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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 http://www.islandvinnie.com/. 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Havelock_Island, 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:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphead_wrasse.

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.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_trevally

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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluespotted_stingray. 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:
http://www.diveindia.com/havelock/sites_1.html

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