Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Daytrip diving Daymaniyat Islands Al Ain to Mussanah, Nov 10, 2017

Logged dives #1582-1583

As I said on Facebook,

Bobbi and I were drying out at the gills. It had been a month since our last dive. Fortunately some of the best diving in the region is within three hours driving of where we live in Al Ain. We have to cross the border into Oman and drive hectically down the coast from Sohar after dark down a 4-lane highway with aggressive drivers, annoying road construction, and poor lighting. But given a quick border crossing, we can get to a place to sleep in just three hours.

It's getting cool this time of year and we decided to take bedding in case we needed to sleep in the car. We've done that often in the past. It's fairly safe and quiet to just find a remote spot a short drive off the road and sleep in the back of the car. But our plan was to drive to the Suwaiq motel about 2.5 hours from our home and try and get a room there. Normally few sleep there, the action is in the night club area of the property. We like to stay there - the beer is cheap, local patrons colorful, even comical, rooms are well insulated from noise, and rooms are 20 riyals, around $60.

But then Bobbi noticed that for members of the Millennium club (she always joins these clubs at hotels where we stay, airlines we fly) there was a dive package for room, dinner, breakfast, and a day of diving that cost just $100 more than the diving would normally cost us (45 riyals each for one day, two dives). That was almost the cost of the rack price of the sumptuous buffet dinner provided at the luxury hotel, 14 riyals per person. So for an extra $40 over what we were planning to pay for just a room in Suwaiq and the diving that was the impetus of the trip, we could sleep in comfort at the hotel adjacent to the Sea Oman dive center, and eat like kings and queens on the lanai overlooking the boat harbor.

Our first dive was on Doc's Wall Nov 10, 2017, far west Daymaniyats: Antonia pointed out a lobster in a crack in the wall, so I had to photograph it. Then I pulled her fin because she passed right over a torpedo ray. Next we were mesmerized by a fishball ballet. We saw a nudibranch, several honeycomb morays, a scorpion fish that's hard to spot, banners and snappers, a passing sea snake, a yellowmouth moray, and a lion fish hiding out with a shy puffer, all photogenic.

The second dive was on Sira island. Almost the same drop for Doc's Wall, different direction. Here we see scorpion fish, morays, what happens when Antonia liberates a bag of bait fish tossed by someone overboard and then she points out a leopard shark. Further on, we find a small turtle, puffers, coronet fish, a sting ray, butterflies on the shallow reef top, and a trio of cautious cuttlefish right at the safety stop.

GoPro videography by Vance Stevens
PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181

Diving with my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Fun diving Dibba Rock and 3-Rocks Fujairah UAE with favorite dive buddy Bobbi

Logged dives #1580-1581

Almost immediately after Bobbi and I returned to UAE from Egypt, I had to surrender my passport for my annual UAE visa renewal. This meant I would not be able to travel to Oman or Musandam and cross borders or checkpoints for the next few weeks, so my diving would be restricted to UAE for the time being.

The weekend after landing on a Saturday night flight from Cairo we felt like resting, so the following weekend we were thinking to go diving because Sunday was supposed to be a day off work, but later in the week we found out we had to work that day anyway, but the NEXT Thursday was slated to be off in lieu, so we planned to go diving that following weekend. As it turned out, that day-off was canceled as well, but we were beginning to dry out around the gills so on Friday, October 6, after working as usual on Thursday, we at least got to sleep a bit longer on Friday. We were up by 7, had the car packed by 8:30, and a little after that we were on the road, driving across the desert and through the east coast mountain range, to arrive at the Miramar Hotel right about 11:30, just in time to get ready to dive with Divers Down at 12:30. We had booked two dives, that one and again at 3:30.

We had been looking forward to renewing acquaintance with Paul, the colorful owner we had last dived with when I trained Mohammed Chowdhury there in May the year before. We found the center to be under new management but many of the friendly and helpful Filipino staff were still there, among other old friends.

In poor visibility on Dibba Rock, Fujairah, UAE, we nevertheless see schools of fish, lion fish, nudibranchs, flounders, batfish, rainbow wrasse, a puffer, and pipefish :-)

The diving wasn't great this weekend. There was a steady breeze from the sea causing small waves to wash on shore and some chop on the boat ride to Dibba Rock, our first dive site. Dibba Rock is normally one of our favorite sites in that area, but today the vis was soupy. We started the dive looking for rays in the sand around the deep anchor. We finned south against the current and then let it carry us back over the sand, always within site of the blurred shapes of rocks looming off the outcrops. We saw nothing but when we caught up with Rex and his group he asked in diver sign language if we had seen the ray that had apparently just taken flight from there. That was about it for excitement on that dive.

In this video from our Sharm (Three Rocks) dive, we focus on a couple of box fish, a banner fish ballet, a moray in orange soft coral, a trio of batfish, and schools of jacks, snappers and fusiliers

The next dive was at Sharm Rock, what Divers Down are now calling Three Rocks, as in the past, and before that, when I started diving in UAE, they used to call it the Pinnacles. In fact, in the old days we used to pull off the road just south of Sandy Beach and snorkel out to it on a compass heading dead east from shore, especially at night for advanced course night dives. There used to be resident school of barracuda there, lots of morays, and decent vis before they started building breakwaters from all the small harbors on the coast there, extending their ports, and building luxury villas on the coast with dedicated yacht harbors. There have been many impacts on the marine ecosystem in that stretch of coastline in the past 20 years, some of them natural, such as Cyclone Gonu and the red tide that one year persisted for 6 months, devastating the coral and many of the creatures who had lived on it. It's been bouncing back, but it's not like before. It used to be a pristine dive area, with lots of great sites with generally good visibility teeming with life and color.

Today the color was in shades of greens and browns, and even red as we went toward the south end of the rock. A thick red algae bloom had colored the water rust, and shades of orange where the sun was trying to shine through. It was disorienting because we couldn't tell if the darker patches were rock or just algae. I tried to aim us north toward where we'd put in but came upon a wall forcing us to head west for a seemingly long time, so finally I decided there was no rock there to the right, just algae, and headed through it to the north. Bobbi came away with itching from the mild toxin produced by the algae. At least the fish were plentiful. Though hard to see due to poor vis, there were often present swooping schools of jacks, snappers, and fusiliers.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Red Sea liveaboard diving: Simply over-hyped?

Logged dives #1564-1579

Bobbi and I joined our good friend Nicki Blower on a dive trip she has repeated often in the Red Sea. The trip is billed as "Simply the Best" and has been recommended to us by other friends as well as something we should do at least once in our lives. It covers stops at Brothers, Daedalus, and Elphinstone reefs in Egypt's Red Sea, sites noted for pelagic sharks and particularly hammerheads. Our experience was more sanguine. We saw a couple of thresher sharks, three or four grey or perhaps white-tip oceanic reef sharks, and a few more easily identifyable and in-your-face longimanus oceanic white tip sharks. Some people from our boat sighted hammerheads on two or three of the dives, though only one or two at a time, and not nearby. Nicki said she saw one at a distance. She also saw this "Carcharhinus Longimanus rushing over at a vast rate of knots! "

It doesn't matter that our expectations of seeing schools of hammerhead sharks were not met. This happened with us also on Lyang Lyang where we had gone to see hammerheads, but that trip was remarkable for what we saw besides on the reefs of the atoll, teeming with other kinds of sharks and memorable fish-life, so despite the scarcity of hammerheads at that time of year, we were in no way disappointed with the trip as a whole, blogged here: 

I've dived in the Red Sea many times since the 1970s and I've always found the reef fish life to be extraordinary. 
From the videos at my post on Layang Layang you can see what we were expecting the Red Sea to be like. If you compare with those below you could say that Layang Layang would be a strong competitor for "Simply the Best."

But others might find a much different experience. This blog post is meant to simply record what Bobbi and I found when we went there.

First day out, Sunday Sept 3, Ras Toromi

We arrived in Port Galeib on Saturday Sept 2, 2017, in time to board the Okeanos Xplorer and settle in for the night. The boat departed early a.m. and took us to Ras Toromi where we did two check-out dives anchored at the same spot on a shallow reef on our way to the two Brothers islands another 6 hours distant. As often happens in Egypt, even with shore-based diving, several boats will anchor at about the same spot on the part of the reef most sheltered from weather and seas. Diving is done either by jumping from the boat or from zodiacs (each boat carries two on deck).

On our first dive, first day, we did the easiest possible entry, jumping from the boat, and guided by the divemaster we'd be with the rest of the trip, we went down current (too easy) but then had to beat our way back against it, plus pass the test we had been given for the end of the dive -- EVERYone had to deploy their surface marker buoy, also known as SMB or simply the sausage. These are tricky to deploy in the best of circumstances. I sent mine up and then helped Bobbi with hers. We were trying to hold our place against the stiff current and also to keep our lines from getting tangled. When we surfaced we found ourselves in a spider web of mooring lines from numerous boats with both our SMBs needing delicate management to avoid entanglement with the ropes let alone from each other (normally we'd just put one up per buddy pair; this was an unusual complication). We managed to keep our lines free and make some progress against the current (our boat was the last one down, wouldn't you know), but my snorkel snagged when I tried to duck under a mooring line and got turned down into the water, causing me to suck salt. I tried to free it with one hand while grasping my reel and lines with the other but the mouthpiece came away from the tube and disappeared. I felt a bit clumsy, and  meanwhile a zodiac appeared to collect us. Bobbi handed up her tank and was hauled aboard, and I put my sausage on the dinghy, and freed of that, it was easier for me to just fin myself to the back of our boat and climb the ladder. Not the most auspicious of starts, though.

The next dive was done from the zodiac. The main idea was to get people accustomed to that means of entry in relatively benign conditions. I don't remember much from the dive, and the videos of what I thought noteworthy from both are captured in the video above.

Second day out, Monday Sept 4, Little Brother

The video shows
A parade of distant oceanic reef sharks and several barracuda, seen over the course of three dives on Little Brother, September 4, 2017

We spent the first part of some of our dives on the Brothers islands and Daedalus swimming into the blue in hopes of seeing hammerheads. On one or two of our three dives on Little Brother reef we saw white tip or gray reef sharks swimming in the blue which nevertheless made digital impressions visible to my GoPro. Apart from that I didn't find much of note to take pictures of, except for the barracuda that hovered high up off the reef. They didn't appear in schools here, just a few at a time. At some point a lion fish on the coral wall caught my eye and I photographed that.

Third day out, Tuesday Sept 5, Big Brother

On our first dive of the day we went out in zodiacs and put in just short enough of the wreck we expected to visit at 30 meters that we had to fin hard against an opposing current to reach it. This was seriously hard work and I lost 50 bar doing that, and once we turned and went with the current, there was not much to see on the way going back to the boat at anchor. After that I decided to pay 30 Euros for use of a 15 liter cylinder for the rest of the trip, money well-spent as it kept me on even par with Bobbi’s air consumption, given her smaller lungs.

We conducted our second dive from the boat, which remained at anchor in the same spot during our three dives on Little Brother that day.  This was one of the better dives of the trip for sharks. A longimanus oceanic white tip swam up to the boat as we were descending from it, as you can see in the video taken from below. We were heading into the current again, the same direction we had finning to the wreck earlier that morning, but we were closer in to the reef so it was more doable, but still it was a slog to reach the point where the thresher sharks were. I saw one quite clearly and got a shot of it, though it is more difficult to distinguish against the coral it was swimming against as it reached blue water and the limits of visibility.  As we had to work up current to get there, and we were now at 30 meters, we couldn't stay long, so we drifted back to boat where we found a humphead wrasse and another longimanus that swam amongst us as we were approaching the boat near the surface.

For the third dive we were given two options. The dive leader suggested we take the zodiacs to the point opposite the one where the threshers were, drop in on another smaller wreck at 30 meters, and swim (again upcurrent) back to the boat. When I asked why we were always having to work into the current I was told the currents were mild and it wouldn’t be a problem, despite what we had experienced on the two dives earlier that day. Others wanted to repeat the first dive, which meant they would jump from the boat, and go again against the current.

A third option would have been to drop on the farthest upcurrent point where we had seen threshers earlier and easy swim back to the boat with the current, and work our way back up to the surface there with chance of seeing longimanus, but this option was not on the table.

In the end our group decided to go to the wreck and swim up a new part of the reef. The current was perhaps diminished, but it was enough to keep us pumping the whole way back to the boat. We didn’t go onto the wreck because of our deco situation third dive of the day and as we moved along the reef, we saw little of interest until I notice a thresher shark moving about 20 meters down and dropped in on it. Again I saw it clearly and thought I got a nice video up close as it passed beneath me but the fish eye GoPro makes it look further. That was pretty much it for that dive. I managed to pump my way back to the boats just as I got down to 50 bar, Bobbi right behind, but complaining about having to keep up with me, while the others in our group were strewn behind.

Fourth day out, Wednesday Sept 6, Daedalus

After diving on Daedalus some from our boat visited the lighthouse where they encountered divers from other boats. From this we had reports from one of the other boats that technical divers using tri-mix (and one who told our informant he had used air) found a school of a dozen hammerheads at below 70 meters off Deadalus. It makes sense that they were present, but at depth, because hammerheads stay below the thermocline and avoid the warm shallower water. Temperatures at the depths we were diving were no less than 26 (degrees centigrade) at Brothers and 28 at Daedalus (where the hammerheads were seen at 70 meters).

We went looking for hammerheads the first of our three dives there, but not much was happening for us diving to 40 on Daedalus reef, September 6, 2017. We saw only a few barracudas in the course of three dives on the reef, all to or from, or from and to, the boat at anchor. 

Our last dive on Deadalus was oddly planned and executed. It was a jump from the boat and planned as a swim from the boat at anchor to Anenome City. The dive leader said in the briefing that many people start from zodiacs on Anenome City and work their way back to the boats, but he preferred we go from the boat at anchor and arrive at the destination where the zodiac would pick us up. He mentioned that it should take us 55 minutes to reach Anenome city, and that is exactly what it took Bobbi and I.

We were the only ones in our group who made it that far, and on the way we encountered many groups of divers coming the other way, having been dropped at Anenome City by zodiac, and hoping to end up back at or near the boats at anchor.

When I say that Bobbi and I reached Anenome City, I mean we reached the approximate location, but did not know what we were looking for, so we did not round the corner where we would have found it. This is because the dive leader had mispronounced the destination during the briefing, saying it was an-en-ohm, making us think he was saying animal city. We didn't find out till later our destination was anenomes (an-en-ohm-eeez). He also did not brief us on one other important clue, which is that Anenome City was just around the corner of the wall we had been on for 55 minutes of the dive.

I discovered this when I mentioned it to the dive leader back on the boat after the dive, and he said, oh, you were there! Had we known what to look for in advance we would have rounded that corner, but at the part of the dive where we saw the wall end we were right at the time we should start our ascent, so thinking we were looking for an animal city, and we might have passed it for all we knew, we commenced our safety stop. We were no longer with our guide, he had been surfacing the other divers for the past 20 minutes, and they were all on the zodiac when it came to collect us, an hour after we'd started our dive.

It was a little disappointing to have been so near and yet so far, and I feel that the experience would have been much improved if we had been dropped at the destination. However, I've since been on YouTube and found other people's videos of Anenome City. It appears to be a beautiful spot but anenomes and the clown and other reef fishes they attract are something you can see on many reefs in the world. Still I think we all would have appreciated better attention to customer experience in how this dive was carried out.

Other divers' views of Anenome City, Daedalus:

Fifth day out, morning of Thursday Sept 7, 35 minutes at Elphinstone

We had been very much looking forward to finally reaching Elphinstone reef after three days of swimming at depth hunting hammerheads on the two Brothers and Daedalus. Elphinstone is reputed to be productive for sharks and mantas. Divezone has this description of it, from
“Elphinstone Reef is also famous for being one of the few places on Earth where you can dive with the Oceanic Whitetip Shark as well as Harmmerhead Sharks. The best chances to spot an Oceanic Whitetip Shark (also called longimanus) are from October to December. Manta Rays (mainly from May to August), Dolphins and Tiger Sharks can also sometimes be spotted. In addition to these giants, there are also plenty of pelagic fishes like trevallies, Barracudas and Tunas. The reef life is teeming with myriads of fishes all around Elphinstone.”

The next paragraph mentions that
“The best place to dive Elphinstone Reef is from Marsa Alam on a day trip. Many liveaboards also go there”

This is good advice. We saw speedboats full of divers coming from shore-based operations, making their way through the welter of liveaboards at anchor. One surprise on waking up on a liveaboard at Elphinstone is that you can see the shore clearly, an easy boat distance away. Speedboats can be flexible, drop in on any favorable location on the reef, and not be constrained to getting divers on and off pitching platforms in rough seas via zodiacs.

This was the problem this morning at Elphinstone. The wind was up, the boat had been rolling all night, and now we found ourselves in a welter of 9 other big boats, which meant, with ours, 20 zodiacs buzzing about in the water, complicating the logistics of getting divers in and out safely.

This led to disappointing diving due to controls designed to prevent any incident in waves. We were admonished to stay in our groups and with the guide, and we were in the group with the heavy breather who had to start his safety stop after only half an hour in the water. We barely had time to photograph a turtle surrounded by other divers photographing each other photographing the turtle on top of the plateau, and that was at 30 meters so when our guide signalled we should go deeper where the sharks were, Bobbi and I were down to our last minute of no-deco time and had to ascend, as the rest in our group were already doing. A big fish appeared suddenly as we were coming up, but we couldn’t investigate since our group was going to the safety stop. Nicki and I at least found the Elphinstone memorial before having to come up, see it close up here, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elphinstone_Reef_memorial.jpg.

And it’s in the video.

But that 30 minute dive comprised our Elphinstone reef experience on this cruise. Our boat pulled anchor and retreated to the shelter of Abu Dabab where the cooks could at least work in the kitchen without spilling boiling water, and although we didn’t find the high powered diving we were expecting, there was much to entertain us in the calmer water there.

After moving the boat, afternoon of Thursday Sept 7,  2 hour-long dives on Abu Dabab

First the pinnacles

In lieu of Elphinstone, we move to Abu Dabab, where we see blue spotted rays feeding in the sand, a turtle, titan triggers and reef other fish amid some lovely shallow underwater pinnacles

Then the Wreck

Afternoon dive on Abu Dabab at the wreck, where we see a crocodile fish, a school of barracudas, green morays, batfish, and a cameleon scorpion fish at the end of the dive.

Sixth day out, Friday Sept 8
Thursday Night dive on Abu Sail, a day dive there the next morning, and snorkeling at Marsa Shouna

The last video above is a compilation of two dives on Abu Sail and of a snorkel experience at Marsa Shouna. We cruised to Abu Sail in the afternoon after wrapping up operations at Abu Dabab. It was a short trip, and we arrived before nightfall and anchored near the rock sticking up above the gentle shore break near the newly developed resort. The rock was spelled Abu Sail on the dive site charts that the crew produced, and pronounced Abu Sayeel. The dive would normally be done as a shore dive.

Nicki and I dived it that evening. We found some small creatures but not as much as we sometimes see on night dives, except that there was a turtle we could follow around in the dark.

After dinner on the boat and a good night's sleep, we rose early to dive it again in the morning. There were no sharks or adrenaline inducing creatures, but we found a turtle and some large green moray eels. Bobbi, Nicki, and I were accompanied on the dive by one of the French divers from our boat. Different approaches to photography are evident in the videos. Finding a turtle in a crevice, I ease myself over the rocks and use my reef hook to carefully support myself against my own momentum on a rock, avoiding the living coral. I use breathing to adjust my buoyancy to ease down on the turtle, get a good closeup picture, and then breathe in to rise away from it, leaving it undisturbed. Then the French diver, whom we dubbed Pierre de la lumiere, comes along with his bright lights which immediately cause the turtle to turn. He grasps the coral with his hands to get his apparatus into the crevice where the turtle was resting and lights it up like fire. He lays his body on the coral to wedge himself into position to film the turtle as it takes fright and makes its escape. Later, as I pass over a bommie to get a glimpse of a green moray there for my GoPro, the French diver again grasps the coral with his hand to better position himself for a bright-light shot of the moray at whatever cost to the ecosystem.

Bobbi and I ended our diving with a parting shot of a blue spotted ray and an ascent to the Okeanos Xplorer anchored peacefully opposite Abu Sail. Our diving was over because we would be flying next morning from Hurghada to Cairo and on to Abu Dhabi. The boat would be going next to Marsa Shouna where there was a patch of sea grass and a chance we might see a dugong, we were told.

Marsa Shouna was a huge bay with green water. Some of the dozens of boats anchored there were serving as platforms for diving schools. It was shallow and not inviting for diving from the boat. The dive leader gamely led a dive anyway for those not flying the next morning. The rest of us donned snorkels and puttered about the rocks and tried to find the patch of sea grass. There were no dugongs but we did find a turtle which I freedived down to and took pictures of similarly to if I'd been diving.

In retrospect

So, what was different about this Red Sea trip? Relatively sparse fish life for one thing, coral perhaps damaged by increasing water temperatures in the Red Sea? Is this true?

This July 16, 2010 report from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found:

"In a pioneering use of computed tomography (CT) scans, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have discovered that carbon dioxide (CO2)-induced global warming is in the process of killing off a major coral species in the Red Sea."
and a KAUST study published in 2011 reveals
"The Red Sea has experienced a sharp warming in its waters since the mid-1990s faster than the global averages, according to a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters."
On the other hand recent studies suggest that northern Red Sea corals have been shown in a 6-week lab experiment to not only survive but thrive in water temperatures 2 degrees warmer than found at present
There are many other factors to affect what you will see on your dives in the Red Sea. Bobbi and I are in our late 60s and despite our frequent dive activities, as can be seen from this blog, we tend to be grouped with the weaker and less experienced divers. As mentioned earlier, one of those divers was not able to monitor and regulate his air consumption and often hung above us where the dive guide would have to go to him and deploy his marker buoy, effectively cutting short the diving for the rest of us. The stronger divers will group around the more experienced dive guide and will be better positioned to get to the animals first and stay down longer, and it is axiomatic with animal viewing that success correlates with time spent where the animals are. Weather as we saw was not conducive to diving on Elphinstone, at least in the judgement of our boat crew. We were between seasons for many of the animals we had come to see. Global warming might be disputed by some, but anyone with a thermometer can detect an increase in water temperatures in oceans throughout the world, driving the pelagic fish to find cooler water deeper, and causing coral to decline with consequences to the health of the reef as a whole.

So whereas we enjoyed our trip, as we always do diving, our expectations ran ahead of what we experienced, and you can consider this when planning your trip, but also consider the factors involved and whether you can do something about them to improve your chances.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Diving Daymaniyats with Global Scuba in Seeb - Bobbi and I and our son Dusty

Logged dives #1560-1563

Diving in the Daymaniyats 
Friday August 25 and Saturday August 26

Friday morning at Global Scuba, we found that diving had been canceled the day before. Seas had calmed down by now but there was still enough of a chop on the water that the boatmen couldn’t see the telltale tips of the whale shark fins that are usually visible when seas are glassy. Next day the weather was calmer still, but enough of a ripple remained that again, we spotted no whale sharks.  

Visibility on the dive sites was not good, but at the Aquarium, our first dive sight, the creatures were there. I spent the whole dive chasing after turtles, batfish, scorpion fish, pretty schools, and flitting shoals of fish life, shooting them with my new camera.

I was using the new camera I’d bought to replace the GoPro Hero 2 whose casing had flooded recently in Musandam, causing the demise of that GoPro. The new camera was a Rollei, a model that compared well to GoPro according to the comparison articles I pulled up on the Internet while standing at the display in the store, but at half the price (we can get the Hero 5 in UAE but surprisingly, not the underwater housings). I had bought it as my backup camera, but decided to give it a go at the Aquarium. It seemed to work well. I liked it. On our second dive, I used my remaining GoPro, my Hero 3. On that one I came upon a leopard shark early in the dive.

Next day, I took the Rollei again to Hayoot Run and shot more films. At this location, Bobbi and I descended on top of a turtle. The Rollei battery was better than one in the GoPro, which can barely make two dives, so I used the Rollei again on the second dive, which ended in the guide finding us a nice leopard shark.

On Friday Aug 25, we dived the Aquarium and Titto's Run, both shown on these maps
On Titto's we were reunited with a dive guide named Arif who is distinctive in my videos from his black hood. Arif led us on one of our most memorable dives in Oman in October 2016. 
The outstanding videos from those dives are posted here:

On Saturday Aug 26, we dived Hayut Run and (I think) Three Sisters

The maps come from scubatravel.co.uk, here

Camera Woes

When I got home, I found ten videos in the Video folder on my Rollei SIM card, numbered FH00001 to 10. The first video was the turtle that Bobbi and I had seen on Saturday, the 8th was the leopard shark at the end of the 2nd dive, and 9 and 10 were pictures of Dusty and Bobbi and I ascending from our dive on Friday (Dusty was flying back to Doha on Saturday and couldn't dive that day though he came with us on the boat). How could that be, that the pictures were out of order, and where were the videos from the Aquarium and from the experimental footage I had shot when I’d unpacked the camera for the very first time?

The answer soon dawned on me. The camera was overwriting videos taken in previous sessions. There were no test videos I took when I unpacked the camera and tried it out because these had been overwritten by footage from the Aquarium on Friday. Then those videos were overwritten by the ones from Hayoot and Three Sisters on Saturday, but I had taken only 8 videos on the 2 dives, so only the last two, 9 and 10, remained from the day before, and appeared in sequence to have followed the videos taken Saturday.

On one of those dives, we had encountered a huge black stingray heading up a wall. I caught up with it as I thought it was about to disappear over the reef but it turned and instead came down the wall and right at me. I kept my camera trained on it as it swirled in tight circles around me, biomass rippling everywhere, it's lethal spike safely stored as its tail passed just beyond my fins. It would have made great video, but alas, it was lost.

So, in my film for the weekend, I just compiled the videos I had from my Rollei, and from my reliable GoPro (which would all be from Titto's Run) into one film sequence. All tolled, there are a turtle, a couple of leopard sharks, morays, scorpion fish, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, lionfish … but no huge stingrays.

I’ll get over it :-)

Getting there and sticking around

It’s getting that time of year to do a visa renewal here in UAE so I’ve been crossing borders at every opportunity lately. We were in Oman diving from the Millennium Hotel in Musannah a couple of weeks ago (http://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.ae/2017/08/whale-sharks-are-back-and-leopard.html) and this week we were planning to repeat the adventure diving again from SeaOman, but Dusty was alone in Doha and decided to fly down to Muscat's Seeb airport for the weekend. Bobbi and I picked him up from the airport and we all went diving Friday in the Daymaniyats from the Muscat direction. And next weekend we’re taking advantage of an Eid holiday week to do a liveaboard in the southern Red Sea, departing from Port Galeib in Egypt. After that I hand in my passport to the UAE visa authorities and I’ll be without it for a month.

Mussanah is about 3 hours from Al Ain whereas Seeb takes at least another hour to reach, so Seeb is not our destination of choice from where we live, though diving from Seeb is the closest way to get to the Aquarium, one of our favorite dive sites in east of the Daymaniyats archipelago

We set out on Thursday from Al Ain at about 4:30, a bit late because I was held back at work until 1:30 (we can usually leave earlier than that since the students leave are gone by 12:45). Dusty’s plane was due to land at 10:00 pm and we figured we’d have time on our hands before we needed to go get him. 

We felt so relaxed about time that we decided to go check out one of our favorite haunts on that coast, the Suwaiq Motel. We used to stay there often. It's an Omani night club on the road to Rustaq that has rooms of adequate quality for only 20 riyals (200 dirhams) and serves beer for a riyal a tall can (price varies depending on choice and may have gone up). Lately we haven't been able to book because no one answers the phone, and we assumed they had closed down. But now we had a chance to drive over and see, and we were happy to find it open and functioning pretty much as usual. They told us their phone had been cut off, but we can email Rakesh for room reservations. You can read about this locally colorful place from the previous times we stayed here:
We continued another hour and a half to Seeb (another half hour short of Muscat proper) where we'd booked in at the Novotel. We used to go a lot when we lived at SQU just up the road in Al Khod, except now the hotel was called the Golden Tulip (the Novotel had an infamous Break the Can night once a week, we'd drive there and weave home; don't drive like that any more ;-). We didn’t get there until about 8:45 at night, and as it turned out, roads have been reconfigured all over Oman to the point where our GPS can’t guide us accurately. We were in sight of the hotel just opposite from the airport in Seeb but our GPS tried to take us there on a no-longer-existent road, which turned out to have been sealed off to make room for a new overpass (interchange). We had to continue on the freeway (dual carriageway) for at least ten km past the hotel exit and when we doubled back, now on the opposite side of the road from where we wanted to be, we took a turn that we hoped would loop us back to the correct side, but it veered off and took us the opposite way where they are building the new airport. We managed to exit for Al Athaiba, take the beach road again the opposite way we wanted to go, pass right in front of the Civil Aviation Club where we’d be diving and sleeping the next day and night, and come up through the town of Al Athaiba where we could get back on the dual carriageway and track back again toward the Golden Tulip. We managed to avoid repeating our error and ended up at the interchange on the bridge where we had been sidetracked before, but coming from a different direction this time. This put us on the Muscat expressway which would have taken us waaayyy inland except there was an obscure exit that brought us out in a big loop and landed us at our hotel.

It was almost 9:30 pm by the time we managed to check in. They gave us a lovely room with a big double bed right near the elevator, but we had booked, as it said on our booking form, two twin beds, since unbeknownst to them, we were bringing Dusty back with us. So we got the room changed to one way down the hall. It smelled of smoke but it had the right number of beds. By now it was time to get Dusty at the airport. Seeb airport is chaos now that flights to Doha cannot use UAE airports or airspace - all that traffic is not funneled though such places as Muscat, Kuwait, and of all places Addis Ababa! I took advantage of the traffic gridlock outside arrivals to hold my place near the curb (kerb) while Bobbi ran in to collect Dusty. Half an hour later they emerged, just as I was starting to be hassled by traffic police.

Half an our after that we emerged from the late night traffic jam outside the airport and crept to the Golden Tulip side of that same interchange (normally a 3 minute drive from the airport). We found the obscure exit ok and stopped for pizza so we could have leftovers for breakfast. Back at the hotel we found our room was next to a room of revelers who stayed up all night talking loudly and slamming doors. I managed to sleep thanks to white noise from my Kindle.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Whale sharks are back, and leopard sharks and rays in the Daymaniyat Islands,

Logged dives #1556-1559

Friday and Saturday, August 4-5, 2017

Summer time in the Arabian peninsula and you could say the livin' is easy, except it's so darned hot out. But in such conditions one obvious solution is to take advantage of two facts. One is that a peninsula is surrounded by water 25 degrees cooler than its adjacent land  mass, and the other is that hotels in the region offer bargain prices to attract customers during what here is their off season. So it was that on Thursday after work Bobbi and I packed our dive gear into our car and drove over the border to Sohar and then took the road east as far as Mussanah, about halfway to Muscat, where we checked into the Millennium Resort Hotel there, and where there is an excellent dive center, SeaOman, which has boats with engines powerful enough to get us to the westernmost Daymaniyat Islands in a little over an hour.

Our trip on Friday Aug 4 took us a bit longer than an hour because whale sharks  were spotted en route, so Richard, the manager of SeaOman, stopped the boat and let us scramble overboard to swim with them.

Coral Garden off Jun Island and Doc's Wall off Little Jun

Once we'd enjoyed the whale sharks, we motored along past Sira and Jun islands to a site off Little Jun called Doc's wall. This can be a productive site for leopard sharks, who like to rest in the shadow of the schooling yellow snapper fish, so when you see those, you swim through them and look in the sand. This has been my experience before, but not today. Visibility was not particularly good, and we saw little to impress us apart from schools of fusiliers and grey and honeycombed morays.

However, on the second dive, visibility still poor, our dive guide Saeed started banging his tank. When we found  him just out of view in the murky water, he showed us a large leopard shark resting at an unusual angle on the reef. Saeed was leading an open water diver named Marco, but because of the poor vis all the buddy teams as they entered the water had moved off separately, out of sight of one another, so only Saeed, Marco, and Bobbi and I saw this particular leopard shark.

Bobbi and I continued left around Sira Island but where we came to some boulders just off the reef we were supposed to keep on our left, I led us over to explore the boulders to the right, and I found more of them in a northeast direction, pretty, but not much of note, until we had rounded the end of them and were tracking back to the southwest, where we came upon a black marble ray. We went around him without disturbing him.

I didn't get pictures of any of our second dive because one of my GoPros had flooded our last dive with Nomad Ocean Adventures, and so I was using just my Hero 3, so I had brought a charger on the boat to charge it between dives. Everyone was kitting up quickly and going in off the back of the boat as I unplugged the charger and put the GoPro back in its case and attached it to my BCD. But the charge light refused to go off, and in that state the camera would not function, would not switch on. I needed to get in the water, no delays allowed as the boat held its position in the surge near the rocky outcrop, so I hoped the charge light would go off, maybe when the camera cooled down in the water. But it didn't, the charging light remained on the entire dive, though it was not charging (the power source had been removed) and I couldn't take videos on that dive. Once we were back on the boat, I pried the battery loose from the camera, it powered down and switched off, and when I replaced the battery it switched on normally. That night I charged it normally, and the next day it functioned fine.

So the video above has clips from the dive on Doc's wall, where we saw the interesting black and white nudibranchs on the top at 5 meters, and then clips from out first dive Saturday on Coral Garden, along the northeast corner of Jun Island. Once you arrive at the eastern point you have the option of continuing on around Jun Island, or heading east across the sand to come onto Little Jun after about 5 minutes of finning and 20 bar less in your tank than you started the trek with, so it's possibly not worth it, but it was on the other side that I saw and filmed the feathertail ray as I surprised him in the sand.

Creatures in the video above: 
The two whale sharks we snorkeled with before our dives, and then a scorpion fish, several gray and honeycomb morays, a spiny rock lobster, the feathertail ray on the approach to Little Jun, schools of fusiliers on Doc's wall, and a black and white nudibranch on the top of the wall.

The Mousetrap between Sira and Jun islands

Our last dive on Saturday was on the Mousetrap reef between Sira and Jun Islands. We encountered a huge black ray early in the dive and then came on a smaller marble ray, both of whom entertained us with ripple effects. While some of our group were looking for small stuff, and finding it in the anenomes and on the rocks, Bobbi and I followed the guide Saeed, who was leading a couple of young shebaab on a mission which I presumed was to find a resting leopard shark. He succeeded and this time my camera was working, so we maneuvered about the shark, but left it undisturbed until the other divers arrived with their array of floodlights and then the shark took off and headed up  and over the reef at the top of the wall. We found numerous nudibranchs and anemone shrimp, and we finished the dive with a turtle that almost kissed Nicki. This was our most lovely dive of the weekend despite poor vis, a great end to our  2-day, 4-dive weekend.

This map of our dive locations is from http://www.scubatravel.co.uk/arabian-sea/oman-diving.html

You can find  this map at this URL: http://www.scubatravel.co.uk/arabian-sea/omanmapw.jpg

We were diving this weekend with SeaOman from Millennium Resort Mussanah, Oman

The divers in our group were myself, Nicki Blower, Peter Mainka, Philippe Lecompte, Eric Courtonne, and my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens

GoPro videography was by Vance Stevens
PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181

For best results, view these videos using highest HD setting on YouTube

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Diving the S57 with Tvrtko in Pelješac, Croatia

Logged dive 1555

July 9, 2017, diving on the German torpedo boat S-57

Diving with Dive Center Barbara, Žuljana, Pelješac

The video here, https://youtu.be/QdVuPx2AZO8, shows most of the experience of diving on the S-57. I include the boat ride out, take you for a good look around the boat, and then show you what it looks like closer to shore. I don't know how representative of Croatia it is, because this was the only dive I did here, but this will give you an idea of what to expect in case you'd like to try diving in Croatia yourself, and of course you can go onto YouTube and find hundreds more videos like this one from the hundreds of dive spots around the coastline and islands in the Adriatic that grace this beautiful country.

This video gives the location of the S-57 as Trstenik

I met Tvrtko in Oman, on this dive, one of our last with Nomad Ocean Adventure.

As it was his first time in Musandam, Bobbi and I guided him on the dive and he thought he might like to see us again in Croatia, so he invited us to come there one day. Meanwhile Donald Trump and his flail-out-at-anything administration had decided to ban laptops and tablets on direct flights from the UAE to the USA. This ban was useless to begin with, designed really to annoy Muslims, and it has since been lifted from flights in and out of UAE, but it was still in effect when it came time for us to plan our summer holiday from UAE.

That plan was to fly Qatar Airways to stop off and see our grandkids in Doha on our way from UAE to the states, but Trump's next brilliant ploy, in the course of agreeing to supply billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis, was to support his business partners in their stance that Qatar was a threat to stability in the region, and back the Saudi's blockade on that country put into force just days after Trump's visit there, and which UAE joined, so we could no longer go to Qatar, let alone use their airline to go anywhere, since it could no longer land in UAE, and that is how we had little choice but to use a European carrier to fly us there to break our journey (so we could carry devices on the plane and in the process take Tvrtko up on his offer of hosting us in a dive venture).

Tvrtko was vacationing with his sister Žvjezdana as we progressed from Dubrovnik to Split, to Zadar, and as far north and east as Karlovac and Ogulin to meet an online acquaintance Marijana Smolčec and her family before heading back to the coast at Rejka and then continuing south to Paklenica Park for a walk in the Velebit mountains before heading back to Split and catching a ferry to Korčula where Tvrtko met us at the ferry landing in Vela Kula. In his car he drove us the length of the island (in a little over half an hour) to Lumbarda, a quiet little town on a bay with clean Adriatic waters lapping up on ubiquitous beaches. Tvrtko had found us a lovely apartment with suite of rooms for just 60 Euros a night right in the center of town, with fully equipped kitchen, foyer with bath, and a bedroom surrounded by treetops that blew in the breeze when we moved out to the balcony where, after a shopping trip to the nearby supermarket, we drank Turkish coffee and took light meals European style of ham, cheese, pates, fresh vegetables, and sweet watermelon.

Tvrtko drove us to the old walled town of Korčula one day and the next managed to arrange diving off Pelješac, a mountainous peninsula surrounded by azure waters which had served as a theater of operations in many wars, including WWII, where the S-57 was deployed to attack allied shipping, but was caught and sunk by a British torpedo boat. Now its stern lies in about 40 meters of water on a slope that brings its bow and topdeck up to 25 meters. It's well preserved in reasonably clear water that was around 19 degrees C when we visited. Its frame is clearly intact and its innards well exposed. It has a couple of torpedoes (live, I am told) resting prominently on the stern of the ship. It has a machine gun turret on deck that Tvrtko demonstrates (in the video) can be rotated and aimed at nothing in particular, as there are few fish on the wreck, though a large sea bream was seen fleetingly, and someone back on board after the dive mentioned an eel.

The dive had to be a short one at that depth. Tvrtko and I got to within a blink-blinking minute of NDL around 25 minutes into the dive, as measured on Bobbi's Aladdin computer (though the Zoop I was wearing on my other wrist still gave me 3 minutes at that point). Tvrtko and I took our time coming up alongside the ship, and we could see the other divers hovering overhead. They waited for us so as a group we could move into shallower water, and we took a long time at 5 meters to have ample time for a conservative safety stop. Then the divers moved toward the dive boat where I spent another few minutes at 3 meters beneath the hull waiting for others ahead of me to get back on board. I guess we were ten or a dozen in all. When I clamored back up the ladder, I had 48 minutes on my dive computer. I had come up from depth with half a tank remaining and emerged with about 70 bar showing.

It was an enjoyable dive. I had been concerned about cold. I had rented a full length 5 mm suit and had requested an additional 3 mm shorty (which I was assured I wouldn't need). I took it anyway for psychological reasons, asked for 8 kg weight and was given 9 for the extra layer of wetsuit. Then it occurred to me I was using a heavy steel tank and I considered dropping the extra kilo, but then decided for this one dive I would rather be overweight than sorry, and my weighting turned out to be about right, though I could probably have managed on 8 kg. As far as temperature was concerned, I was pleasantly cool throughout the dive, but never cold, was never concerned enough to think about it.

The only down side to the experience was that the somewhat worn but still serviceable shoes I had removed in order to replace them with dive boots, and left where I had removed them at the dive center, developed legs of their own and disappeared of their own accord and were never seen again by me. I'm pretty sure that this was not the fault of any Croatian, surely not of any diver or anyone else at the dive center, but the little beach town of Žuljana had a constant stream of pedestrian traffic, most of it tourist, and I guess someone saw a pair of decent Asics running shoes and decided to try them on.

Fortunately I had a pair of flip-flops with me, but these are not good for distance walking, and shoes are one of those things, like a jacket in winter, that if you lose it you feel the loss of what you had taken for granted, in so many decisions about where you can go and what your limits are until you can replace the vital item and put your life back on even keel. I managed ok with the flip-flops getting to dinner in a half hour walk along the beach later that evening, and in the morning Tvrtko brought me a pair of old shoes that fit perfectly and would serve for getting me around the rest of the trip until I could get to Houston and replace the running shoes I had lost with a new pair from the same shop I had bought the old ones from two years previously (mission by now accomplished :-).

That's all about diving in Croatia. If you want to find out more about travel in Croatia, read on :)

Traveling in Croatia

Despite the minor perturbation of lost shoes, Croatia proved to be an overall nice experience. Bobbi and I got to Dubrovnik from Abu Dhabi by way of Frankfurt and spent three nights in the district of Gruz a couple of kilometers along the coast north west of the walled old city. Gruz is a good choice for staying in Dubrovnik, if you don't stay in the old city, because it's a healthy walking distance (45 minutes) but more importantly, Gruz is where the bus station is and where the ferries leave for most other destinations. It's also a good base for a day walk around Lapad, lovely for getting overheated and cooling off in the cool Adriatic on one of the many beaches along the way, in case you want a day-break from the summer crowds at Dubrovnik.

We had booked a room in a guest house, what they call Apartmans in Croatia, rooms in someone's house. Ours was called Katarina, and it was midway up or down a hill, depending on how you approached it, above the bay at Gruz. It was 35 Euros a night, had a shared bath, and a double bed in a small room with aircon. Katarina and her husband were very friendly but spoke no English, so were not much help, except that they provided us with glasses and bottle openers when we went walking in the heat and returned with beers and ciders purchased for a dollar each half liter at the Tommy supermarket (a ubiquitous chain in Croatia, there was one at the top and bottom of the hillside where we stayed). We soon identified the beers we liked, Crno (dark) and Rezano (the word means 'cut' and it was mid-flavor between a light and a dark beer; there were also similar ambers). Bobbi liked the apple ciders which, unlike British ones, were light and tasted like fizzy apple juice. They were very refreshing after walking.

Our first walk was along the road to the old town of Dubrovnik, which was something of a circus at that time of year, end of June, but apparently more subdued in June than in mid July and August, when you probably wouldn't want to be there for long. It was a gem of a town, with a gleaming clean pedestrian street and a public fountain of cool drinkable water just inside the north city gate (one of the best things about Croatia, clean cool water for drinking and swimming, everywhere; and there were other ornate fountains in the old city where people were gratefully topping up their water bottles). But businesses catering to tourists everywhere detracted from the town's charm, with prices of which $20 each to walk the extensive city walls was typical, a bit over the top. We tried climbing stairs in town but found it impossible to see over the walls unless you paid, but you could walk around the outside, and there you found beach-goers, not on beaches, the town was built on rock, but with ladders bolted into the rock so swimmers could climb down and swim in the refreshingly cold water and then get back out without getting any sand on their feet, and you didn't even need a towel, you'd be dry in no time. This easy access to water was one of the nicest things about Croatia, something that gives the entire country a carefree Mediterranean atmosphere in summer time.

Other things I thought were pleasantly surprising about Croatia were its cleanliness everywhere, and the honesty, reliability, and friendliness of its people. The rooms we stayed in all adhered to high quality standards with even unexpected extras, like small bottles of homemade schnapps in one place we stayed in Korčula, and there was WiFi most everywhere, in our rooms, in the restaurants and bars we patronized, and in most though not all of the buses (but never on the ferries; wonder why not - and only 15 min of free wifi at Dubrovnic's Cipli airport, with an invitation to pay for something that was purposely broken after that, a last gouge at tourist wallets that seemed unnecessary and not the impression your country wants to leave on its departing guests who all get their browsing interrupted unexpectedly - in my case I had to save this post at the next airport in Frankfurt).

Many of our friends were visiting Croatia at about the time we were. Some got on ferries and traveled around the islands, and some got cars and drove to Montenegro and perhaps to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were thinking of doing that and then going by bus overnight from there to Zagreb and coming back through Croatia to catch our onward flight from Dubrovnik, but after a couple of days dropping now and then by car rental agencies and considering what was involved, we decided we'd be better off taking buses and avoiding the traffic jams, long border crossings, exorbitant petrol prices, and the sheer tedium of such a trip, even if you really did want to reach that small beach town, find parking, and then get a meal and (if you weren't driving) a glass of wine. Also, we had constrained ourselves to being in Ogulin not far from Zagreb at a certain time, and on Korčula toward the end of our trip, so there wasn't time for doing much more than visiting the salient cities of Split, Trogir, Šibenik, Zadar, and Rijeka, and making side trips to Krka waterfalls and Paklenica for hiking. Krka was beautiful and interesting, on a par with the natural phenomena in Yellowstone Park, but so crowded that we decided not to visit Plitvice Lakes, though we could have, but we didn't want a repeat of our Krka experience in high season.

We preferred to relax on buses, use the wifi to research our next destination, get rooms from Booking.com and Expedia pretty much on the fly, and eat where the food seemed good. In Dubrovnik, Gruz, we started off on pizza and risotto, not sure how far our money would take us in a land with some pretentious restaurants where you can spend a hundred bucks for two plus plus for wine or beer, but once we got to Split we found the Buffet Fife at the opposite end of the Riva from Diocletian's Palace, where there were more tourists than locals, but everyone eating authentic Croatian meat and potato dishes and enjoying Croatian beer for reasonable prices, and from there we enjoyed Croatian fare in Ogulin, but tended toward fish as we moved down the coast in Stari Grad (Paklenica) and Korčula, eating fresh oysters with Tvrtko and Žvjezdana, and ending our visit with a copious fish platter at a well-recommended restaurant in Cavtat, on the coast just 5 km from the airport.

Tvrtko also drove us around to wineries on Pelješac, and we often took red or white house wines in restaurants, which could cost 80 to 120 kuna, about $15 to $20 for the liter, but as we found out, we could get very good wine in supermarkets for just a few dollars, and beers there as well, for a dollar for the best ones. Schnapps are not hard to come by in Croatia as many people own their own stills. The Smolčec's gave us some home-made Šlievovic (plum liquor) to carry around on our travels out of Ogulin, and we tasted medvic (honey liquor) there as well. Our accommodation in Korčula came with a schnapps of some kind, enough that we could pour what we didn't drink there into a coke bottle and carry it to Cavtat with us.

So as we look back on our trip there, we found Croatia to be a thoroughly enjoyable country where you can travel as you like or as you can afford. We found it most interesting to visit when we had friends to visit there and could see the country a little through the eyes of its inhabitants. We found we could spend a lot of money if we wished, or we could avoid doing that and get some exercise walking a lot, swimming when we felt like it in the clean and bracingly cool Adriatic. We could balance dining in restaurants with shopping in markets for meats and cheeses to breakfast on in our room; and fruits and vegetables, garden fresh tomatoes, and watermellon to rival the 'arbus' in Uzbekistan, sweet and refreshing when kept in the fridge. Most of the apartments we stayed in had fully equipped kitchens, with stoves and pots for Turkish coffee, so we didn't even lack for our caffeine hype in the morning, before we could get out to the coffee bars and enjoy a cappuccino. We found progressively better accommodations the further we got from Dubrovnik, and slightly more expensive for the better quality. Our cheapest accommodation was Katarina in Gruz (shared bath, family noise) and our best was Shell Beach Apartments on Korčula, with a terrace overlooking a bay with boat traffic, noise blessedly damped by double glazing on the doors and windows, just a 15 min walk from the old town.

Our favorite town was Split, with its Roman ruins blended in with a living museum in the old market city, and the music and acrobats on the Riva corniche. Zadar was interesting for its sea organ and monuments on the peninsula with boats plying on three sides of the old walls and seawall. Trogir was similar but smaller, and Šibenik would have been a great place to base for Krka falls, another historic city with pristine countryside (but we had taken rooms in Split for 3 nights and so based ourselves there, slightly inconvenient with redundant bus rides). Paklenica was a great place to spend a day hiking, a little disorienting at first (too little signage, a common problem in Croatia) but once we'd worked it out, we understood the ideal way we should have done it, and still managed to get in an energetic but not at all challenging walk, and Stari Grad was a pleasant place to base and cool off in the sea after the walk. Days last forever in summer, so plenty of time for walking swimming, and having sunset meals by the sea.