Friday, December 30, 2016

A quick dive off Dibba Rock with sidemounted Kyle Schoonraad

My logged dive #1527

On our return from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Doha, Bobbi and I brought our 8-year old granddaughter Gwenny home with us from Doha on our last plane ride and enjoyed her company in Al Ain for a few days. We had the crazy idea she might like to learn how to snorkel so we booked a room at Sandy Beach Motel on the east coast UAE, which has an island you can walk to at low tide and where you can snorkel and see sharks if you are lucky. Gwenny seemed keen to learn (we didn't mention the sharks), and Bobbi went out and bought her a small mask and snorkel. We managed to get a room before the new year's weekend rush for a reasonable weekday price. The hotel is built in such a way that you can't get on the beach where you can walk to the island unless you stay at the hotel, so we were all looking forward to the getaway.

As it turned out, Gwenny is still a little small for the equipment we got her and she wasn't able to get her head in the water and mouth around the snorkel. Plus the water temperature had just dropped to 23 degrees, and it was too chilly in the water for sustained practice, so we gave up on that idea for a couple of years. We'll send the snorkel and fins home with her when she goes in hopes that she'll get some practice in swimming pools in Doha, and when she's ready we can show her some real fish, and even teach her diving when she wants to learn.

Meanwhile as long as I was in the neighborhood, I got in touch with Nomad, Fujairah and arranged to come down Thursday and dive Dibba Rock. They had some technical divers coming in the morning so they scheduled me for an afternoon dive, but later that morning they got back to me and said the technical divers weren't coming because of the fog on the road around Dubai, and the boat was waiting there just for me.

I was the only diver booked in that day. Bobbi would be hanging out on the beach with Gwenny, so I didn't even have a buddy. So Kyle Schoonraad (he and his lady Jessica are the pros there) offered to accompany me on the  dive.



It was a real treat having Kyle to show me the rock from his experienced perspective. He did it about the way I would have, starting at the Aquarium, which was teeming with jacks and snappers, and moving deeper to the sand at 10-12 meters, where there were more jacks and a big school of barracuda. On the way there, at 55 seconds into the video I was taking, we passed over a torpedo ray which both of us missed. It was interesting coming on that in the video, like huh? rewind ... yep that was a torpedo ray right there, and we both headed right over it.

Within minutes of passing the barracudas Kyle excitedly pointed up and started finning madly for the surface. He looked back at me and made pointy horn signs either side of his head, obviously meaning devil rays. He indicated there were 9 or a dozen of them. I couldn't see them, vis was too poor. Happens; so many times I have seen sharks around there, pointed ahead, and people just behind me couldn't see them, because the sharks vanished quickly, vis was poor, and the divers were just that critical two meters further back.

We continued along the back of the rock to the gap where Kyle queried me through his bubbles which way we should go. I wanted to see his choice, so I bubbled him back to go ahead. He led up the gap, where there was fortunately no current, so we could follow the top crest into a nice long wedge and come out on the drop off to the sand where the rays were.

You can see the rest in the video. We found two rays and got decent video. About that time Kyle went into another state where he was raving about devil rays and pointing up ahead, so this time I took video the way he was pointing so I could show him later there was nothing there, all in his head :-)

Back on the surface, the boatman told us the rays had been jumping out of the water while he was waiting for us, so I guess he was imagining them as well.

Anyway, great dive, and great diving with Kyle as his only diver on that day.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Diving off Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines

My logged dives #1524-1526


We had heard Internet would be dodgy in El Nido, so we were glad to see that there was free wifi almost everywhere. However we soon found out that wifi rarely worked. The problem was with the Internet provider for the whole area. So once you are in El Nido, if you've been playing things by ear to get that far, it's hard to plan a way out unless your time is flexible.

The way I would like to have gone would have been to get the boat from El Nido to the island of Coron further north. There was a fast boat leaving at 6 a.m. most days and another slower boat that departed occasionally, but not every day. These boats tended to be booked out for next day travel, so you had to plan a day or two in advance to make the trip. Then once in Coron you would have to back-track the journey or get the boat onwards to Manila. That was an overnight boat which sailed perhaps three times a week. I would like to have done that if I had a week to spare. But given tight timings and inability to get on Internet and book our flights from Manila to Kuala Lumpur (so we'd have to do that in Manila).

There are airports in El Nido and Coron, though it was doubtful we'd have been able to get on a flight at that time of year, Christmas holidays bringing so many people to Palaway. It seemed best to plan a Coron trip for a later time when we could book round trip air travel to and from Manila and make a dive plan, perhaps a liveaboard, to see the wrecks there, do it properly, not with just two days to spend in Coron.

So as an alternative, we heard that some travelers were going to Port Barton, on the way back to Puerto Princesa more or less, and in a rare moment of connectivity I came on a Wikitravel article that led us to come here: http://wikitravel.org/en/Port_Barton

The article mentions " 'Aquaholics' run by Keith Dudley and located in the middle of the beach next to Summer Homes. This diving center has a highly recommended diving instructor named Martyn who has been diving for more than 33 years and is also a level one qualified SSI Free Diving Instructor and swimming teacher +639199916282(Smart). Martyn can teach you to dive and take you through speciality courses such as Wreck and Deep diving. ... For fun diving and diving courses Port Barton is superb, with great coral and marine life, not to mention some wrecks, within easy striking distance."

We've learned to be wary of glowing recommendations from people just learning to dive, not the most discriminating of customers. But it was time to go somewhere, and the weather had turned in El Nido. It rained all night the day before we left, and it rained all through the van ride from El Nido toward Puerto Princesa. It was still raining when we left the main road at Rojas and took the road to Port Barton, which is under construction. The parts that had not been developed were in quagmire in the rain, with the van slipping toward the edge, and raising some doubts about getting out of there on the uphill leg.

Accommodation in El Nido is laid back but simple and hard to find when we arrived. The van ran as far as the beach and dropped us at the beach-front Jambalaya restaurant where we de-camped Bobbi who waited with the bags while I went out scouting for accommodation (they were having happy hour so we enjoyed that and ate there when I returned later with a room key). I walked up the beach as far as the dive center where I found Keith, an old retiree who said he had learned to dive when he was 50 and had found himself a niche in paradise where he could live easy and support his retirement. He had spaces for us next day (only had another couple of divers, one of them on a beginner's course) and he outlined a program of diving starting with the shallow wreck and then working our way back to a couple of reefs on the trip home. It didn't sound all that exciting and it wasn't really; Keith disclosed later that diving was declining there due to overfishing and the local habit of channeling waste disposal to the bay..

As for diving at Port Barton, we embarked on a banca outrigger boat for the day trip starting with the Albaguen Wreck, 26 meters, which you can read about here:

Aquaholics Dive Center description of diving off Port Barton
http://www.divepalawan.net/port-barton/




As wrecks go, it as a mediocre one, and we saw with fish, glass shrimp in the hold, a scorpion fish hidden in plain sight on top, a common slug, and blue flatworms in the sand.

I didn't get the names of the reefs we dived next but they were similar. Dive 2 was on a reef on our way home, where we saw slugs, a turtle with a remora, a humphead wrasse, batfish, nudibranchs, clownfish, a camouflaged crocodile fish, and more flatworms.


Dive 3 was on a reef near grass flats where Martyn said they sometimes see manatees, or dugongs. Here we saw more slugs, clownfish, nudibranchs, lion fish, more flatworms, another camouflaged crocodile fish, schools of razorfish, and a fish with alien eyes peeping our of a hole in a rock.



We had planned to spend two diving days there but in the end did only one. Accommodation in El Nido our first night was rudimentary. Electricity went off at midnight, except at the discos, which had generators, so the bass-beat started at midnight and thumped down the quiet beach into the wee hours. Roaming dogs barked and chickens crowed until the motorcycles took over at dawn. Our second night I managed to get us a pleasant room at Summer Homes (24 hour electricity) in a beach view room. It was quieter there (less street noise reaching our room) and the restaurant had excellent Thai food. I booked and a van from there to Puerto Princesa the following day, where we decided to take a travel break in rooms with more standard amenities and indulge in rectifying our pent-up Intenet latency




Sunday, December 25, 2016

Vance and Bobbi Holiday diving in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

My logged dives #1512-1523

Bobbi and I have long wanted to visit El Nido. We were also considering Coron but Bobbi's research suggested that El Nido had more varied diving and nicer scenery (plus I don't think she really likes diving wrecks :-).

It also seemed to have lots of cheap accommodation but as we saw on Trip Adviser, much of it was flagged as noisy or tawdry. Also as Christmas holidays had started it was filling up. El Nido turns out to be a small town on a picturesque bay. Limited beach space concentrated a lot of the action in a small strip where loud music was hard to avoid. In fact, even if you're willing to pay for it, there is really no western standard accommodation there, it seems. There are other areas outside of town but these appeared to be their own tourist ghettos. Some of the islands had resorts on them, but we like to be able to get out at night.

We originally booked at Residencia Katrina, in town a few blocks off the beach for $35 a night, but motorcycles and thin-walled rooms made us want to move once our original booking expired. On a walk down the beach, we found the eastern corner to be quietest and farthest from the music, and we got a much more expensive room at Lally and Abet right on the beach but reasonably reinforced from the world at large. The food options at that end of the beach were quiet and pleasant as well (quiet dining al fresco at the restaurants that way). Happy hours with gin and tonics for only a dollar and a half gave us good reason to sit and enjoy the sky changing colors against the mountains ringing the west of the bay, and stay for dinner, usually pizza or something similar, since lunches on the dive boats were rice, chicken, beef, vegetables, all you can eat and very filling.

The dive sites we went to around El Nido with Submariner Diving Center were shown in a chart on their wall, available on line as well, http://www.submariner-diving.com/dive/. Unfortunately I was not scrupulous about getting the name of the sites the 4 days we dived with them, and I’m piecing this together weeks after the fact, so I can't say for certain which sites each of these videos is from.

Day 1 - Miniloc Island (dives 1512-1514)

The first day we were pleasantly surprised to find that there were only half a dozen divers on our boat and we were given our own dive guide, a charming divemaster named Freddy, who accompanied us on all our dives this trip. He was professionally careful, but flexible with us, allowing us freedom to move around and prolong bottom time as long as we didn't go radical.




We were taken straight away to the most popular dive site on the island, south Miniloc (above, a great schooling fish dive) and for our second dive that day, a trip around the island to the North Miniloc side (below).



Our third dive that day must have been at North Rock, judging from the briefing we see in our videos. Here you can also see a pair of nudibranchs wafting on a leaf of coral in the surge, a colorful devil scorpion fish, a psychodelic clam, a rather ordinary snail (which Bobbi pointed out :-), lots of reef fishes like bannerfish and butterfly fish, and a couple of cuttlefish.




Day 2 (dives 1515-1517)

We saw a pair of devil scorpionfish, Inimicus filamentosus, the next day as well. Curious fish, they have bright yellow wing tops and they walk on little legs, like crabs. Like their relatives, stonefish and other scorpions, they are toxic. Here's more about them:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inimicus_filamentosus



The boat on this day was full of beginners, and we had a lady photographer with us to record the experience. The lady was notable in our videos for intruding constantly on our shots. Our first dive on this day was again somewhere near Miniloc, not sure where exactly, but it was the home of an old turtle, colorful devil scorpionfish, elusive jawfish, and a great place to chase barracudas (above).

On our second dive (below) we saw more turtles, more barracudas, and ribbon eels ... accompanied as always by the photo-bombing professional photographer.



Our third dive that day was Nat Nat, named for the coconut trees on shore. As you can see, we started in the rain. We were eager to get down, as we were getting wet ...



Day 3 (dives 1518-1520)

The third day we had another large group and were assigned a German diver to accompany us and I think we went to South Miniloc again and Popolcan and Helicopter island.



Dive 1, day 3, no telling where we were actually, but we started with a blue spotted ray, a friendly remorah, barracudas, yellow tails, cuttlefish, an alligator fish on an alcove CEILING! and a crab and clown fish in the anemone (above).

Dive 2, not exactly sure where we were, but I think it was Popolcan; relaxing dive with various cornet fishes, clown fishes in the anemones, reef fishes like jacks, titan triggerfish, yellow tails, big eyes, broomtail wrasse, batfish, cuttlefish, writhing moray, and capricious mantis shrimps (below).


Our last dive of the day was on Helicopter Island. I have no idea why it was called that. On this dive we found nice coral, turtle, cuttlefish, reef fish, and egg cowries


It was time we started making plans to move on. One option was to catch a boat to Coron, but we let the opportunity slip. We decided the diving was good so far, why not stay at least one more day in El Nido.


Day 4 (dives 1521-1523)




The last day we were supposed to go to Abdeems, and I thought that's where we had dived (above), but Bobbi understood we were taken elsewhere because there was such a strong surge at Abdeems. Wherever it was, it was difficult diving. The boat anchored, forcing us to make a round trip dive, the first leg upcurrent, so it was like finning in molasses. The terrain was interesting with towering coral bommies, but not much to see in the way of fish life, just a crayfish and one cuttlefish for entertainment, difficult surge / current. It was a saga getting everyone back to the anchor line and up it in the tugging current.

Conditions were not good for diving far afield, so for our next two dives we repeated Helicopter and Nat Nat, where conditions were more favorable.

The next dive was at Helicopter island. We dove reef on right this time, and it was much different than before. We found an animal that vanished into sand and then two stonefish right at the beginning of the dive. We move on to find a lion fish in a barrel coral, batfish, a sting ray, and a turtle.



We'd been to Nat Nat before, diving reef on the left, but this time was better, with titan trigger, egg cowrie, lion fish, several turtles, cuttlefish, clownfish, nudibranch, barracudas, and other reef and spikey critters. I found the second turtle when I was a little lower than the other divers and came out right on top of him, having trouble avoiding him in the current. It was odd that all those other divers, usually sharp eyed for anything that moves, missed it.







Getting there, Cebu Pacific ok if all goes well, but you're on your own if not

The trip started inauspiciously with a delayed Cebu Pacific flight from Dubai to Manila with a subsequent lost connection to El Nido. The flight was scheduled to take off from Dubai before midnight Wednesday, which meant we had to get a taxi from our home in Al Ain around 7 pm to get us to the airport by 9. There at check-in we were prevented from boarding the flight because we had bought one-way tickets to Puerto Princesa online and because we wanted to be flexible we had not yet planned our journey onward from the Philippines. In order to be given a boarding card we had to go onto airport wifi and purchase an onward ticket even though our plans for return via Kuala Lumpur were uncertain. We did this, noting we could cancel the purchase within 24 hours of making the booking, which we did later. But this hiccup meant we were challenged to reach the departure hall within an hour of boarding time. 

That hour passed, and then another, with no movement on the part of Cebu Pacific, whose staff had in fact walked off from their positions without a word to the passengers. Finally at around 1 a.m. they announced the flight was canceled, though later they said it was delayed, and they said passengers with visas for UAE would be accommodated in hotels. But there were 400 passengers and only 1 or 2 CP staff on hand to manage this, so eventually we were told we would all be allowed into the airport lounge, where we went and ate and drank at will until finally it was announced on airport departure displays at around 3 a.m. that the flight was "delayed" until 1:30 the following afternoon. So Bobbi and I went across the street to Premier Inns where we took a room for $100 and got a few hours sleep, with still no word from anyone at CP to any of the passengers who were mostly crammed into limited lounge space, some sleeping on floors, no one knowing what was actually planned for the next day, and no one on hand to inform the passengers, let alone help with onward bookings in case anyone had an urgent need to continue their journey asap.

Late morning we returned to the airport and went up to CP offices and found a lady just reporting to work who told us the flight was now due to depart at 3:30 pm and who assured us we would be reimbursed for the hotel we had just left and looked after on eventual arrival in Manila. She said we could go up to the lounge and have brunch but once there we were asked to report to the departure gate. To make a long story much shorter than the eternal wait it was, the plane finally took off at 6:30, about 18 hours after it was supposed to leave the night before. CP had made almost no effort to inform passengers of what was going on, or to provide any kind of assistance. Their staff were notable throughout the ordeal only by their absence, and their offices were unreachable by phone.

The situation was no better in Manila, where we had missed our onward connections and forfeited out hotel bookings in Pto. Princesa. They had check in counters at the airport there but no meet or greet staff and in the end we managed to get a stand-by counter agent to put us on a plane to Pto. Princesa, where we landed almost a full day after we had planned to. Rather than resting there from the overnight flight, we managed to get transport the few hours van ride to El Nido where we were at least able to reach the hotel Residencia Katrina we had booked that night. There had been no one in Manila to discuss, let alone provide compensation for losses, and the only compensation was in fact a voucher which said we could have a free leg on CP during the next 6 months, but it was for flight only, not taxes or airport fees, so not of much value, and to top it off, to get it you had to call a number in Manila since t CP appears to have agents, but no offices, in Palawan). Predictably, no one answers at that number while your money evaporates from being kept on infinite hold, until you finally realize you might as well just give up.

Despite the 3 hour sleep in Dubai our first night there, we had missed two nights sleep by the time we arrived by van in El Nido at dusk Friday, exhausted from the journey. To make matters worse the hotel we checked into put us in a room off the breakfast / check-in area, where we were disturbed by travelers arriving at 3 a.m. and again by a group of Israelis who are left for somewhere before dawn next morning with no consideration for anyone sleeping at that hotel.

The dive center was at least expecting us Saturday morning, so we had our own plans for 8:45 when, after our own breakfast, we reported to Submariner dive center, http://www.submariner-diving.com/
We were planning to be with them 3 days but added the 4th because every day produced some new underwater delight, and the diving was decent and easy with them.

We considered moving on to Coron from there but in the end opted for a side-trip to Port Barton because the boat timings to and from Coron were uncertain (they were not daily), and internet was very poor in El Nido, free wifi everywhere, but actual Internet intermittent due to signal difficulties with the provider in the province. So it was difficult to get information on travel, impossible to make bookings, and a brief success in reaching Wikitravel suggested a side trip to Port Barton, which it said had lovely reefs. It wasn’t the first time we had been misinformed on our trip, but we understood where we were and we rolled with it.

Port Barton: http://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.ae/2016/12/diving-off-port-barton-palawan.html






Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bobbi and Vance fun diving Nomad Ocean Adventure and Fujairah, UAE National Day Weekend

My logged dives #1507-1511


Wednesday, November 30 was my last day of work before National and Martyr’s Day holidays and an entire month of December off work. Characteristically or not, Bobbi and I had made no plan for how to spend our holidays even as I got off work that last working day, except that we had decided to go to Nomad Ocean Adventure for diving on Thursday, driving up right after work on Wednesday. Nomad have been experimenting with pricing of diving and accommodation, the new prices going into effect that very weekend, 400 dirhams for two in a double bed room plus meals extra. Bobbi got online, just looking, and found that we could get a room at the Golden Tulip Hotel for Wednesday, a weekday night, for 370 UAE dirhams plus tax, including breakfast buffet, coming out to a 43 Omani riyal charge on our credit card. We had never before stayed at the Golden Tulip and didn’t know whether to recommend it to families when the kids needed a beach to play on while some in the family went diving at Nomad. So we decided to see for ourselves and give it a try.

It was nice to luxuriate at the hotel, just 2.5 km from the dive center, driving or walking or jogging on the white sand beach, on the rare chance when we could get an advanced booking and would be there on a weekday. Bobbi checked the rates on the day and found the price had gone up to over 600. Thursday was even higher, while on the UAE side of the border hoteliers were doubling or tripling their room rates. Alia Suites, where we usually stay for 350 dirhams for a 2 br flat with kitchen and living room (just under $100), was charging around 1000 for the same accommodation in anticipation of the great demand for UAE National Day, and prices at the resort hotels, well, let’s just say various multiples of 4 digits, and if you have to ask, you can’t afford it anyway.
So a room anywhere on that coast for around 400 aed was a bargain at National Day weekend. Bobbi and I had thought we’d go over there Wednesday, spend the night, dive next day, see how the diving was, and play it by ear from there. There’s wifi at Nomad, so theoretically possible to make travel plans there, though we became otherwise preoccupied. Basically we just wanted to chill out and have no concerns for a while, which is what we ended up doing.


To make a long story short, we went diving in the Lima area from a Nomad speedboat on Thursday. Our first dive on Octopus Rock was one of the best of the weekend, good visibility and negligible current. Robyn asked us to take a third diver along with us, Piotr, a scientist from Poland, Sweden, Spain, who had been studying great white shark nurseries in Turkey (DNA matching suggests they originate there and make their way south). He was using 15 liter tanks to our 12’s, which made him compatible with us on air, and hence in tune with us as a dive buddy.


Our second dive that day was at the caves, where we had poor visibility and found no sting rays, unusual for that dive site. Still the diving was pleasant enough, and we had already invested in the drive, so back at Nomad when we found they had one last double bed room available, I blurted “I guess we better grab it.” Unfortunately the Lima boat for next day was full with 13 clients, but they did have a north trip going, plenty of space on that one. This was getting to be a no-brainer.

North trips, to Fanaku Island just across the straights from Hormuz, Iran, happen rarely at Nomad. The last one the week before was cancelled due to rough seas and bad weather. They try to leave early in the morning because the boat ride can be two hours.

Fanaku Island - Far North Musandam - Soft corals, fusiliers, and a shark
Not much happens during this dive. The videos show a variety of soft corals, marginal visibility. But then at the end, we spot several sharks, one of which I barely manage to capture on film
When we arrived there next day we dropped at the north tip of the island and followed a drift to the corner before turning south, where we had to fin hard against a stiff north current. We stayed shallow to enjoy the soft lavender and orange corals, and take advantage of the better light nearer the surface, so we didn’t consume so much air despite the constant up current exertion. We were diving with Piotr again, and he seemed happy with these logistics. I was thinking to put up with this until we reached 100 bar and then turn around and drift back even shallower, but at about that time in the dive the current lessened, my compass handle swung gradually north, and it seemed we were being carried with the current now. Here the dive was beautiful, not great viz, but lovely topography and soft and hard corals, and plenty of fish to video when they caught our fancy. As we came to 50 bar and surfaced to 5 meters, the viz cleared, the light was excellent, and we noticed a bulky black-tipped reef shark swim down a ravine, see us, and bullet away. Looking more closely in the area, we found another shark, a slimmer one, who blundered into view, saw us, and it too shot away, but took a longer route up along the reef this time. The nonchalance of these creatures and then sudden sprint was remarkable. A third shark appeared, but as I brought my hand to my forehead in the universal vertical shark salute to signal the others, this sudden movement on my part caused it too to bolt. Piotr said he saw four sharks in all.


The appearance of the sharks made the dive, and our day. This was just as well, as the next dive was not so good. We motored south past white rock and at the headland just past temple rock, we turned into the first bay on our right. The water looked green and clear in the bay, but underwater it was murky. We found a feather-tail ray almost immediately, and over the reef Piotr uplifted a flatworm which wriggled gracefully for us. Apart from these things it wasn’t our best dive, and it ended in shadow as it was late in the day. It was almost dusk when we made it back to the harbor.

Bobbi and I decided since it was so late, and would be around 11 when we got home that night, to just stay another night at Nomad, where our room was still available at only 400 dirhams. Our plan was to cross back over the border next morning and drop by Dibba Rock the next day, diving from the Fujairah branch of Nomad. A phone call was made and we were booked on the 10 a.m. dive the next morning. We settled in for an evening at Nomad Ocean Adventure, Musandam side of Dibba, winding up as ever, at the addictive ice slush machine, something Chris picked up at Dragon Mart in Dubai to make evenings pass more pleasantly at NoA.

Next day we crossed the border quickly, no traffic backup, no close scrutiny of a certain date discrepancy in our permits, and we were at Nomad Fujairah shortly after 9:00, where we met up with tech diver Imad Khashfeh, https://www.facebook.com/imad.khashfeh, who was diving with a friend of his, for a nice dive on Dibba Rock. The vis was not the best, and a strong current prevented us from going south, so we were prevented from visiting the sting rays on this trip, but we found nudibranchs and a big mackeral in the green deep water, and a feisty orange banded shrimp poking pugilistically at a fish that had taken shelter in its crevice, and other small things besides, as life goes on above and below water at Nomad Fujairah and Musandam.



Back home now, reflecting that this was one nice way to start a month-long holiday.