Sunday, June 23, 2013

Annual bachelor (and others) liveaboard cruise with Al Marsa to Musandam

June 21 and 22, Al Marsa Liveaboard Dhow trip in Musandam
My logged dives #1200-1205

Once a year we pamper ourselves on the Al Marsa liveaboard dhow trip for diving in Musandam, two nights and six dives out of Dibba harbor. The weather has been very mild so far in UAE with cool evenings and very little sweating after dark, but with many expats away on holiday and for those who remain behind, an assumption of hot humid nights on the deck of a dhow, Al Marsa reduces its prices in summer, making the trip feasible for those on teaching salaries.

An Al Marsa Dhow weekend is about as relaxing as it gets on weekends in the UAE, if relaxing for you is something less sedentary than a weekend spent by the pool at a posh hotel. We shed the work week on the drive to Dibba, endure the increasing hassles and delays at the UAE border checkpoint, and finally cross into Oman for the short drive to Dibba harbor, where we give ourselves over to being pampered and catered for two nights. Most in our group were searched at the border and with so many expats trying to cross on weekends, it was almost 10:00 p.m. before we had all arrived on the dhow. The group were Tom Longo, another instructor, his friend and colleague Stella from Italy, Greg Golden and Greg Perry with his visiting dad who went by “coach”, Jay who'd flown down from Doha with his daughter Shelby, and two nice beginning divers, both named Tariq, originally from Egypt (but one born in Minnesota). We assembled for what should have been sundowners on the top deck followed by dinner, a nightcap, and restful sleep in a cold cramped cabin (under a cozy blanket) while the sounds of the engines lulled us to sleep for the trip up to Khor Hablain, the long fjord where we used to go camping with BSAC divers when we first came to UAE.

Some time after dawn (a lie-in for us; normally at home weekdays we're up before dawn at 4 a.m.) we got the knock on the door to get ready for our first of 4 dives that day, a short speed boat ride to the mouth of the khor, called Ras Samid. I don't know if I've ever dived there before. There was some discussion of how much wetsuit to wear. Our dive guide Robert said the water was 29 degrees. I wondered aloud if that was just at the surface but some were wearing shorties, and I dressed lightly in .5 mm lycra body suit, an only slightly thicker rash vest, and a 3 mm farmer john overall. Once I'd gone below 10 meters, I was almost immediately cold and vowed to revert to 5 mm next dive.

Vis was good and the dive was pleasant despite the chill. I don't recall what there was to see on the first part of the dive, but as we rounded the corner on Ras Samid we came into a large shoal of barracuda, possibly numbering in 3 digits. For some moments we were in amongst them, but then things returned as before, comfortable but not outstanding diving.

In our dive briefings we were always told 50 min, or 50 bar. Since we were given the choice, all our dives were an hour that weekend because we always went for the 50 bar option. We came up in surge that was booming on the rocks, making us think the boat was trying to recall us, but it was the waves hitting the headland with sharp retorts carried clearly underwater. We were recovered by the speed boat in higher than normal seas and back safely on the dhow, we enjoyed breakfast on the top deck and retired to our quarters for an hour's nap.

By the next dive at Ras Morovi I had sorted the problem with the SD, but there still wasn't much to take pictures of there. Robert had suggested we do the outer island which was fine by me, but he wanted to dive inside, in the channel. He figured the current was running north to south on either side of the island. I aked if we could do the outside and he readily agreed. The briefings were conducted on the dhow and our equipment was left in the speedboat all set up for the next dive. As we left the protection of the khor in the small boat we hit heavy seas that sprayed us in the face and made working our way to Morovi tedious. But when we arrived, Robert figured we could carry out the plan. Most of us were advanced or better and the Tariqs were game, so we put on our kit and the boat brought us near to the rock where we entered the water and descended to the relative calm beneath the waves as quickly as possible.

The plan was to go with the southerly current on the east side of the outer island and end up rounding the south tip to the west. We carried out the plan despite the current being contrarily against us. This made it hard going but all the other divers followed except Robert, who reversed with Tareq and Tareq to ride the current around to the west side, where they saw two very large sting rays. It seems the current was spiraling around the island because even when we crossed to the other side we had it against us and Bobbi and I ended up letting it carry us back the way we had come, to the south tip of the island. The year before this very spot had shown us close ray encounters including a pair of eagle rays <>, but today we were only able to find crayfish hiding in the rocks, in addition to surrounding us with the usual panoply of reef fishes. It was a pleasant relaxing dive though. I was fine in 5 mm wetsuits, Bobbi and I the only divers in the group to have them.

The routine on Al Marsa trips is to make two dives from wherever the boat has spent the first night, and on this day it hadn't traveled far due to sea conditions and a late start due to most of our group having had to queue up to be searched at the border. After the second dive lunch is served on deck and the dhow is moved to Lima headland. The kilometers long headland is a natural and consistent overnight shelter, but the default dive from there is the headland, a common destination for day trips out of Dibba, followed by a night dive in the same spot near the dhow. In his briefing Robert suggested a conservative plan that would keep us back off the point, start a little inland, pass under the dhows, and be picked up as far toward the point as we would get. I suggested not passing under the dhows but start on the seaward side of them. This would also give some the option of diving the point, and others the option of staying safe and not risking the currents there. Vis was poor near the dhows but improved as we neared the point.

I had left my GoPro behind by accident, which of course guaranteed that we would see interesting creatures. We started out with a torpedo ray we almost descended on top of. Bobbi and I opted to go with Robert and see what he could find us, and he found us a small (not nudibranch, but a common slug with orange, black, and white thorny processes). One interesting thing we came onto was a pair of morays having a fight. They slithered along the sea bed beside one another with their heads cocked each at the other and mouths wide with fangs bared. They held themselves this way as they scooted along the bottom together, but no blows were actually struck, and one suddenly broke off and went for cover.

In the last part of the dive, as we neared the clearer water near the point, we found lots of big puffer fish. As we were about to ascend after an hour's dive, a turtle came up from depth and we went down to see it. It was in clear water, it passed near us unperturbed, I framed a picture of Bobbi swimming with it, but that picture is in my mind and not on my GoPro :-( And back on the boat Greg and Greg thanked me for suggesting the starting point I did because they made it to the point and saw a pair of eagle rays there :-)

Back on the boat we made tea and waited for sunset. The two Tariqs and Stella went off in the boat with fishing gear and came back with a half dozen snapper that made a great lunch next day. By then it was dark and we had put fresh batteries in our torches. We started from the speedboat which took us around the first point in sight of the dhow, object being to dive back to the dhow underwater. Conditions were perfect with warm balmy air stirred by a sea breeze and comfortable in the water with 5 mm suits. We scoured the undersea features for animals and the first thing I found was a bright red miniature crab in some hard lattice coral. We found caves and walls full of grasshopper shrimp whose eyes glowed in the torches, giving them away by the hundreds, and fewer but frequent delicate red and white banded crabs. Tom Longo found a couple of crabs that wear anemomes on their shells, or anenomes that hitch rides with this particular crab, whichever. We found sleeping parrotfish, puffers, lots of lion fish that were red in the white torchlight, and Bobbi found scorpion fish. The find of the night was a ray hiding under a ledge several meters long from head to tail, and we left him alone when he started to ripple at being discovered.

Back on the boat we were served dinner, another buffet washed down with smuggled seafarer's grog, and we went to bed to be ready for our diving on Lima Rock next day. We did two dives there, starting with the north side first thing in the morning. Robert called the currents well. He briefed the first dive to head east, reef on the right. Of course he mentioned we might see a whale shark and everyone was anticipating that.

We saw no whale sharks in our two dives there, but the first dive we saw much else. The first thing was to find a small cave that Robert told us about that I had never noticed before. It was more like a chimney where you could see up to lighter water above. The next thing to happen was a ray shooting over the top of Bobbi and I, heading into the sand, but then doubling back and passing right beneath us while I struggled to get my camera in play. I finally got it working as the ray was heading away from us over the sand. I chased but he easily pulled away from me.

The north side of Lima is full of swim throughs that have batfish in them, and no telling what you can find it you shine a light into an alcove. We found a moray out of its lair and I think I captured it on video, but by now my camera was running down its battery … it doesn't hold a charge well. I almost prefer diving before I got distracted with such considerations.

Current improved in our favor and we found we could easily work out to the point. Bobbi found us a honeycomb moray hiding in a rock near there. We turned to shoot the gap between north and south Lima. At that point we were following Tom Longo and his group but I got attracted to all the jacks buzzing us there and lost track of the other divers.

We expected strong counter current to hit us on the south side but this was not the case. Instead the current on the south side was running westward, toward Ras Lima. And it was a powerful current and made diving effortless as we drifted along the famous Blank Wall at Lima. We came around the wall but hit some back current where the sand and reef resume. We were both low on air here but we hung out at 5 meters for 3 minutes before surfacing to discover we were in a bracket of rock and needed to move out to sea a bit so the boat could see us, as they might not be looking for us on that side. Eventually they puttered along and picked us up.

So it was back to the dhow anchored off Lima headland for breakfast and another nap. The air conditioner in our room had gone off in the night and kept us up an hour fiddling with it, so we wanted to catch up on sleep, but the aircon problem persisted and we had to wait till the boat started motoring back to Dibba before we could get a proper nap.

This one's for Jay!

By then I had recharged the GoPro and we had had our second dive, again at Lima Rock, south side this time. Robert again called the current, dropping us far to the west and telling us the rock would be on our left when that morning it was raging in the opposite direction. But he was right, we had little current at the start and were able to easily make our way in excellent vis. I went deeper than others to about 20 meters looking into the sand. Most went along the reef at 12 or so and moved ahead. We ended up with Robert and the two Tariqs. Bobbi found a nice pair of nudibranchs, which I attempted to get on video. There wasn't anything else special until a half hour into the dive I dropped to a ledge, shined a light inside, and found a black cowtail ray hiding there. I videod till it started to get agitated, then left it in peace. Bobbi tried to call the others down but they were already heading up, low on air, Robert accompanying them.

The current was downright benign so we found ourselves finning again along the blank wall but with no resistance from current from the direction we had come that morning. Until we reached the gap that is. The point with its current is of course the sweet spot of a Lima Rock dive. If you can find the current and stay there then animals often come to you. Jacks swirl here, you can easily find yourself surrounded by barracuda, and if you can get deep and off the point you might find devil rays cavorting. Current is also a favorite haunt of whale sharks, who like to use their powerful mass to keep themselves positioned so plankton is swept by the current into their mouths. If you can reach the points in this area, find the current, and stay there, this could be the high point of your Lima Rock dive.

We were unable to pull to the other side through the current pouring into the narrow gap. It was the kind of current that could sweep a mask off your face. But we managed to cross the channel and climb the rock on the far side where the current here pinned us to its face. Working our way atop that rock we found a fish net attached there and held on to it we could keep ourselves in the current and see what would come to visit us.

On this day we saw only jacks. But others before us found the barracuda here which might have been below where we were. We hung there as my air slipped below 50 bar. We must have been at about ten meters so we would have to let go to do our safety stop. This can be a pleasant journey. Often when we head mid water from here, we pass through the barracuda that congregate off that point. But not today, for us, though others saw them.

I like this kind of diving. Bobbi less so, though I'm proud that she can, and will, do it.