Thursday, June 28, 2012

Diving off Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Logged dives #1139-1146
Sister Marylin, son Dusty, Vance and Bobbi, auntie Clara, uncle Alouyshious, and Dusty's good friend Michelle, having shave ice in Kota Bharu

To make a long story short, Dusty and his Malaysian girlfriend Michelle were in Kuala Lumpur so Bobbi and I flew there from Cebu, spent the night at their place and met her parents, and flew out the next day to Kota Bharu. To go to the Perhentian Islands from Kota Bharu you need to get a taxi to the Koala Basut jetty, 78 ringit official airport cab rate, and from Koala Basut we were charged another 70 for two to go one-way in the water taxi to Perhentian. We arranged the water taxi through the Coral View office at Koala Basut but I think it was the public taxi. We had defaulted on the Coral View because Michelle and her family were flying out there and planning a stay at that resort, and our intent was to be with them.

Rooms at the Coral View cost about 200 ringit a night (for two, excellent rooms steps from the beach, but no meals) which is expensive I think. If you were doing this on your own and want to do it cheaper you should probably find an area in advance via Lonely Planet and then get the water taxi to there, then scout around and see what's available. I hear the place packs out in July. But when we arrived late June it seemed rooms were available but the water taxi needs to know where to drop you off. The last of the water taxis from Kota Bharu might be at around 5 or 6. It's an hour taxi ride there so you need to arrive in Kota Bharu at 3 at the latest if you want to make Perhentian that evening.

Since we were meeting up with Dusty and Michelle and Michelle's family next day we found a nice room at Coral View just 25 meters away from the dive shop. The Coral View observes Islamic prohibitions on alcohol. They should probably be a bit more up front with that on their web site, but you can walk 100 meters down the beach to the Reef and buy beer and rum in cans and bottles on a takeaway basis and do what you like with it. You can also jungle trek to the next beach over, about 15 min following a water pipe line, so there is little chance of getting lost though it's an up and downhill track, and have a couple more options for alcohol with your meal. You can water taxi back if you are willing to negotiate after 7:30 rates, or if you walk back (because it's only half an hour even though it's dark and unfamiliar, and you get fed up with negotiating all the surcharges), be sure you have a flashlight.

You don't need to jungle trek to see animals. You can see monkeys, birds, flying squirrels (very impressive when stretched out and on the fly), bats, and large monitor lizards around the rooms at the resorts, since the mountainous islands are still mostly jungle. I guess the animals come to the resorts for the food and the lizards are shy when spotted but otherwise appear to be the most brazen.

The morning after our arrival we started diving. The first site had no name because it was an exploratory dive, but it was to the north-west of Perhentian in the island group in the vicinity of Takong Laut (see the map on the Pro Divers World web site: We were pleasantly surprised at how warm the water was. Visibility was decent, but it was not a heart stopping dive. We saw a small red scorpion fish and some warted sea slugs. Others saw a blue spotted ray and some turtles. It was a pleasant dive, comfortable, lasted an hour.

No sooner had we returned to the Pro Divers World dive center but we were off to the Sugar Wreck at noon. The wreck was in about 20 meters of water. You see pics and a video at the shop web site by pulling down the link in the list of dive sites, but there doesn't seem to be a direct link. I'm not enthused by wrecks per se but I like the sea life that lives on them. I found what looked like the catfish in the cave at Gato Island under the stern, but could have been a bamboo shark, as we found more of those nearer the bow, interesting quivering, gaping animals less than a meter long. We also found a scorpion fish on the hull resting on a living clam shell, really difficult to see, camouflaged exactly as the wreck.

The last dive of the day, since we didn't do any night dives, was at Shark Point. There was a group of open water students doing skills on the same boat with us. We were totally separate in our diving, so our dive with our dive guide Marion could be as long as we wanted, and lasted 85 minutes for us. It started with descent onto a green turtle trailing stingers from a jellyfish he was eating. In cracks in the rock and at the bottom of the crack we found two types of pipe fish. The first kind was orange and blue and tiny, just a couple of centimeters, sharing space with the crouching shrimp we often see. The other pipefish was all white and on the bottom in the sand. One disappointment was that the reef there seemed to have been a fossil of what must have been thriving and colorful ten years before. Our dive ended with a swim with a hawksbill turtle, following him as he munched coral here and there, quite pleased to trundle along and ignore what we were doing.

Our second morning and the one after we did dives on Tokong Laut, the prize dive site of the Perhentian Islands. The dive proceeds like this. We endure a 20 minute boat ride over emerald waters then get wet and go down to 23 meters or so and find morays and funky little blue spotted rays. Eventually we come upon a bamboo shark gaping and quivering in a cave. Then we find more, maybe 4 together. There is a small cave we went to both mornings with 6 of them inside, always there, our dive guide said. They are like meercatfish, snuggled together under rocks and in caves, hiding out, possibly feeding at night, somehow surviving till next morning, then back to the shark cave.

By then we're at 17 meters, we're 30 min into the dive, and 6 min short of deco, so we come up to where the water is clearer and the coral is colorful and bright. There are so many fish here, schools of snappers, fusiliers, titan triggerfish, batfish, etc. on the reef and trevali and the occasional mackeral out in the blue. We see more morays and blue spotted rays. We are circling the pinnacle at 10 meters until we're an hour into the dive, the leader signals safety stop, and the dive goes for well over an hour. This was our first dive the second two days we dived there.

Our routine at Perhentian was to wake up around 7, decide NOT to have breakfast, and go back to sleep till 8 or 8:15, then crawl out of bed to negotiate the few steps to the dive shop outside our porch and get ready for our 9 a.m dive. That was the one to Tokong Laut our 2nd and 3rd mornings there. On return from that one we had only 45 minutes to get ready for the next one, but there's not much else to do on Perhentian unless you're keen on eating or lounging on the beach. We were there for the diving. Our second day, the dive site was at Batu Layar, the house reef just around the corner from the dive center, and we thought the briefing on what we might see there was better than the dive, which turned out to be in poor visibility until we reached the reef at the end with its interesting swim-throughs, but we didn't see much there of interest, apart from stacks of staghorn and other hard corals, and the usual calmingly tranquil schools of reef fishes.

On our third dive we went to a place called Terumbu Tiga, literally three rocks, but whose name has been bastardized to Tiger Rock. This was a nudibranch dive, with lots of warted sea slugs and the complication of currents wiping swarms of jellyfish over and around us. I recall a small pipefish in a rock. I don't recall much else, apart from constantly finding the white nudibranchs and dodging sting ray tentacles to see them. At one point one of the other divers stopped to take a picture of a pair of nudibranchs together, a jellyfish approached in the current, and I used my tank banger to divert the tentacles so they didn't pass across his cheek.

After diving we'd shower and make the walk to the beach outside our resort with its prohibitions and enjoy watching the sunset from places where these prohibitions were less stringent. One night we had dinner at the Reef bottle shop and restaurant, chinese malaysian mix, and the next night we went to the far beach for a really good meal at Tuna Resort of satays and seafood noodles and spring rolls. After Dusty and Michelle arrived with Michelle's family we started taking our meals, after briefer stops at the Reef, at our resort. Michelle's family had bought meal packages with vouchers and these vouchers seemed to cover plenty of food for all of us. Our last night there it was a barbecue of fish, squid, chicken, prawns, and some very tender chunks of meat.

Our last day of diving dawned beautiful as usual and began with Michelle and Dusty and Bobbi and I taking the speedboat into the channel between big and little Perhentian past the north point and out to the island to the north, to dive Tokong Laut, as described earlier.

The last dive of our trip was our second on that third day. Our computers were showing us 18-20 hours of no fly time and we wanted to stop and decompress and dry our gear. Michelle bowed out with a cough, so it was just Dusty, Bobbi and I on our last dive, with our kindly dive guild Marion from Koln. We chose to go to Seabell Rock, the reef west of little Perhentian that connects with the lighthouse reef. We descended right on top of an Indian Ocean Walkman, a very odd kind of scorpion fish that uses clamps beneath its pectoral fins to pull itself along the bottom like an insect. Its buggy eyes made its head look like a crocodile fish, but apart from that it was the size, shape, and color of a scorpion fish. Rounding the reef on a 60 degree heading toward the lighthouse, we found morays and blue spotted rays in the coral outcrops. We had hazy vis which improved as we crossed a sand flat on our way to the lighthouse. Here we found a rock covered in staghorn and green hard coral and teeming with fish. The vis became better the higher we circled on it and though we didn't see anything spectacular we ended our dive surrounded with fishes in a the extensive bed of staghorn coral and surprisingly amidst several boatloads of snorkelers we hadn't noticed until we were under the lighthouse near the surface.

If we compare Malapascua to Perhentian, on this trip we preferred the former, but the latter was by far the most relaxed. We slept very well at the Coral View resort (on Malapascu it was up at dawn each morning to see a thresher shark if we were lucky) but at Malapascua every dive was a fascination of small creatures and occasionally large ones. In both places we found top notch dive centers. There are a lot more people doing scuba courses in Perhentian, in fact it's an almost ideal place to learn to dive, with shallow coral near the dive center and black tips on the nearest reefs (we saw them snorkeling, babies in close to shore, and a big 2-meter monster lurking in deeper waters, which Dusty and I enjoyed seeing as it cruised the sand valleys between the coral patches). 

The dive shop did a good job of keeping the experienced divers separate from the beginners, and was able to cater to personal tastes despite having a dozen divers on a boat at times (or sometimes just us, or us and another couple). Tokong Laut gets crowded in the morning but the open water divers stay above 18 meters which leaves the bottom where where bamboo sharks are pretty much to the fewer advanced divers. The owner of Pro Divers World, Carl, is a kindly German who genuinely likes his customers and has big plans for his dive shop. He knows his business better than I do, but I liked it the way it is now :-)

Check the Pro Divers World blog at

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Diving off Malapascua, Cebu, Philippines, June 20-23, 2012

My logged dives #1128-1138

During our stay in Malapascua we did 15 dives, the first on arrival June 18, to North Point to find a frogfish. On June 19, we did our next three, our first thresher shark dive at dawn, and then an excursion to Gato Island, followed by a swim with a whale shark off the beach from the dive center. So far so good.

We skipped the night dives on those days because we were travel-weary but we managed to get ourselves up the following morning June 20 for another dive on Monad Shoals, where again we saw a thresher shark, or its body in one part of the gloom followed a moment later by its unmistakable tail. After that encounter we returned to the beach, where sometimes the banca went all the way to shore, and at lower tides had us transfer to smaller boats. Again we were so tired we didn't book another morning dive, but went back to our room and slept instead like zombies, skipping breakfast and lunch and getting up just in time to wander down to TSD for a 2 p.m. dive. This one was a return to Monad Showls, to the side called Old Monad, where mantas had been spotted recently, so we signed up hopefully, but with realistic expectations. Mantas are elusive in general but so are thresher sharks, so it was actually a treat when we saw a thresher shark buzz the periphery of the reef. He was still in the haze, but this time we saw the complete animal in one piece, an improvement on earlier sightings, apparently unusual to see them during the day.

After our nap we were starting to feel energized again so we signed up for a night dive and I went for jog down the coast, exploring the trails far enough to reach the village past Pillar's Place on one of the coves. Bobbi and I met back at the dive center before dusk. She had gone for a walk but got lost and a motorcyclist stopped to assist and gave her a lift to Thresher Divers. She wasn't carrying money so she promised to leave some at reception. She asked how much and he said 'as you like' so we asked the dive shop staff how much to leave and followed their advice (50 pesos, a little over a dollar). We have no idea if he came back to collect it, but he probably did.  Anyway, the incident gives you an idea of how people treat each other on this pleasant island.

Despite the wealth brought in by dive tourists, most of the diving businesses are western owned, so despite the employment and boost to the local economy, there is obvious poverty on the island. My daily jogs took me eventually to the fishing villages at the far end of the island. These were in coves between rocky outcrops with trails so rocky and steep that motorcycles couldn't go there, so each was isolated apart from being easy walks from one another. They looked peaceful, though overcrowded with people living in close quarters in beach shanties, with pigs and chickens roaming on the beach, and the sea and fruit trees providing the only obvious livelihood.

We read that kids on the island would skip school to collect shells to sell to tourists, and that these items were illegal to export from the Philippines. Tourists were asked not to perpetuate this by purchasing from the truant kids, in hopes that this would help return them to school. After one meal walking back along the beach at night we came upon some kids innocently playing in the sand. One girl about ten had fallen playfully in the sand. She rolled on her back as we passed. When I looked down at her and her friends, she looked up suggestively, still half playing in the sand, and said “My pussy very good.” Bobbi and I were shocked not only at the inappropriateness of the proposition, but at the sense of paradise lost.

Better to go night diving and observe the mating habits of the randy mandy, the tiny mandarin fish that attach themselves to one another at dusk and rise up together in a puff of sperm. We spent half an hour of our night dive waiting for this to happen, and like many sex acts, weren't sure when it happened if we had seen it or not. It was at least an excuse to go night diving. On the remainder of the dive we found devil scorpion fish and large sea horses clinging to coral, always in pairs entwined about each other.

Now that we had got our energy back the rest of our stay fell into a routine of three dives a day, except we couldn't do the third dive our last day since we needed to fly the following morning from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur. Each morning, while it lasted, we were up at 4:30 to catch the banca out to Monad Shoals to try our luck with thresher sharks. The boat trips were short, about 20 minutes over placid sunrise orange-tinged green water. Monad Shoals is deep, 22-33 meters from reef top to drop-off, depending on where exactly we went on the shoals, and our minders liked to keep us 5 minutes from deco, so dives lasted only 30 minutes or so, and we'd get back to the beach near Thresher Shark Divers by 7 or 7:30. The second dive was at nine, and that might be a two-dive day trip, or one dive at 9:00 and a second dive at 2:00. I liked to go jogging when we got back from our afternoon dive, exploring and sometimes getting lost on the sand tracks, but enjoying the motorcycle tracks leading to the sea and then running into the villages where the local water-well and the school were the most popular attractions. It took about half an hour to jog the length of the island, about the right timing for holiday jogging. If I timed it right I could get back before sundown and Bobbi and I could enjoy the view of the sun sinking into the haze on the horizon from our west-facing beach where our “resort” was. Our resort, the Tepanee, whose reviews online were perhaps more effusive than we felt the resort warranted, was a property comprising of a dozen or more cottages on a low hill set amidst trees and greenery, with a path to a private beach we never visited. There was an adjacent restaurant but no other facilities available, and the wifi timed out under the most modest bandwidth loads (another thing we liked about the Blue Coral was decent wifi in our room).

The diving was always interesting. The main attraction was the thresher sharks at dawn. Bobbi said she expected we would go to a spot in clear water and kneel down or hover and watch them swirl around us, but it was not at all like that. It was a challenging dive requiring divers to watch their deco time primarily and of course guard their air consumption, though deco was usually the limiting factor. Visibility was poor on the shoals. Divers were kept behind the coral drop-offs so as to protect the habitat of the wrasse who attracted the sharks to their cleaning stations, though the sharks we saw were on the move or perhaps put off by the people they encountered, so they kept their distance, usually just at the edge of our visibility. It took a sharp-eyed dive-guide experienced in spotting them who knew what to look for. He would point into the void, and then we'd catch a glimpse of a tail or a silhouette that resolved into a thresher shark only because the guide was pointing so insistently that we could see after a couple of seconds that it was one. Other groups of divers might see two or three up close, or none. One divemaster had made 5 trips to the shoals and had never seen a shark. We were lucky in that respect. We saw them on every trip to the shoals except for one. My best sighting was toward the end of a dive at Old Monad spent peering into the silky haze, and then in front of me at 20 meters it materialized zooming in over the reef. It looked at first like a comet and it was only after a second or two that I twigged it was a shark, clearly from its tail, a thresher shark. This one was silver, and in full view, and it was my honor to bang my tank, as I saw it before Gibb, our guide, did.

We were also lucky when one afternoon we were taken out to the shoals to look for manta rays, which they said had been spotted there occasionally. On that dive I also saw a thresher shark pass above the reef. But even when we were not finding threshers there were interesting things to see in the water. The shoals were home to large colonies of garden eels. On our last dive our guide pointed out what he said were 'vipe' creatures in the anemonae, which looked like tiny pipefish wriggling between the bulbs. There were scorpion fish, and nudibranchs, and no telling what we would see on any dive. Once a guide picked up a blob of sluggish cytoplasm off the sea bed with his tank banger, and when he let is slide off midwater, it turned magically into a Spanish dancer.

The water was always a refreshing 28 degrees no matter what the depth, the temperature I like my shower on a hot day. I had a 3 mm wetsuit which I abandoned in favor of a half mm lycra and my 1 mm rash vest. I was comfortable every dive. I dived with 4 kg of weight and no air in my bcd, so I was trim with the correct weight and buoyancy.

Our least favorite dive was a wreck some distance to the north. Due to that distance we were all charged a negligible 50 peso ($1.25) fuel surcharge. The wreck was combined with a stop at Gato Island on the way back, which was interesting because Bobbi had rented a torch so she could go in the tunnel that runs from one side of the island to the other. The wreck was a bit deep for a second dive of the day, 33 meters, and so we were constantly pushing deco and had only 30 minutes on it. It was a very large wreck, a passenger ferry that had gone down in a typhoon with loss of life. Visibility was good enough that we could see most of the wreck, a good portion of its 100 meters in length. It was on its side with the high side 18 meters deep, so it was about 17 meters abeam. It was an impressive hunk of metal covered in soft corals and anemonae, but we didn't find any large animals on it and few small ones in the limited time we had there.

The tunnel at Gato Island was more interesting. There were lots of small critters inside, and one large catfish the size of a baby shark hiding in a hole. We had torches of course, so we could illuminate the marine life. Also on the large side was a huge red hairy hermit crab who'd absconded with a prize shell I had trouble grasping in my hand extended as wide as my grip would allow, so I could put it where we could see it better before letting it scramble instinctively back against the wall.

Another really nice dive was a muck dive in sea grass. This was home to colonies of red fast walking sea urchins who drew sand in off the bottom and converted it into tiny pebble-size lumps they extruded out the orange process on the top. An examination of this apparatus revealed zebra shrimp hiding in among the spines. Also on this dive we saw white banded sea snakes and a devil scorpion fish, glass spiders, many kinds of tiny shrimp, nudibranchs. On a dive later that day at Deep Rock we found a bright red frogfish and an octopus in addition to many of the other animals living in the fan coral and anemonae.

Thresher Shark Divers at Malapascua were highly professional, friendly, and accommodating. The owner Andrea was helpful via email as we planned our trip, Marian managing on site made sure all our personal and diving logistics were taken care of, and the dive guides Alex, Boyet, Gibb, and Balt were top notch and knowledgeable about what we would find underwater. They were also healthily conservative in their diving. Our groupings were small, often only Bobbi and I, sometimes one or two others. Happy hours at Oscar's upstairs from the dive center were extended for divers and somewhat addictive. A meal with plenty of tasty food and all we cared to drink was typically 1000 for the two of us, about $20, the same at Craic down the beach (both excellent meals) and half that if we ate at Ging Ging around the corner (also great food, reasonable drink prices with no need for happy hour pricing). Our favorite resort was Blue Coral at 1500 a night for a fan room, while 4 nights at the Tepanee in a smaller room cost 2,500 a night with a/c that blasted on us all night and we could have done without (we'd booked 4 nights online, in advance). At the end of 5 days of diving, 15 dives each, we paid a little over $1000, and $200 of that was for transport from Cebu hotel in a private car 3 hours to the small port at Maya, and then a banca to the island, and our stuff deposited in our room there (plus the reverse journey). So 30 dives between us cost $800, or a bit more than $25 a dive, tanks and weights (we had our own gear). The most charming thing about the place was the island itself, beaches and coves with a laid back resort strip for those with a taste for foreign food, and local hamlets and banca harbors for all the local amenities. Every dive was a good one, much recommended!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sharks seen at Malapascua June 19, 2012 - Thresher, white-tipped, whaleshark

My logged dives #1125-1127

Our first full day at Malapascua met expectations, except that Bobbi was disappointed in the visibility. It was ok, about 20 meters, but looking for thresher sharks in the morning was like trying to see behind a veil.  However, on our dive, as we worked our way down past 30 meters, the dive guide pointed with his tank banger.  The thresher shark peeked in from the haze and passed as through a sheet of gauze, then returned whence he'd come with a casual flick of his long tail.  A minute later he was back in a similar appearance. We remained as we'd planned until we came within 5 minutes of deco.  New to this I'd slipped down to 36.7 meters by then, peering into the deep, then turned to follow our group up over the sand patches writhing with hundreds of garden eels, then atop the reef at 20 meters and back to to the permanent mooring line, and up that about 40 minutes into the dive.  We had come to see thresher sharks, so this first dive was a thrill.

Our next two dives were on a day trip to Gato Island.  We did two dives there, circumnavigating the island on the two of them.  The high point of the two dives was rounding a corner and finding a group of large white-tip reef sharks, very large ones, the largest perhaps 4 meters, resting on the bottom posing for photographers.  The divers present rested themselves as well and watched as the sharks roused from rest as they became aware of bubbles in the vicinity and lazily took off and circled towards us then settled a little distant, and as the divers edged forward, this was repeated until eventually all actors in this little dance lost interest or had gone their separate ways.

Apart from the 'big guys' the best things about these dives were micro. The dive guides were adept at finding and pointing out smaller game, such as banded sea snakes, cleverly disguised stone fish, tiny nudibranchs the size of a small toe nail, shrimps and crabs concealed in coral, and such like.

Back at the dive shop, we were waiting on the boat to bring our gear when the shop managers were alerted that a shark had been spotted in the water.  Bobbi and I happened to be in earshot and we managed to get aboard the small outboard that the staff were scrambling onto to investigate.  We headed toward where another boat was tracking the animal, which appeared as a dark splotch in the clear green water.  When we got near enough we could see it was a whale shark, about 6 meters long.  This caused a lot of excitement, as most people there had never seen one before.  The other boat it turned out had been bringing dive gear off the Gato Island boat, and my box happened to be on it, so I swam over and retrieved my mask, fins, and snorkel.  Then when the boat again found the whaleshark, I was able to go in and swim alongside.  I did this several times over the next 45 minutes.  Whalesharks are casual swimmers when they want to be, but when they want to they move powerfully and can be hard to catch up with. When I was fresh in the water, I was able to swim along with him 5 minutes or so, but then let him go.  The second time I tired trying to keep up with him after just a few minutes.  But by the third time, when by now half a dozen boats had made it out to us, the whaleshark was starting to tire and did not appear to be swimming so forcefully.  When we left the scene the number of boats and swimmers in the water had doubled, and we were yelling to the newcomers not to touch it, as some were grabbing at its dorsal fin in hopes of riding it.  The animal was confused and swimming in circles, but dusk was just an hour away, and it wasn't there in the morning so it must have found its way and escaped to sea.

I've learned to keep my hands off whalesharks, but not everyone is environmentally aware.  Apparently whalesharks are an almost unheard of occurrence in Malapascua.  One of our divers got a video of the swim which I hope we can post here.

Just one small thing, if you're coming to Malapascua and wondering where to stay, we were told we could get a room on spec at Blue Coral, which is just a few steps away and well within sight of Thresher Shark Diver's shop. We went on Trip Advisor and found that the hotel that Andrea seemed to favor, the Tepanee, was highly regarded.  However, the Tepanee was booked for the first night we planned to be on Malapascua but we managed to book it online the next four nights.  So we stayed in the Blue Coral the first night and the Tepanee after that.  In comparison we thought the Blue Coral was much better value.  The Tepanee is a kind of boutique resort, but the Blue Coral had large no nonsense rooms overlooking the beach.  We thought the noise would be a problem but it wasn't.  It was quiet (and there is construction going on at Tepanee at the moment, so we had pounding during the day).  We had taken a fan room at BC for one night.  It was warm in the room but when we moved to the Tepanee we found they gave us only a sheet, so at 3 a.m. we were too cold and up trying to figure out how the a/c remote worked, and we ended up with the fan anyway, and now our second night we find the a/c is dripping noisily, so for the $100 extra it costs for 4 nights, I would say F.. the a/c.  The only down side to the Blue Coral is that you need to leave your valuables in a safe with the manager whereas with the Tepanee you get a safe in your room.  And finally the wifi at the Tepanee is pretty pathetic whereas at the Blue Coral it was quite robust, so we give Blue Coral thumbs up, apart from breakfast, unless you like eggs, in that case BC wins hands down (but at Tepanee we get no breakfast, so frankly, we are missing BC).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Frogfish and Thresher Shark diving in Malapascua, Philippines, June 18-19, 2012

My  logged dive #1124

Bobbi had to work on Friday (unusual, normally a day off in UAE) but as soon as she was done for the day, that was it for both of us.  I had been on leave since Thursday, so Friday we headed to the airport and flew up to Doha to see our granddaughter Gwen and her parents Glenn and Gulya.  Glenn and I played a bit of guitar and Glenn helped me resurrect an old song I had written long ago, from the depths of my memory, from his recollection from his boyhood.

We were just there overnight and next day, and just before midnight father's day Glenn drove us to the airport and we caught Qatar Airways to Manila, not a bad flight considering that was our bed for the night.  We had a 5 hour layover in Manila before connection to Cebu, where we didn't arrive until midnight, after 20 hours traveling.  Fortunately the airport in Cebu was a breeze, the guy who asked us where we wanted to go outside the airport helpfully steered us to our airport pickup rather than putting us in a cab, and we were asleep in bed at the Cesario Hotel near the airport in Macatan by 1 a.m.  We were out of bed 6 hours later for a hearty breakfast, smiling faces on all the charming staff, and the transfer we had ordered appeared at 8 a.m. sharp.  There are other ways you can do this, cab to the bus station and then bus to the ferry port, but the port was three hours drive in a fast car with a/c and we'd have slept the whole way but for the driver's penchant for soppy ballads played constantly the whole way, another aspect of Philippine charm.

Our arrival at the small port opposite Malapascua had been timed for arrival of the banca from Thresher Shark Divers dropping off empty nitrogen cylinders, and picking up full ones and plastic jerries full of boat petrol, and we were carried out to the island on that boat.  This was one of those Philippine Islands like Boracay which when you pass it in a small banca you think you are seeing things, all this western-oriented development so out of place in the world of the surrounding islands, where graft still siphons off money meant for road works, so the people living there seem rooted in a world that other nations in the region are moving beyond, China being the most striking example, but Thailand, Malaysia not far behind.  This is another charm of the Philippines. No matter how often you return, it's as if you never left.

Meanwhile we were deposited on a sand beach strewn with other bancas, the big canoes with outrigger struts that served to stabilize the boat and also to support planking to make deck space to give you the impression that you are on a much larger boat than you actually are on, but these contraptions are remarkably seaworthy (apart from those that set out in storms on long journeys to neighboring islands, sometimes carrying unwitting tourist). Our bags, two with clothes and one with dive gear, and ourselves, were all plopped onto motorcycles and whisked off on sand tracks to the opposite side of the island where Thresher Shark Divers was located.

We had arrived at TSD thanks to Andrea, the owner, who responded to our emails, unlike any of the other diver centers on the island.  Well, one did send a price list, but by then we were already in dialogue with Andrea, and thanks to her personal attention, were now at her dive shop. We were encouraged to leave our bags outside where we were assured they would be safe (or more to the point, discouraged from bringing them inside).  We were rapidly sorted for accommodation, and within an hour and a half found ourselves on a dive boat heading for a place whose name I don't recall, but the dive was billed as a frogfish one.

It was a small group, just us and a couple of aging Aussies who unfortunately sucked air twice as fast as we did, and also a young lady from Sweden. The water was a pleasant 28 degrees. Vis as we descended we could see was not excellent, but our guide was remarkable in finding every creature imaginable there.  He was constantly tapping his tank, calling us to see almost transparent spider shrimp, the little pipe fish with the fan tails, nudibranchs, scorpion fish living in otherwise featureless rocks.  He was adept at picking out the tiny glass seahorses in the glass fan coral, finding crabs in the white soft corals, pointing out the crabs and shrimp crawling over the anemonae that we thought had protected only clown fish. At one point he crawled into a cave and eventually found a spongy frogfish which he nudged from hiding with his steel tank-tapper, slightly inconveniencing it (or perhaps leaving it exposed to a predator that happened along after we had left).

I was surprised to have such an interesting dive at a site I probably would have passed over in search of larger animals.  We're spending 5 days here and we hope in the next installment to have greater insights into why they call it "Thresher Shark Divers".

My  logged dive #1125, 6 a.m. June 19

So THAT'S why they call it Thresher Shark Divers.  You have get up early for it, but pretty cool.  Like 3 meters cool.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Certified John Foster in PADI Open Water, May 31-June 2, 2012 in Musandam with Nomad Ocean Adventure

My logged dives #1120-1123

One of the other boats went to Ras Morovi and Ras Sanut on this clear-diving weekend and posted this video on YouTube, to give you some idea of what good vis looks like in Musandam:

On the weekend of Thursday May 31 through Saturday June 2, 2012, I did a PADI open water course one-on-one with John Foster, whom I met first time on the Thursday. That was our first encounter because John had decided to do the elearning beforehand and get the wet parts done in a weekend at Nomad Ocean Adventure.  NOA still offers the course for 1800 when students arrive having prepared the elearning in advance.  The elearning course with PADI is about $130 and 1800 dirhams is less than $500 but that includes 2 nights accommodation and 2 buffet meals of Mauritian flavor, plus two days of continental breakfast (with unlimited tea and instant coffee) two substantial lunches on the boat between the two ocean dives each day, all of that diving and all equipment and tanks for diving and training in ocean and pool, and a nice family ambience, plus a fee for the instructor that pretty much covers diving and accommodation for the instructor and his spouse, so it makes a great weekend for Bobbi and I at a break-even deal in return for services rendered.

The services rendered are quite pleasant this time of year.  There are times in winter when the pool is 15 degrees centigrade, and getting through the modules and out of the pool is the best part, but in June evening temperatures are still pleasant in UAE, and the pool is like a warm bath with no need for wetsuits.  John was an ex-water polo player who was quite at home in pools, so all of the pool training was a matter of going through the motions with him, no delaying surprises, followed by joining his friends by the side of the pool and accepting offers of what was in their cool box.  He’d brought along his wife, Naomi, a PADI advanced diver who was snorkeling with us this weekend, and three friends of theirs, Mark, an advanced diver, and Emma and Helen, two young ladies, certified o/w with a few dozen dives between them.  All were teachers at Al Khubairat school in Abu Dhabi, where Rachel works, and where I’d trained a number of teachers there already and was getting some nice referrals.

We did our first pool module before dinner Thursday evening and agreed to meet for breakfast at 6:30 and get in the pool at 7:00 to knock out the remaining 2 pool sessions that a student must complete before doing a second dive in the ocean, planned that day, so we needed to complete the course through module 3 in the pool.  This went well, and we were done by 9 a.m., in plenty of time for us to have more coffee and wait for word that our boat was ready and we could go down and board.

While waiting I went online and found the CALL for papers for the next TESOL conference in Dallas.  I was told at work last week that I would be a good candidate for funding to such conferences.  Having paid my own way to the one in Philadelphia in March, I had not planned to submit a proposal to the next one, but with this new knowledge, I’d jotted down a proposal in the car on the way to the dive center, and that morning I found that the CFP was still open and would be until midnight that night.  Meantime we got the word we were waiting for and headed to the harbor.

The boat motored us up to Ras Morovi, which Aliona had selected as our first dive. In addition to my open water student, she had 4 DSD (discover scuba) divers.  It was funny to see her in the water holding one from sinking, and reaching down to catch another on the way down.  She literally had her hands full, but she’s tall and confident, and always manages competently. She gives the impression on Facebook that she feels quite lucky to have such an agreeable job.

Our diving went very well.  We started out in the bay north of Ras Morovi, where Nicki and Ian and I had done our Christmas diving a couple years ago <>.  Vis was quite good, and the coral gardens were clear as an aquarium.  Bobbi and John and I dived as a trio.  I took care of John while Bobbi kept on the lookout for things to see.  We saw triggers, snappers, surgeon fish, bat fish, rainbow wrass, parrot fish, all the usual suspects, and Bobbi clacked from above and pointed out a turtle, which swam high and ahead of us, so John didn’t see what we were pointing at.  But we came upon another one later with his back encrusted with a dozen barnacles.  This one was right next to us, impossible to miss.

At times during the dive we went out in the sand to look for rays and at 13 meters encountered cold thermocline. The thermocline served as sort of a depth gauge that kept us above 14 meters on that dive.  The most interesting things were higher on the reef, so John’s air lasted over 50 minutes, and we finished the dive in a prolonged safety stop at 5 meters.

We had lunch on the boat and then crossed the bay to Lima headland, where we did our second dive, Bobbi entered the water and waited as John and I did a little surface work.  He swam on a westerly heading toward a point on the headland and when I was satisfied that he was holding a course, I stopped him and we finned over to where Bobbi was, John doing snorkel / regulator exchanges.  We descended again in nicely clear water and found a bit of coral with a hole in it, which I tied my reel off on, so John could do a CESA, controlled emergency swimming ascent.  He did that fine and we descended to the reel where he did his module 2 skill set near a walking sea urchin. Then I collected all the reel parts and stowed them on my BCD, and we went off on our dive.

I was looking under rocks for rays but found none.  However half an hour into the dive Bobbi clacked to point out a large, lion fish hovering atop the reef.  It was unusually large, a foot long and almost as wide, if we include his panoply of spines.  We let ourselves drift up the reef to where he was and then an interesting and unusual thing occurred.  As I was drifting to where he was, he let himself drift down to me, until we were literally meeting eye to eye.  I had never seen such a large lion fish so close and apparently I was just as interesting to him.  His eyes blinked perplexedly as he held himself just before my facemask, while I studied his face and he studied mine, both of us hovering motionless, though unbeknownst to him I was partly focused on avoiding any contact with his venomous spines. Bobbi and John looking on corroborated later that it had appeared to them an ethereal encounter of a cross-species kind.

Later Bobbi spotted a cuttlefish which we chased into some silk white haze.  This one was unusual in that he was alone, and also that he sought to escape us. He succeeded in escaping us better than we did at catching up with him, so we made our way back to the boulders with green and black coral, splotched with purple.  When John went low on air we ascended on alternate air source, as called for in PADI training.  Again the dive lasted around 55 minutes, and again the thermocline kept us above 14 meters, which would have put us about where the tables said we could tolerate regarding nitrogen (but our computers, on the other hand, sampling at more accurately discrete intervals and depths, were telling us we had 99 minutes of no deco time throughout most of the dive).

It was a warm ride home. I slept some of the way, and when we reached port we found the afternoon sun still strong.  So it was that when we collected our gear and hauled it back to the dive center, John and I decided to cool off with another module in the pool.  We felt we had accomplished a lot that day when it finally came time to sit poolside and enjoy the evening with our new dive buddies. And before dinner, I went online and submitted the proposal I had dashed off in the car to the conference website I had found that morning to be still accepting proposals. Then it was time to really relax.

With only one module left to do in the pool next day, Bobbi and I let ourselves sleep to 7:30, a real lie-in for us. Despite that, John and I were at the pool by around 8:00 and out of it having completed the last module by a quarter till nine.  We had arranged for an early departure of the boat this morning, and Aliona signaled us to move just a little after nine.   We headed to the port, got in the boat, and put to sea.  Half an hour out, one of the engines started puffing white smoke, a sign that water was getting in it. We had to turn around and return to port.  On the way, Aliona was able to raise Mohammed, the boat owner, on the satellite phone. When we limped back to port at a quarter past ten, a new boat was ready and waiting for us.  We transferred our gear quickly and were away at 10:30 having lost just an hour in the snafu.  It could have been a lot worse.

As it was we got our diving in on a normal day’s schedule.  Richard the French guy who dives alone on a rebreather  had joined us and requested the first dive at Ras Morovi, but we wanted to go to Lima Rock because a whale shark had been spotted there the day before, and conditions looked good for an early dive on Lima. Richard agreed to that if we would do the second dive at Ras Morovi.

When we reached Lima Rock at last, we found very little current and excellent visibility.  Aliona went in to test the current and said it was moving toward the center of the island, but by the time I entered with my divers we were beyond the flat wall where the current starts pumping toward the east end of the rock, and Bobbi and John and I had to fin hard and pull ourselves along the wall to turn the corner toward the center to reach a place where we knew the current would lighten up.  In doing this we got down below 16 meters, which combined with the exertion, shortened John’s dive in the end.

It was a beautiful dive, like diving in tropical waters.  We kept looking up in hopes of seeing whale sharks but saw barracudas instead. Out in the blue, schools of trevally swirled, and on the rock the reef fishes moved in endless motion.  Giant honeycomb morays were moving about, streaking from lair to lair, poking their heads out and being administered to by blue wrasse who seemed to avoid the inside of the gaping mouth somehow. The little blue wrasse were active as well in stations where batfish lined up for their makeovers.  Batfish were schooling in bat caves where I would shine a light to see if there was anything lurking on the floors.  Nothing L  We moved up to safety stop level at 5 meters and felt the current increase near the west end of the island.  With John getting low on air I had us reverse direction and we popped John to the surface at 42 minutes into his dive.  While we were waiting for the boat, I had John remove his weight belt and tank, and replace both, and then with him safely aboardship, Bobbi and I resumed our dive and continued for another 20 minutes more.  We saw two more giant honeycomb morays (or maybe the same ones) and we enjoyed the dive, despite seeing no whale sharks.

Aliona suggested we stay at Lima Rock for the second dive, since conditions were so unusually favorable, but Richard wanted to move, so we honored our agreement and motored over to Ras Morovi.  You never know what you'll find wherever you are, but as it happened conditions had worsened at Ras Morovi since the day before.  There was now a fine silk haze in the water and not many unusually interesting animals about, though one lady said she saw several turtles. At one point on the dive we encountered Richard in his rebreather coming the other way and examining a place where it looks like a slab of rock had been quarried at about 16 meters depth.  I almost passed it up but remembered that Aliona had said it was a good place to find nudibranchs, so we stopped to look for them with my torch (but neither Richard nor I found any). Still the diving was pleasant and we got John through the hovering and mask removal underwater on the fourth dive for certification. When John signaled low on air at around 45 minutes, we dropped him by the boat, and then Bobbi and I went down again for another 20 minutes, heading out in the sand this time looking for rays. We found none.  But we still had fun and congratulations to John on getting through the course, my 199th certification by my reckoning <>.  Who will be #200 I wonder?