Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fun diving on Al Marsa liveaboard to Musandam

My logged dives #1152-1157

You don't get on a liveaboard to Musandam for superior diving. You do it to get away, to totally relax, to be pampered in a cycle of dive, eat, sleep, repeat.

I put my deposit down and let myself flow into the break from real life back on dry land.  On Thursday I lingered at work till about 2:30 and then hit the road, direction Dubai, moving slowly over to Dibba driving alone 3 hours in my car. I got torch batteries on the way, gas at the pump in Oman, took my time, and arrived at the Dibba Oman port well before dusk, in time to check out the large sharks hauled up on the boat landing slab at the impromptu fish market. One was a guitar shark. I was one of the first on board, others trickled in from 6:00 to as late as 7:30, and when all were present, we were invited for dinner on the top deck in the harbor. It's not practical to eat al fresco on a moving boat, so the first meal is served in the harbor.  This being the case, there was no need for anyone to get there before 8 pm.

I was along because one of my ex-students, Greg Golden, had assembled a group of his buddies for one more stage in a “summer of diving” while their spouses were away for the summer. I'd had to miss their trip to Kassab because Bobbi and I were in Malapascua, but two weeks before they'd been in the Daminiyites. I was finally able to hook up for this big splurge liveaboard trip, much more affordable while my spouse was away in Houston, though I miss Bobbi as a dive buddy. The cabins on the liveaboard are cramped but fine for a couple, and with Bobbi, all our dives last an hour. On this trip I was buddied with the dive guide, and he was obligated to end his dives at 50 bar or 50 minutes, whichever comes first.
Itinerary for the trip - Thanks to Simon Lange for use of the photo
We motored up to White Rock overnight where aboard the brown dhow I got a lie in till almost 7 a.m and awoke to a brilliantly clear morning moored in a fjord surrounded by stark mountains rising from the blue sea.
Thanks to Simon Lange for contributing the photo

 The dhow stayed where it was and we got in a speedboat and went to the seaward side of a ras called Kaisah. I don't think I'd ever dived that side before, but the current was ripping. We all got buffeted along until we'd hit an underwater cove and the backwash created a back-current that we had to struggle into till we reached the other side and hitched a ride on the rip current again. The current gave us good vis, but there wasn't much to see, nothing unusual at any rate, until we got out to the point. Just before the point we hit another back current and this was the end of the dive for Greg and his buddy, another Greg (Perry). Both were low on air from the hard finning into the back currents, and I myself was at 75 just 35 minutes into the dive, but pulling myself along on the rocks, so when Greg and Greg went up, Brian joined me, and we rounded the point. Here we saw a barracuda, and sheltering in the relative slack around the point, a turtle. It was a nice start to a 4-dive day.
Who trained this guy? Thanks to Greg Perry for this photo of Greg Golden, as he explained "demonstrating the risks of improper SMB deployment as part of my "Don't do this" series of advanced scuba instruction.  While it looks very realistic, I was totally in control of the sitch."

Breakfast was waiting on the sun deck, and when we'd had that we still had an hour and a half to kill so I went and laid down in my cabin and completed my lie-in with a morning nap. Then at 11 we all piled back in the boat for a second dive on the inside of Ras Kaisah.

This was the same place we'd overnighted last time Bobbi and I had come out with this company, only on that trip the dive leader had taken us inside Ras Kaisah on the first dive and then on the headland opposite for the second, and I recall that all aboard were a little disappointed in the choice of dive sites, especially once we'd seen that White Rock lay just off the mouth of the khor. But White Rock has variable currents. Whereas many people who shell out for this kind of trip are committed and experienced divers, there are also divers with limited skills, so dive sites are selected conservatively. Ironically you could get a speed boat from Sultan Qaboos Harbor to advertise a trip specifically to White Rock, if you wanted to dive it, but it doesn't seem to be on the Al Marsa agenda. They've been in the area a while, I'm sure they have reasons for avoiding it.

Brian explained that current would come from the north and strike the headland and diverge in such a way that current would be going out to sea from a particular spot and running inland on the other side of that spot. If the current had slackened we could dive to the left toward the point where we'd seen the turtle and had good visibility, but he seemed concerned when we reached the spot that the current was too strong, so he had us head inland with the reef on our left. This took us into poorer vis away from the point, and though it was a comfortable, pleasant dive, we didn't see much apart from lots of fishes, though Tom Longo, another instructor along with us, saw turtles in his buddy pair (with my cabin-mate Guy).
Red lion fish, photo by Simon Lange
So now it was time for lunch, and after that I lay down on the cushions on the aft deck for an afternoon nap, really shaking off stresses from a week at work where we were short of teachers and creaking at the seams to keep that ship afloat. Sleep was facilitated because the dhow was under way and the ships engine and the slop of the sea on the hull lulled me. When it came to anchorage in Khor Habilain, and the engine stopped, I awoke to the sound of Led Zepplin from someone's iPod playing from the top deck above.

Three p.m was time for our third dive, this one on the inside of Ras Dilla at a site Al Marsa have named Muqtah (no telling why). Brian again outlined a conservative profile. We would go in the speedboat a little ways out the headland and then work our way back towards the dhow. By not heading seaward out the point, we would avoid any threat of current (and the interesting animals that like current that one might encounter at the ras, or point, itself). As some people say, “it's all good”, and Brian is a good dive leader. We were settling into each other's dving styles, and the Lebanese named Roland whom Brian was shepherding was proving to be good on air consumption. So I didn't mind joining him again. Apart from Roland, I was the odd diver out. Everyone else was paired. Rather than assign me to Roland, Brian had had Roland buddy with him, leaving me to be a free agent, to attach myself to whomever I pleased. The last two dives I had ended up with Brian. This third dive I started out with him and Roland.

The direction we were heading had hazy visibility, but to compensate if Brian was looking in the coral walls I would look out in the sand, and if Brian moved to the sand I would keep an eye on the corals. The corals were teeming with fishes but the interesting stuff was out in the sand. At one point I saw a big fish there, the only time I had tapped my tank up until then. It was a yellow finned barracuda. On Brian's watch he tapped to show us a sting ray, a large marble one like the one I'd seen at Lima Rock two weeks before. He rippled fast along the sand but when we chased it, it wheeled toward the reef and the passed slowly before us, so I could clearly see its marbled dorsal side. It headed slowly toward a hole so we followed it there and shined out torches on it.
Scorpion fish, photo by Simon Lange
There was more in the sand. Brian showed us a scorpion fish I would likely have missed. He also noticed a small jaw fish and pointed it out just as it slipped deep into its hole, where I could barely see it in my torchlight. He also pointed out some tiny arch-backed harlequin shrimp in one of the soft corals. Brian is from Philippines so when he showed me that he took me back to Malapascua, where the dive guides were so good at finding the small stuff like harlequin shrimp time and time again.

When that dive was done we got back aboard the dhow and it headed south toward Lima headland where we would do a night dive and two dives the following day in the area where we normally visit on day trips from Dibba.

However, one great difference in liveaboard diving is that when we arrived at Ras Lima, it was dusk (signalled by a booming canon shot from the seafaring town of Lima at the start of Ramadhan), and we were about to do a night dive there. This turned out to be one of my best night dives ever. We had a large group and people stayed together and called each other over to their discoveries, which seemed to happen one after another. We saw lots of eels, including one peppercorn or geometric moray, hovering lion fish, and a couple of trumpet fish.
Peppercorn moray, photo by Simon Lange

There were lots of squids that were attracted to our lights. They would swim into them, right in our faces in other words, and then escaped in a cloud of ink when we touched them. There was a scorpion fish that was walking along the bottom on his lower set of fins, and a baby one just a centimeter long, very hard to see. I found a small crab in a rock and nearby a cuttlefish that became agitated when lit up. There were large pufferfish resting on the bottom that just ignored our lights. There was a rope running down to depth encrusted in marine life and at 18 meters deep we found a seahorse on it.
Seahorse at night; photo by Greg Perry
At one point a marble ray without a tail appeared and rippled through the divers lucky enough to see him. I was the last in the group so I saw him plop down in the sand away from the lights, raising a cloud around him as he did so. This dive lasted just 40 minutes, by order of our dive leader. At the end I wondered why my buddies, usually so meticulous about time, hadn't gone up yet, and then I discerned from their unfamiliar gear that they were divers from another dhow mooring in the same cove that night.

Fluids tasted so much better after a night dive, and I'm not sure how long after dinner I went to bed, but crew hands were stomping on the foredeck overhead of our bunks at 6 a.m so there was little chance of oversleeping the 7 a.m dive. This was planned for Octopus Rock, and during the briefing Brian mentioned that if there was current present at the dive site he would abort that site and take us to Ras Morovi. When we arrived at Octopus Rock there were two boats there already with divers preparing to enter the water, but Brian pointed at the obvious current and told the boat driver to take us over to Ras Morovi. I was disappointed on the way over but at least Brian's choice of Ras Morovi sites was the seawardmost face of Jilly Island, which I have dived only once before. I had been planning to join Brian and Roland on the Octopus Rock dive because the dive site is complicated and I've never led a dive there and knew where I was accurately. I was first kitted up at Ras Morovi before Roland had started to put on his tank, and Brian was helping others enter the water. First in were Tom Longo and Guy, my cabin-mate, so since I was ready I decided on the spur of the moment to join them. I didn't have time even to ask. I just let Brian know what I was doing and descended with them, and after a while they understood we were a threesome.

We hit a sand bottom at 17-21 meters and went along in fine clear water, each of us using torches to see better. There wasn't much to see apart from beautiful blue soft corals, a moray or two, and lion fish in the crevices. But soon Tom started banging on his tank with his torch, pointing to a ray in the sand. As he started to ripple he stirred fine silt and it was even then hard to see what was causing the commotion, but I arrived overhead in time to see a large cow tail ray, minus his cowtail, heading away from us divers. He was too fast to follow for any distance.

We went the length of the island north to south and where we turned the corner we encountered strong head current. No one communicated not to go so we clawed our way forward. Tom signalled 100 bar at this point and it was hard breathing to get through to where we were heading north on the other side. Guy pulled even with me and we found ourselves surrounded by bat fish, some undergoing complete makeovers from the administrations of the tiny wrasse. We were just entering that slack space, me in the lead by now, when a ray shot past me over my left shoulder (reef on my right). I thought it was an eagle ray from its speed but it was more brown spotted and diamond shaped (I think), but I remember the tight body, long tail, and speed so fast there was no point in having a camera. The guys strung out behind me would have seen it for a few more seconds as it overtook me. Tom said he thought it was an eagle ray.

I doubt that because I saw two more eagle rays later in my dive, and the one that shot past me was not one of those. I was just passing through 100 bar at this point and my buddies were rising higher on the reef. Below me I saw a turtle. Vis was decent but not superb so animals were vanishing into the haze. I could see my buddies were ascending, I could see their fins near the surface. We were only 40 min into the dive and my air was holding. I was still at ten meters and I had an SMB and I signaled that I was deploying it and I think it must have been obvious that if they wanted me I'd be below the SMB. We'd been finning into a mild current, it seemed to be bringing out the animals, and I decided I'd just hang out literally at 12 meters, and let the current carry me the way we had come. I figured I might encounter other divers from our group coming up that way, and I could join them.

That's when I saw the eagle rays. This has happened to me on wrecks in Abu Dhabi when for some reason or another I've been left alone and had the opportunity to watch the rays come back to the wreck. They seem to avoid groups of divers but they don't notice one diver hovering until they're already on the scene and then in the case of eagle rays, they shoot off like a jump jet. The first eagle ray did that and I thought like wow, when moments later another happened along. Just like the first, he rippled toward me, noticed that I was not one of them, and departed in an impressive display of power and grace. Two eagle rays, rare and sublime.

I played no games with time or bar. I ascended with 50 bar and reached the surface with 53 min. on my computer. I had heard the boat gears grinding just minutes before but when I reached the surface I was alone with my SMB. I was just on the far side of a gap in the rocks, so I swam through the gap and saw the boat, as well as a turtle passing on the reef below. The boat happened to be downcurrent, so I was there in no time.

Back at breakfast on the sun deck you could feel the anticipation of the upcoming whale shark dive. Peter was wondering what dive he could do with his advanced student and we were talking about a whale shark specialty dive and how in case the WS didn't show up, we could drag an object through the water and students could practice not touching it and how to keep buoyancy while keeping up with it and keeping the correct distance from it, and photographing it without flash and so on. In his briefing Brian always tried to avoid mentioning the something big so as not to jinx the dive, and he explained how he liked to dive the south side but if there was any current he'd switch the the north.

We headed over to the rock in the speedboat and Brian checked the current north, east and south of the island, and found one midway along the south side. But it was pushing to the east, he figured we could drift with it, and he figured on the east point we could round the rock to end the dive on the north side, and that was our plan.

I was planning to dive with Brian but Tom and Guy were in the water first and shouted for me to join them, so I jumped and went with them. There was a major current, more than I would have tolerated if I'd had to make a decision based on my usual method of jumping in the water and seeing if there's current, and if there is mid rock, go to the other side. But it was turning into a nice dive. My buddies kind of deferred to me so I followed my whale shark strategy of keeping at about 12 meters, though the current was pitching us all about, and we were sometimes at 16 meters or more. Meanwhile the other divers had gone deeper, to 20 meters and were diving deep. Vis was very poor. I didn't think they'd be able to see a whaleshark overhead whereas at 12 meters you cover where the WS is most likely to be.

But the problem is when vis is bad you can't see far enough out into the water to see where the WS is likely to be. We saw lots of interesting things. There were shoals of barracuda passing and we finned back against the current and managed to join them. At times we found ourselves in the midst of playing trevally darting about. Always we were carried by the current, at times faster than at others, but always cognizant of the fact that the current might want to sweep us off the rock and make us miss our turn through the gap to the other side. So I was playing this dive 12 to 16 meters and close to the rock.

Other divers were playing it deeper and farther from the rock, due to the slope at that depth. Consequently we heard their tank banging but I thought maybe a divemaster was warning a student to get in out of the current. But no, that was their first whale shark sighting. They said it passed overhead. They were too deep at 20 meters, the WS was at 16 and moving against the current, and they couldn't chase it, so they didn't get a great look. But we were at 12 and couldn't see to 16 and that far out to sea.
Picture by Greg Perry (with thanks)

When I saw Brian at the corner he signalled me a definite WS sighting, so I knew then that we had missed it. Back on the boat he told me they'd seen a second small WS as they were doing their safety stop at the corner. Meanwhile guy and Tom and I were heading for the spot on the north side where I'd seen a WS two weeks earlier, but we had no luck on our outing this day.

Except for the missed whale shark, in aggregate it was a phenomenal dive weekend. When we came up and the boat came to pick us up, we saw a pod of a dozen dolphins breaking the surface just beyond the boat. I tried to swim over to them but they dived and moved further away, always out of sight. They and the barracudas and trevally on the Lima Rock dive made it a better than normal Lima Rock dive. I've seen my quota of whale sharks already the summer. I had a great weekend out, relaxing and highly charged in spurts, challenging diving, nice company, nice time.
Chasing dolphins, photo by Simon Lange (with thanks)


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