to sleep there, take a fan for white noise to drown out the incessant bass beat (the AC on its own doesn't quite get it), and if diving next day, give yourself an hour for the trip to Al Sawadi Beach Resort.

The next roundabout toward Muscat is Wudum al Sahel, with a gazebo arch in the roundabout. A sign here tells you to go straight for the Millenium Hotel, 16 km. But it's only 10 km or so to the next roundabout where the sign says to turn left for the Millenium Hotel (and it's 5 or 6 km from there). This roundabout is also the northern entrance to the proper loop road that takes you if you turn right there to Rustaq and then eventually brings you back to the highway at Barka past Wadi Bani Khurus, Wadi Bani Awf, Wadi Mistal (Ghubra Bowl and Wakan) and Nakhal, all fascinating places to visit. This roundabout has two boats in it.

If you're staying at the Millenium allow at least half an hour to reach Al Sawadi Beach from the hotel.

Now comes the tricky part getting to the Al Sawadi Beach Resort from the direction of Sohar. The next proper roundabout in the direction of Muscat from the north is Musaneh. There are no signs here but the turning to Al Sawadi beach that used to be halfway down the highway to Barka is no more, and so if you continue south on the main highway you'll pass the spot where the formidable steel guardrail now blocks what used to be your turn, and you must continue another 10 km before you can U-turn at the roundabout at Barka and drive 10 km back on yourself to the turn for Al Sawadi which you still might miss, since it's no longer signposted. If forced to do that look for a Shell station on your right (heading north) and an Arab World Restaurant just after that, and take the next turn which should put you on a street lined with hedgerows that takes you between the Makkah Hypermarket on your right and a Turkish restaurant on your left. That's the road to Al Sawadi.

But to avoid going 20 km out of your way, when you reach the Musaneh Roundabout heading toward Muscat, turn left and then immediately right to get on the slip road going against traffic heading north on the Sohar road. Go slow enough to slow down for unpainted and unmarked speed bumps. You cross a couple of places where there is a turning off the highway and you have to cross those roads, but eventually you'll notice the Makkah Hypermarket ahead of you and you turn left there to get on the road with hedgerows and the Turkish Restaurant on your left.

If you miss that turn you'll come to the Arab World Restaurant and the Shell station just a block later. If you notice them in time, turn left at the street just before the Arab World Restaurant and where it dead-ends turn left again to take you back to the road with hedgerows. I did this myself a couple of times or I wouldn't mention it.

Hope this information is useful to someone (if it is, click on an ad, thanks :-)