Monday, December 17, 2012

Success! Certified Bonnie Swesey at Nomad Ocean Adventure, Musandam, Dec 15-16, 2012

My logged dives #1178-1181

Nicki strains to identify a fascinating creature encountered in the deep

ACS had a last day of work on Thursday for the seasons holidays so teachers were feeling relaxed enough to drive across the UAE on Friday rather than heading up straight after work on Thursday.  We had booked diving Friday and Saturday, so Thursday evening our group, Nicki, Bonnie, Bobbi, and I just relaxed at the dive center and prepared ourselves for the adventure ahead. Roger arrived from playing in a concert in Dubai after most of us had gone to bed.

Next morning, not too early, I took Bonnie in the pool to refresh her training which she'd already completed at Freestyle, Dibba two weeks before.  We rehearsed the Dive #2 open water skills and then headed out to sea to do it!

It was a bit windy with overcast skies, unsettled weather, but seas not too bad despite a bit of spray riding out, so Theo motored us over to Ras Morovi where we dropped into the calm sheltered bay there.  Bonnie and I started out as a buddy pair, she performed her skills without a hitch, and we caught up with the others around the beautiful living reef there.  Bobbi and Nicki were diving deeper than we were because I was staying high on the reef to keep Bonnie near the surface and to show her and Roger a small cave with crayfish.  The crayfish was home, but in the process another couple of divers Dan and Randa appeared with a camera, Nicki and Bobbi got distracted, and Roger continued over the saddle with Bonnie and I to the the cabbage coral patch where there are sometimes turtles.  None home today, so we continued to the lovely alcove where we've had so many pleasant ray encounters.  None there either so we continued a little ways until Bonnie reached 50 bar.  We were doing a safety stop when another diver appeared with the thumbs up sign.  Nicki's divemaster training had kicked in and they had been searching at the surface for their lost buddy, Roger. The situation was fraught with ambiguity but Nicki and Bobbi continued their dive as we ended ours.  We did learn a couple of things.  One is that engines revving at the surface are barely audible at depth, and indistinguishable from normal picking up diver noises.

Our dive at Ras Morovi was a lovely dive and the best of the weekend.  On the down side, the water was foul in spots with flotsam, and strangely we found dead animals.  At depth we had seen a sting ray with bite-sized chunks taken out of it, and on the surface a dead turtle was floating near where we eventually collected Bobbi and Nicki.  Not sure what this means, if it was just that day or a harbinger of things to come.

Our other dives that weekend were not particularly memorable.  Visibility was ok but cloudy on all of them, and we hardly saw any animals of note, apart from the normal fish life, blue trigger fish, trevally, rainbow wrasses, lion fish, batfish ... there were lots and lots of fish (I must be getting jaded :-), just nothing large or unusual, though I remember at the end of our last dive Sunday coming up in a school of a thousand silver fish swirling round and round us.  My main focus, and Bonnie's, was getting her course done.  Bonnie did very well, systematically overcoming all the challenges required in the PADI course, removing face mask being particularly daunting and troublesome for many.  This is the activity most prone to panic on the part of the student, but Bonnie managed the stress well, and in the end, passed the course.

She and Roger are going to the Maldives soon, and I hope they continue their diving there and enjoy more and more pleasant experiences under water, since experience is ultimately the most persistent teacher.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fun Diving Musandam with Nomad Ocean Adventure, Dibba, Dec 7-8, Buddied with Jay Fortin, Bobbi and Nicki

My logged dives #1174-1177

Nice diving this weekend at Nomad Ocean Adventure, even mellower for me as the trip was arranged by Greg Golden and David Weiler (not me for a change) and I had no students around apart from past ones. Besides Greg, Jay Fortin was down from Doha and became my dive buddy, and Bobbi and Nicki drove up with me in the car. Tom Longo was in our group with a couple of advanced students of his own, and Greg Perry was there as well, whom we'd been with on a liveaboard dhow once up a time. Also present: Kristyn Ulrich, Lindsay Guthrie, and David, Gail, and Heather Muirhead. It was a large and gregarious group, and les après plongés continued well into the evening.

For me, it was total relaxation. I didn't have to do anything apart from get myself and my gear aboard the dive boat until, once we were under way, Theo turned around and asked me where I wanted to go for the first dive, the first I'd been asked suddenly to think about something. It was a lovely day, clear blue skies, so clear we could see fish-head rock way up the coast. Seas were blue and placid, reflecting the jagged mountain coastline that separated the two natural blues, and the air rushing through the boat had an almost pleasant chill to it. I allowed as how it seemed like a nice day to do Octopus Rock.

It was a great weekend for diving, almost no current on all but our last of four dives. That's unusual for Octopus Rock (what we used to call the Stack back in my ADSAC days). We dropped in on the south point of the rock, where we can often hide from strong current, but there was none today. It was actually possible to follow Theo's dive plan, which was to head north with the rock on the right, and then veer left at the Big Boulder and find the next ridge over and follow the wall on our left to the north, and THEN of all things round the far end of the wall and follow it back to the south. One of those directions is usually impossible against the strong currents that plague Octopus Rock, but not today :-)

Octopus Rock is always full of fish. Today there were schools of bright blue trigger fish seemingly everywhere, some hiding in rocks with their tails sticking out, curious fish. I don't recall seeing bat fish but the little blue wrasse were following puffers around as they wandered into the bat fish cleaning stations. Once we'd rounded to the south we came on a rock over which hovered a school of barracuda. On the ridge itself we found a couple of crayfish not particularly well hidden.

When we reached a place I thought was about the right distance back, I went over the ridge and swam to the next one over thinking that might be Octopus Rock. It looked about right under water but as we rounded it and came shallower, we realized there was nothing there that went to the surface. This is a tough place to navigate, all the ridges confuse me. As we were coming up to shallower depth, we passed through schools of jacks and trevally that reminded me of similar schools in the AndamanIslands. We did a safety stop over the coral atop the rock and surfaced to find we were about even with Octopus Rock, but still short of it to the west, maybe one or two, or three, ridges over.

Once we were all collected we motored over to Ras Morovi for a tasty lunch on board the boat and from there we headed to Lima Rock for our afternoon dive. We dropped in the south side and meandered casually to the west. Again there was almost no current and when our meander turned to the east we realized we had rounded the west tip of the island. Sometimes there are fierce currents there, but today it was like a swim in the pool.

Where we dropped in, there was a honeycomb moray halfway down the rock wall, nice to see something that large before we even reached the bottom. Swimming along at about 20 meters, I saw a cow-tail ray in mid water rippling speedily along in the opposite direction to us. The ray was about a meter and a half across and was missing his tail. I'm pretty sure we saw the same sting ray a second time at the end of the dive on almost the 180 degree opposite side of the island. I was looking into an alcove when the ray decided to leave his hiding place and swam right below me (I almost missed it but Nicki used the tank-banger Bobbi and I had given her to call our attention to it - it's not a bad idea to make sure your best dive buddy has a tank-banger). There was some contention about whether this was the same ray we had seen earlier or not; Jay swore the second ray was a lot smaller, so we asked another diver what he thought, and he said they were different, the second was much larger – so go figgah (I'm telling you, they were the same :-)

We reached port not too late in the afternoon. Thousands of fish we would never see underwater were lying on the boat ramp at the colorful fish market, which we could see across the bows of the dhows. Back at Nomad Bobbi and I cleaned our gear and left it out to dry in the rain that would appear later that night. Then I went for a 5 km jog to Golden Tulip and back in the dusk while Bobbi and Jay went for a walk into the beachside fishing village. Nicki got out her cheese for an early happy hour which we joined after showers. Dinner buffet was served superb, as usual, Chris's mom being back in personal hands-on charge of the Mauritius cuisine.

Next day, we got an early departure. Someone banged on our door at 7:45 and we were away from the dive center by 8:30. The boat got off around nine, with pleasant Hassan at the helm. Our first stop was Ras Sarkan, on a day so clear that the island of Mother of Mouse could be seen popping out of the ocean to the northeast.

The water was again a 25 degree centigrade chill, somewhat warded off by our 5 mm wetsuits. Visibility was good and while waiting for the others I watched fish swirl around a large rock below me, 5 or 7 meters across, and just covered in fish. We dropped down on top of a torpedo ray hiding under a blanket of sand, which we swished off so we could see him better.

The dive plan at Ras Sarkan is to keep an eye on your compass and hang out at the point, which you've reached once your compass tells you you're heading north. On a currenty day, there should be plenty to see there. Today the current was slack, so as we turned to the north at the point and then started heading back west we realized we had reached the tip and passed it without much incident. Ras Sarkan is deep. We got down to almost 26 meters with a high view of the sand below but depending on how much air we thought we would need to complete 50 bar or 50 min 'whichever comes first', we varied our depth to conserve air molecules in our tank. Jay stayed above us, Bobbi was usually above me, and I was playing it at about 16 to 20 meters most of the dive. Nicki on nitrox and small lung size was least concerned about air consumption or deco and and was usually well below me. Nicki goes slow and is very observant. She told us later she had seen scorpion fish and even a scorpion-like walkman (I saw one in Malaysia last summer). She called me down on a couple of occasions to see the nudibranchs she was discovering. Coming up from the last of those calls to come look, I shined a light in a hole and found the tail of a honeycomb moray. I followed that around a bend and came on a huge head poking out the ledge, odd that I hadn't seen that first. Following the ledge along, there was a second honeycomb smaller than the first, probably an offspring. After 50 minutes of that, perhaps a bit longer, we surfaced a little back from the point at Ras Sarkan.

Our last dive of the weekend would be Lima Rock, and Theo had an interesting plan for it. After a great lunch (there was a delicious pasta salad, and Jay had bought nuts and fruits, including watermellon, on his walk the night before) we motored over to Lima Rock where Theo said we would drop on the north side, round the east point, and then come back to the west on the south side. Hassan motored us off the point for a shoof and Theo said it looked as though there would be current there. He warned us against getting caught in it and riding the freight train to Iran. More than once we have been caught in that current and sometimes driven down to over 30 minutes so that you can't just come up. You have to ride it east and do your safety stops. The one upside to that one-way trip is that there is almost always a huge school of huge barracuda lurking off the point and this inadvertent drift dive takes you right through them.

Current also attracts large fish, so it's worth risking if your diving skills are up to it. There wasn't much current at the start of the dive and I saw the green whip coral bending into the current before I actually felt it, but soon we found ourselves being sucked along toward the point. I signaled everyone to stay together and close to the rock, though I wandered off it as far as I dared hoping to spot devil rays which are sometimes seen there if conditions are such that you can get to where they are (and if they are there of course, on this day, we'll never know). We did see a flight of large bat fish as we approached the point and when we stared to get carried inexorably into it we found fishnets and ropes we could hold on to and keep our position.

It was a position worth keeping. The schools of barracuda were all around us. We enjoyed them for a couple of minutes but then had to work our way into the current up a flat rock that was rushing over the gap we had opted not to pass through. I was pulling myself with handholds in the rock, and the barracuda, big ones, were right in front of our noses. This was interesting and we got a rest in the gap, but had to continue along a featureless rock face. This is where the whale sharks like to hangout, where the plankton can be driven through their filters, but like the devil rays, they were taking the day off, and we had to fin our way stiffly into that current.

Normally when we pass this way we are coming from the middle of Lima Rock. When diving in the coral gardens there, there is a large rock that juts out seaward and I know that if I go around that, the current is likely to carry me out to the point (we got caught in that once with the DeJong kids when they swam out past the rock to get closer to the whale shark they spotted in midwater there). Often when going in this direction you are on a one-way ride and it barrels you along this blank wall until you reach the gap and can duck in out of it. Then you either end your dive hanging out off the point and let it spit you toward Iran or you go through the gap to the other side, and if lucky see the devil rays.

Today we were having to do the trip in reverse. We were having to fight our way up-current along that blank wall, and the vis was poor to boot, a bit silty. It was not as bad as it could have been; it was doable, but not pleasant. And when we came to the point where the wall juts into the sea we had to fight our way along it into what appears blue nothing which only I (possibly) knew ended in a coral garden where there would be no current. I got there first and turned to look for the others. Bobbi soon appeared, and I spotted Jay overhead. Jay and I were both at 50 bar from the exertion. Nicki meanwhile had found a turtle and surfaced with it. We surfaced to find her, saw she was just behind us, so we all regrouped at 5 meters in the coral garden.

Here the diving was again pleasant. We had only ten minutes before we needed to surface but in that time we visited the bat fish cave and found a couple of elegant lion fish hovering beautifully. Keeping to 5 meters we came atop a rock and found a turtle there. The turtle's shell was encrusted in barnacles, and a blue tang was trying to eat some morsels there. The turtle saw us and slowly moved away. Turtles are not very good at expressing alarm (or maybe they just don't get alarmed, they just leave the area, they think, as unobtrusively as possible).

The last dive was challenging, different from the others, but I thought it was a great dive, nice to be with advanced buddies and to be able to probe the corner where the currents are. Another great weekend in UAE thus comes to a delightful end, and thanks Chris for hosting us :-))

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Freestyle diving, Dibba Rock, Dec 1-2, 2012: Started Bonnie's OW dive course

My logged dives #1172-1173

It was National Day weekend in the UAE, a long 4-day one for me and Bobbi, and her colleague Bonnie. Bonnie is going to the Maldives with diving friends and wanted to start her PADI open water dive course.  The weather in Abu Dhabi for the weekend looked stormy and windy, but WindGuru was showing conditions on the east coast to be placid for Saturday and Sunday, so with all of us including Nicki packed cozily into our Honda MRV/Pilot, we started out at leisure for a long drive Friday afternoon across a rainy Emirates.  The drive became longer through a series of mishaps.  It was raining hard as we passed by Abu Dhabi airport and we somehow ended on the Suweihan road.  We used to reach the Eastern Region this way so we carried on under cloudy skies that alternatively darkened and drenched the desert.  Past Dhaid we found lengthy tailbacks approaching Masafi, with too many National Day shoppers crowding the roadside "Friday Market". This brought us to the cement factory near Dibba almost exactly an hour later than we would have arrived had we gone our usual route.  By now it was pouring down rain and getting dark. We found the border crowded, chaotic, and uncomfortably lit with vision impaired by headlights in the drizzle, and for the first time ever we were turned back.  

Fortunately we knew of accommodation in the residence apartments in Dibba. These had tripled their rates for the weekend but we still found an affordable two bedroom flat in Alia Suites, outside of Dibba for 1000 dirhams a night, or $368 dollars, which made it $40 a night per person, the best deal we would likely get on such short notice on a holiday weekend.  Any port in a storm: it was roomy, clean, and comfortable, amazingly had free wifi, and normally would have been a third that price. We catered it with Indian chat and tandoori from Lulu's, and bevvies from our coolbox. We were a positive, compatible group of friends, out for an adventurous long weekend.  Anything could happen.  We were enjoying ourselves.

Next day was beautiful, clear skies, no trace of the rain the night before apart from puddles in the road and wadis.  Nicki made us all filter coffee and we turned up at Freestyle divers at 9 a.m., on spec, and found that their one boat was doing Dibba Rock shuttle service the two days we would be there.  This was ideal for dive training.  Freestyle Divers is on the premises of Royal Beach resort, there is a pool there we can use for dive training, and with three rides a day out to Dibba Rock, there are many options for blending ocean diving with confined water.

Bonnie had completed the PADI eLearning course online, so we got her started in the pool. The way the course works, after the initial pool session, dive students are ready to try out the ocean, and the first dive of the course is FUN, no skills allowed.  Bonnie did great in the pool and ocean despite strong currents as we tried to find our way along the reef that has all but disappeared.  

Air temperatures early December in Dibba were balmy, but the ocean was a cool 25 degrees centigrade.  Bonnie had rented a 3 mm wetsuit, and Nicki lent her a hoodie to augment that, but the rest of us were diving in 5 mm suits. We were dropped in at the aquarium where all the fishes are, and though we had to fin a little into the current  rounding the island from the channel, it was not difficult at that point.  There are masses of fish in the aquarium, always captivating with clouds of snappers covering the rocks, punctuated by the occasional silver trevally, rainbow wrasse, and puffer fishes riding high above the fray. We found a little torpedo ray that followed us around like a puppy dog, and we showed it a flounder we found in the sand there (the moses sole).

From the aquarium I tried to lead us onto the reef, identifiable from its loud clacking.  I think I took us beyond it, looking for sharks which we can sometimes see there, and at its southern end Bonnie surfaced and we drifted a little to the east, but when we got back down and finned north, we found ourselves on the raspberry coral at the eastern end of the L which is a good place for turtles. We had welcomed a 5th diver into our group, Andrew Roughton, he had a camera, and he snapped this picture of the turtle we found there.

If there had been no current we could have gone back west to the right angle of the L and followed it back north to return to the aquarium, but there was no way.  The current was too strong, so I indicated we move to the north toward the rock.  Nicki and Bobbi duly complied and soon disappeared to the north, while Bonnie and I found it easier to go with the current from where we were, and Andrew, coming behind, followed us. The current guided us gently over some more raspberry coral patches like those in the photo, where we found cuttlefish, and some rock bommies where batfish lived. Bonnie was curious about the sea cucumbers, and people in Hawaii do worse to them than just touch them (they put them on rocks to make them eviscerate and show their kids) so I picked one up and handed it to her underwater. They feel soft and squishy if you're expecting something else. At 50 min on my dive computer and surfaced with Bonnie.  It was a nice dive.  Bonnie logged it on FaceBook:

That afternoon Bonnie and I returned to the pool and finished all of her remaining pool modules. We had changed to Lycra for this, perfect for the warm pool, but cold each time we had to come back to the pool deck and brief the next module and change tanks. 

Next day we returned to Freestyle, this time to dive on their 9 o'clock boat, which didn't get away until after ten, which provided ample time for Bonnie to get her equipment set up and sorted, and in the end we were on the boat awaiting others. Unfortunately Bonnie had made a tactical error in purchasing what she thought was a copy of the mask she had been renting, but which in the ocean turned out to be too big for her.  This delayed her descent until Phil on the boat offered to lend her his.  It was the same model, but again just different enough that it fit her, and she and I were able to get down and dive together.  The others had gone off already to dive the back side of the island.

Andrew took this picture of Bonnie on her first day of diving

There's really nothing worse for a beginning diver than a mask problem. The diver can't see properly and takes in water. The diver is not experienced enough to know what s/he is doing wrong, and it compounds anxieties. I had tried tightening the strap and defogging it with spit, but there was no way around the ill fit. But when Phil provided his mask Bonnie was at least able to come long and enjoy the dive.  We started in the aquarium as we had the day before.  There was only a hint of current, so I led us onto the coral reef we had been looking for the day before.  Today I was able to pretty much follow the reef, where we found a couple of cuttlefish that I moved my hand near, so they would back off iridescent. The current was more noticeable there so I turned us back north to regain the calm of the aquarium, but it was a stiff fin into current on a north compass heading to get us into the lee of the island where the current slackened, and Bonnie was doing well to keep up.  We had gone now to almost ten meters which made me realize we were getting swept a little off the rock, so I followed the contour east and found a small school of large barracuda lurking. We swam close to those, and found batfish nearby, and I was of two minds whether to go south to back to the aquarium or continue around the back of the island.  We passed under the shadow of a boat and Bonnie signaled she wanted to ascend, so we came up 35 min. into the dive.

Bobbi and Nicki were enjoying their dive as well, finding morays and pipe fish on the back side, and being dogged as usual by the playful torpedo ray. Dibba Rock appears in the good vis we had today to be making a comeback from the twin hits of cyclone Gonu and prolonged red tide, plus harbor and villa construction up and down the coast there. Bonnie decided to return later to complete here course, and no one was that excited about Dibba Rock to go again that day, so we made an early return to Abu Dhabi, arriving just in time so see the precision flyers in acrobatic formation off the corniche, after two fun days out in a beautiful country celebrating its 41st national day that weekend.