Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Five days diving in Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Vance's logged dives #1617-1626, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia, July 8-11, 2020

Malaysia is not a bad place to have to ride out COVID-19. The pandemic is being well managed here. There was a lockdown from March 18 where we had to limit our excursions off our compound to forays into grocery stores, when we couldn't arrange food deliveries (they were hard to arrange back then, partly because movement controls were in such force that trucks coming from distribution centers in Butterworth weren't allowed to cross the bridge into Penang). For exercise we were walking up and down the 3 towers in our complex, 60 vertical steps in all, but a good 1-hour workout.

Eventually the country got a handle on its covid situation. Deaths leveled out, new cases continued to diminish, and travel between states was allowed starting in June 

Dan and Lisa at breakfast at Bubbles

The island of Penang had had only one death due to COVID-19 and very few new cases in the weeks before we were invited by Dan Miles to join him and his wife Lisa Low on a dive trip to Sabah. This turned out to be impractical, since it's a detached part of Malaysia on the island of Borneo and operates on rules different to the mainland. In fact the neighboring state there, Sarawak, is one of the few loci of new infections in the country. But Dan and Lisa had limited time for their holiday, so they shifted their plans to the Perhentian Islands and booked a room at Bubbles resort for the week of July 4-11. 

Bubbles is in a remote location on Perhentian Besar, both a charm and a drawback, the only way in and out for tourists being by boat. And we discovered it was also filling fast with locals realizing they could travel there at a time when covid was under control and interstate travel was now allowed. We were told that Kuala Besut, the port where you catch the boat for Perhentian, had had only one case of covid throughout the entire pandemic; the Perhentian Islands themselves had had none. So now there was a sudden influx of tourists from in-country, and when we tried to get reservations at Bubbles the day after Dan and Lisa got theirs, we were only able to book rooms for two nights midweek, the 7th and 8th.

Meanwhile we learned that one of our favorite dive instructors, Fizzy in the Sea, whom we used to dive with frequently in around 2013 at Nomad Ocean adventures in Oman, was visiting Malaysia, on holiday from where she had been working for the past several years in the dive paradise of Timor Leste. From her Facebook posts we learned that she had been visiting her family in Kuala Lumpur but was prevented from returning due to covid restrictions on flying there. So the owner of Turtle Bay Divers on Perhentian Kecil had invited her to come help out there for a while. Turtle Bay Divers was on Longbeach on the small (kecil) island, a busy dive and tourist beach, still charming, with an appealing choice of meal options and and despite its being high season, there was still a good chance of finding accommodation there.

So we made plans to fly to Kota Baru on July 6, get a taxi from the airport to Kuala Besut a little over an hour away, and spend the night a Grab ride away from the jetty where we could get our boat to Perhentian on the 7th (as it turned out, the lady who managed our bungaloes gave us a lift there in the morning). We would dive from Bubbles that afternoon and all day next day, do a morning dive at Bubbles on the 9th and get a boat over to Perhentian Kecil that afternoon. Then we could dive with Fizzy at Turtle Bay Divers on the 10th and as it turned out do two more dives on the 11th before getting the last boat back to Kuala Besut and catching an overnight bus back to Penang.

Three days at Bubbles Resort on Perhentian Besar, diving with Dan Miles and Lisa Low


This was our first dive out of Bubbles Dive Resort located in a small bay on the southwest corner of Perhentian Besar. Shortly after check-in we reported to the dive center for our first dive with Bubbles at d'Lagoon, in the north corner of the bay just to the north of Longbeach, near the northern tip of Perhentian Kecil, not far by boat, about 15 minutes.

We got lucky, dropping right in on a school of humphead parrotfish gnawing up the reef all around us. This was our best dive of the trip, humpheads followed by blue spotted and Jenkins rays, batfish, a moray concealed in a crevice, wrasse operating their cleaning stations in structures on their way to becoming artificial reef, and many other creatures. At various times on the dive I took to filming clams and clownfish reacting to the ominous approach of an unknown creature.


Next morning's dive was to The Barge, a sunken once-seafaring vessel lying in around 25 meters of ocean water a half hour's boat ride from Bubbles. Due to the depth we were encouraged to dive it on nitrox. I said I could do that if they wanted me to, but I was happy diving on air, and Bobbi wasn't certified for nitrox. No problem, we were told, she could do a discover nitrox course. 

This came up at the end of the last dive that day as we were putting away our gear and thinking to get cleaned up for dinner. Everyone was busy, so no one seemed inclined to pull her aside right then, and the dive would be at 8:45 the next morning. In fact they came to our breakfast table and told us they were advancing the meet time to 8:30, which meant we were going to have to rush through breakfast, and briefing Bobbi for a discover nitrox dive seemed not to be included in the time calculation. She wasn't motivated to do it all that much anyway, and when I found out we'd be paying extra for the nitrox tanks, neither was I. Finally we discovered that one of the other divers on the boat was doing a discover nitrox course so he could dive on nitrox with his wife.

Although we'd be on slightly different dive profiles, another part of the calculation (taking 4 divers vs 6 on the trip) was if they wanted us to go we would have to be on air, and Bobbi relaxed a lot when we found that everyone was ok with that. I think I went into a little deco on the dive, though it was the kind that would burn off on a normal ascent with safety stop. Oddly, Bobbi, with the same kind of dive computer as mine, had plenty of no deco time, both of us at about the same depth throughout the dive.

It was a dive well worth going on. The local dive guide Derek showed us where the bamboo sharks were hiding (for the first one, I thought he was pointing out the red-banded shrimp under the lip of the wreck, and I only saw the bamboo shark in the video later  - I didn't have to tell you that; you'd have thought I had brilliantly captured both). We saw a scorpion fish in the sand, which I didn't frame properly, and a moray hiding in the wreck. At one point I followed around a black-banded sea snake as he poked under objects in the sand and then decided he might do better if he explored inside the wreck. We also found a fish with its tail bit off lying immobilized in the sand. It was still breathing, so it had been a very recent attack. We looked around for whatever it was that had just attacked it and, as we were at the end of our dive, ascended before it got us next.

I wasn't happy with the thumbnail that YouTube's algorithm selected for the video I posted above. It showed the snake but missed out its head. Snakes are tricky to capture on film because they are constantly moving, wriggling around so much. So I uploaded the original video into Camtasia and sort of took it apart frame by frame in order to find the best image that could serve as just the thumbnail for this video.

Having found what I thought would make the best shot, I decided to take all 8 frames I had teased out and put them here so you could enjoy what the snake looked like as I got a little ahead of it and it headed up at me but not dangerously. It just brushed past me and headed into the wreck. Makes a nice photo sequence:

I would categorize the Barge and d'Lagoon as great dives. I like to joke that diving is a bit like sex: there are two kinds of dives, good dives and GREAT dives. This next video is a compilation of the remaining good dives we did during our stay at Bubbles Dive Resort, starting with videos taken at Takong Laut the morning of July 9, before we moved over to Longbeach on Perhentian Kecil. 

Takong Laut with Bubbles

This dive was compromised by very strong current (it had been only 5 days since the last full moon). Consequently we had to stay in the shadow of the current on the south side of the island; every time we turned a corner to the north, we were beaten back. There were a lot of other divers on the site as well; in one of my video clips you can hear tank banging which we believe was one of he nearby divemasters trying to corral and control his divers. We didn't see much of particular interest on the dive, so I didn't take a lot of video. Also my camera had started to take on moisture causing fog to cloud the lens, so the videos were disappointing. 

We had a much better dive with Fizzy on the same site two days later, only one other boat on the site, and we experienced a diminished current giving us a wider shadow of still water, though the current was still stiff from the north and prevented us rounding the island, as we had done on two dives on a previous visit there in 2012. Also Fizzy knew where the bamboo sharks lived.

The account of our diving there in 2012 can be found here, though I didn't have an underwater camera at the time: https://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.com/2012/06/diving-off-perhentian-islands-malaysia.html. We have some family vacation pictures taken at the time here, where you can see the beach as it was then before the jetty was built there (all boats just pulled up on this beach): https://vancesdiveblogs.blogspot.com/2012/06/diving-off-perhentian-islands-malaysia.html

Batu Tabir, between Batu Butuh and Siegi, and two video clips on Little Tiger Rock

This video also contains clips from two afternoon dives we did on Batu Tabir and for the last dive of that day in the area in between Batu Butuh and Siegi, after our great morning dive on the Barge on July 8. There wasn't much here to photograph so I focused on clown fish on these dives, testing their reactions to having a camera poking at them almost up to their anemones. One of them attacked the camera; you can hear the clicks when he hits it. Others were more timid. 

Clown fish have varied response to divers. There was a dive I used to do off Pearl Island opposite Ras Morovi in Musandam where I would lead divers around the island and then head east on a beeline over the sand to try and reach the submerged reef a couple hundred meters distant. This beeline took us over a lone anemone in about 15 meters of water with some very lonely clown fish living in it. On this stretch, I wanted to conserve air so I used to swim at about ten meters, and whenever I passed over their anemone these clown fish would charge up to meet me. I'm sure I have some videos of that. Some clown fish barely poke their heads out of their protective anemone but others can be almost aggressive (how aggressive can a clown fish be, really?) or in the case of the ones in Musandam, maybe a combination of bored and curious. 

Amazingly I found some video of these guys. I've queued to where you can see them: https://youtu.be/-_h6bukCS2g?t=181

The last two clips in the video posted above here are from the dive we did on Little Tiger Rock after our great dive at d'Lagoon on July 7. My battery died after two clips because the time between dives was short, it was my first day there and I didn't know the routine and hadn't brought my recharging gear with me to the dive center on that day, and I had shot so much great video at d'Lagoon I had mostly expended the battery (but I don't recall that much to record on the rest of that dive anyway).

We didn't leave Bubbles over any dissatisfaction with the accommodation or diving there but only because they were about to rent our room to someone else. So after our Takong Laut dive the morning of the 9th, we cleaned our dive gear and stashed it wet in a net bag, and then we picked up our dry gear from where we'd left it behind the reception desk (since we'd had to finish breakfast quickly and check out of our room before diving). They called us a water taxi to take us over to Longbeach, just 20 minutes away on the next island over, and we pitched up on a scorching hot sunny beachfront in front of Turtle Bay Divers, where we were greeted by our good friend in diving, Fizzy in the Sea :-)

Two days at Turtle Bay Divers at Longbeach on Perhentian Kecil, diving with long lost dive buddy Fizzy in the Sea

On the morning of July 10 the islands were being pummeled by rain, and the trees where we were staying at the Cocohut complex were whipping in the wind. We texted Fizzy and ended up sitting out the first dive that morning. Later we found that all dives to the south had been cancelled, and Dan texted us from Bubbles on their south-facing beach that the only way out of there, by boat, was problematic, and they were trying to leave a day early. Also the storm had damaged the jetty on Perhentian Besar, impacting boat transport from there back to Kuala Besut. Nevertheless, Dan and Lisa managed to get away that day, and made it to Kuala Lumpur the next

After chilling in our room that morning, we moseyed on down to the dive center around ten. The weather had subsided by then and boating between Longbeach and the dive sites right across the channel was possible (as you can see from the map, protected by the big island, besar, from the seas punishing Bubbles), so a'diving we did go. 

Batu Layar

My apologies for the annoying haze in the center the videos, from condensation inside the lens of my camera, which had been developing since our last day at Bubbles. There was nothing I could do about it at the time.

The video above is of our first dive in years with old friend and dive buddy Fizzy in the Sea, our perfect guide on this by now improving day at Batu Layar, off Perhentian Besar just across the channel opposite Turtle Bay Divers on Longbeach, on Perhentian Kecil. In this video you can see me attacked by a trigger fish, happens occasionally, but rarely videoed. I like to video around fish cleaning stations, and here I got shots of a puffer fish being administered to by wrasse. No one ever gets bored swimming with turtles or pulling up alongside a school of, barracuda, teasing clown fish, or checking out the varied coral formations.

Police Wreck

Our second dive the same day was with Fizzy on Police Wreck, The "Police Wreck" is actually a trio of boats sunk by the police off the northwest corner of Perhentian Besar. The diver proceeds from one sunken boat to the other. Rays hide under hulls or wherever they can. Wheelhouses are home to unique pipefish and other macro creatures, and swimthroughs are possible inside the wrecks themselves. In this video, the annoying haze in the center of my Rollei lens was getting more apparent.

Takong Laut with Fizzy

Next morning we revisited Takong Laut, which we had visited two days before with Bubbles, five days off full moon. Now, one week after the full moon Takong Laut still had stiff currents, but not as bad as before, and Fizzy managed to keep us in a larger and deeper shadow from the current than we had experienced on our previous visit. And she knew which rocks the bamboo sharks were under. There were a few morays under those rocks as well, and puffer fish being cleaned by both wrasse and remoras, and clown fish dancing in bright orange anemones. All in all, approaching great diving, our next to last on Perhentian with Fizzy in the Sea.

Turumba Tiga T3

Our second dive that day and last of our trip before being shuttled off to the Longbeach jetty for our trip back to Kuala Besut to catch the overnight bus to Penang, was on one of the Tiger Rocks, which was labeled on our briefing chart as Turumba Tiga T3. On this dive Fizzy led us through a myriad of tunnels between which we found rays, angel fish, gopis protecting pistol shrimp, a nudibranch, and other tiny creatures.

While I was focused on the sand capturing poor images of a pistol shrimp coming out of its hole and brushing past the gopi guarding the entrance, you can hear muffled shouting in the background. That was Fizzy trying to get the words JENKINS RAY past her regulator. Bobbi was with her and saw it, but the two of them had chased it off  before I was able to join them. You can see Jenkins rays in the first video posted on this blog, soon after the humphead parrotfish.

Now we've been back in Penang for two weeks, no covid yet, so we managed to thread the needle. We were as careful as was practical in the Perhentians, but there was no observance of social distancing or masking around the dozens of divers we bumped up against each day, and almost no one wore masks in the islands, since they hadn't had any covid. On the other hand, they had visitors from all over the country, where covid is pretty much under control, new cases each day in the teens and single digits. Still, that influx could lead to a first case in the Perhentians, and when the borders are open to international travel, let's hope there is a vaccine by then.

Our best chance of getting the virus was on the bus going back to Penang. Mask were optional, which is to say, not worn. But when we were in Kuala Besut the week before, we had purchased our bus ticket for the night of the 11th, arriving back in Penang on the 12th. Since we had our choice of seats on the double decker, we chose the top deck, two seats in the very front of the bus. There's lots of room up there and we were right above the driver, staircase to our left, and all the passengers coming up that staircase headed toward the back of the bus, so we didn't see any of the other passengers during the trip. We reclined our seats so far back that no one sat behind us either; I don't think anyone was inconvenienced, the bus was hardly half full. 

Getting there and away

For anyone thinking to visit Perhentian, you need to reach the jeti at Kuala Besut. There's a bus station there walking distance to the jeti, but with luggage or dive gear you might want to take a grab. Make sure you have the app.

You can fly to Kota Bharu and get a grab or a taxi from there, same price, 80 RM, about $20 for the 1.5 hour trip airport to jeti. Or if you take a bus to Kota Bharu just stay on it if its next stop is Kuala Besut (and if you bought a ticket to there). If staying overnight try and find a place near the jeti for local color, pleasant seascape, and best choices of places to eat and drink (Chinese restaurants have beer; others don't).

On July 6, 2020 we bought plane tickets from Penang direct to Kota Bharu (KBR). We booked online. They took our money and our booking but contacted us later to say our flight was canceled, but we could re-route ourselves through Kuala Lumpur, Sebang. This turned our noon arrival at Penang airport and disembarking a couple hours later at KBR into a dawn departure from our flat to catch a flight to Sebang and a connection to KBR a couple hours later for arrival in KBR only a little earlier than we could have got there by bus -- and we could have slept an hour or two later and then gone from Penang all the way to Kuala Besut (and it would have cost us 50 rm each instead of almost 400 for the plane). 

Also when we arrived at Penang airport and saw the departure board, we saw that over half the flights were canceled. All passengers to other cities in Malaysia were being re-routed through KL, and I image the airlines knew this when they took our booking.

If you are starting your journey in KL then the flight from there to KBR is not expensive and it's the least painful way to arrive. Bus distance between KL and KBR is about 450 km. But if you're flying from Penang and have to change planes in KL then you are competing with a bus journey of 350 km due west across the peninsula. If you are arriving in Kuala Besut after 4 pm then you will have to spend the night anyway, and a bus trip would be the most pleasant way to go, especially in the daytime, passing through Bandung Island in the Terenggor Lake district in the center of the country. 

Once you're in Kuala Besut you can easily get transport to the islands through one of the many offices at the jeti complex, or you'll have likely arranged transport through whomever you're staying or diving with. That way you'll be taken exactly to the right spot on the islands you're trying to reach, though if you do end up at one of the jetties, you'll be able to get a boat taxi to wherever you want to go, about 35 rm per passenger, under $10.

Just a word  about accommodation at Longbeach.

As many of us do when traveling, we use Trip Advisor reviews to help us choose where to stay in tourist locations such as this one. Of all the accommodations mentioned Harrera cottages stood out in reviews. In price they were close competitors with Cocohut just up the beach, but Cocohut had the usual variety of satisfied and dissatisfied customers, whereas Harrera customers raved about the views, the friendliness of the owners, the cleanliness of the cottages. There was nothing bad said about the place, and in case this could be a noisy beach, we didn't mind that it was up the hill behind the beach front. So we booked it for 200 rm a night, around $50.

When we arrived on Perhentian Kecil, the water taxi took us to the beach in front of Turtle Bay Divers, and we left our things there. It was a really hot day and we cooled off before heading down the beach and up the hill, without luggage, to check out our new place. We arrived at a veranda where there was a restaurant and reception and the proprietor, who was indeed friendly, checked our booking and offered water, and told us to wait while his wife cleaned the room. We were then taken to one of the cottages, standing alone on the hillside and were warned about the steep steps. Inside it was bare bones, smaller than it had appeared in the promotional images. There was a bed and a fan. I tried the fan but there was no electricity. Did I mention that it was really hot out? We were informed that we would have electricity only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. It didn't seem very secure. We could see bright sunlight though the cracks in the walls. That night it poured down rain, really a storm, and I wonder how dry our things would have remained in that room.

We told the proprietor we needed to go get our things. He said he would send someone, but we intended to jump ship if we could find better. Back at the dive shop we told them our predicament. There was someone there who had a room, something similar to what we had looked at but only 80 rm, $20. We thought we would ask at the Cocuhut nearby, the place we had almost booked instead of Harerra. It was well off the beach up a path to the other side of the island. It was a modern cement block complex of rooms. They had a room but only for that night. We had a look. It was American motel quality, refigerator, a/c, 24-hour electricity, comfortable queen bed. The price was 250 a night, $10 more than Harrera. We decided we preferred to stay there and took the room for that night. The friendly manager explained that for the following night if they didn't need all their rooms they would call us. We were eating dinner with Fizzy when Bobbi's phone rang. We could have the room a second night. We forfeited the first night payment to Harrera but it was worth it getting into something slightly more expensive but a quantum leap better in quality. If you go there, be careful with Trip Advisor reviews that seem too good to be real.

The walk from Cocohut to the beach (at the end of the walk in this picture) could be entertaining. Here we've just encountered a monitor lizard coming up the path we were going down. He tried to escape into the jungle but couldn't force himself through the fence. I had to walk around him and drive him back up the path where Bobbi was taking pictures so he could find the gap and make his way slowly and deliberately into the underbrush. It's not unusual to see these anywhere in Malaysia. While eating at Kak Yah Local Food (recommended!) they might pass by our table. 

Getting off the island from Longbeach was no problem. The jeti is at the north end of the beach, which is a stretch of hot sand, not amenable for hauling luggage or dive gear over if it doesn't all fit on your back.  But Turtle Bay divers had a group of divers they were taking over there to do an open water course, so they just piled our stuff on the boat and gave us a lift across the bay. At the jeti young lads appeared to help us get our gear up the steps. They looked after us and showed us our boat and didn't hassle us for payment, which is how the friendly local people normally treat foreigners in Malaysia. We were really well taken care of by Fizzy and Turtle Bay Divers.

It was an uneventful boat ride the half hour over to Kuala Besut, the best kind. Arriving on the jeti there it was a short walk over to one of the Chinese restaurants to have cold beer and a snack before catching a grab to the bus station for our 8 pm bus overnight to Penang.

We really like bus travel in Malaysia. There are frequent, comfortable buses; you can book online, but all you usually have to do is turn up at a bus station to get one leaving within half an hour. There's a lot more legroom and surrounding space on a bus than on a plane, and our mobile hotspots work on buses, so we have data throughout the trip and can can even connect our computers. Of course if you want to take a really first class bus, like Aeroline, then you need to book ahead and pay more, but it's worth it.

The bus we were on advertised wifi, but there was none, and there was a mains point at each seat, but no electricity there. Often there are USB ports at each seat, but not on our trip. We had our USB chargers and since we slept half the trip, we weren't lacking for power. Back in Penang, we reached home before dawn.

We're really glad we went on this trip. COVID-19 is on the rebound now in Malaysia. People really need to wear masks but the government is only edging toward making that mandatory. People are being detected covid positive on arrival at the airports. They are given pink arm bands to wear and told to go home to quarantine. Their pictures are turning up on Facebook, out in public wearing their bands. I think the goverment might arrest and punish them. It's serious. The number of new cases is starting to inch back up in the country, 20-30 a day. We're so glad we got away when we did.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Three days of diving off Khao Lak, Thailand

Vance's logged dives #1611-1616, Khao Lak, Thailand, Feb 11-13, 2020

Things have been so busy for Bobbi and I since the MCO, Movement Control Order, went into effect in Penang. On March 17, when we learned it would start the following day, we went for a last walk on Penang Hill. Just before that, COVID teaching had been keeping me working more and more intensively online since giving my workshops in Thailand in January and then following those up with an eLearning course from February 20 to March 11, 2020

Why would I mention this in a blog about diving? While details of my eLearning course were being finalized, Bobbi and I had flown to Phnom Penh for the CamTESOL conference, and on February 10, and for obvious reasons, we had booked a flight to Phuket, one way. 

Phnom Penh to Phuket

The departure board at Phnom Penh airport that morning was alight with red cancelled notices, mostly flights to China. But our flight was not affected and we proceeded normally to Phuket where we got a taxi and headed north, not south into Phuket proper, but this time to Khao Lak about an hour's drive north of the airport. We had heard the diving was good there.

We had booked a hotel just near Wetzone, the dive center where we had booked our dives. Casa Cool was a conveniently located place,right opposite the sprawling night market, and reasonably quiet, when the a/c was running. We were quite pleased with it. Wetzone turned out to mount a superb dive operation, with personable guides leading dives in a highly professional, yet appropriately flexible, manner. We had booked them for three days with the possibility of diving with them a 4th.

Here was the schedule of the diving we'd planned, two dives per day at ...
 - Tuesday, Feb 11 - Koh Bon
 - Wednesday, Feb 12 - Richelieu (Wetzone visits this place Sun / Mon and then every other day)
 - Thursday, Feb 13 - Koh Tachai
Friday, tentatively, return to Richelieu, but decided we needed to leave

I don't remember exactly when I was informed by RELO Bangkok that they had announced publicly that my eLearning course would go ahead and started recruiting participants for it, but by that time I had already booked the dive trip and had made advanced payment. I had decided to run the course in Schoology and during the days we were diving I had run into problems with the finer points of Schoology and was downloading manuals to my cell phone and reading them on the boat between dives. That got me over the technical issues but I had agreed to start the courses on Monday Feb 17. Diving three days in Khaolak through Feb 13 meant flying to Bangkok the 14th and landing in Penang via Kuala Lumpur around midight that nightt, so I'd be unable to work solidly on the course.until the morning of the 15th, after a night's sleep. This was one of the reasons we decided not to dive a 4th day with Wetzone, even though it would be on Richelieu Rock, their best dive site, which would unfortunately have got me home only two days before I was supposed to begin the course. By 'decide' I mean we made up our minds and booked our return ticket from Phuket to Penang on Feb 14 just two days before the flight after our return from Richelieu Rock. In the end RELO Bangkok postponed the start of the course to Feb 20,thereby relieving the pressure aggravated by their late announcement and my having taken advantage of there having been no announcement by squeezing in a dive holiday, so in the end I had sufficient preparation time.

That was the main reason we had decided to forego our tentative booking for the last day of diving (dive bookings not paid for in advance are by definition tentative, though it appears we could have gone had we wanted). Other reasons were that we were there just days after an unusually large full moon, causing high tide changes and strong currents that were compromising the pleasure in our diving; and if that was bringing up any big fish, it was bringing up a lot of particles in the water, and the visibility was too poor for us to see very far off the reef. Richelieu Rock was known to have manta rays, and when we were anchored there, we could see some kind of rays jumping in the waters around us, but we never saw them on the dives. Finally diving is getting very expensive in Thailand, over $150 per person per day. By day three we had been on the three sites Wetzone was visiting at that time of year. Given the need to return to business and the unfavorable currents and visibility, it didn't seem worhwhile to toss another $300 into the hat based on what we had experienced thus far.

Meanwhile, let's keep in mind where we are ...

Wednesday, Feb 12 - Richelieu

So, now it's time to show you what we saw. As we've brought up Richelieu, a dive site that we were told was named by Jacques Cousteau for the captain of his boat when he had been the first to dive it. However, this according to Wikipedia, is "demonstrably false". 
Find the more likey explanations here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richelieu_Rock

Let's have a look at what we saw there. We did two dives, the first having the most current, so we pretty much rushed through that one. You can see in the videography that I am having trouble keeping the camera steady. The sites were teeming with fish life and I was particularly interested in the jacks, large, sleek fish in the family Carangidae, that were almost always present, and I trained my camera mostly on them. There was also a seahorse on the seabed in the first of the dive. You can see, though, that the vis was poor (by clicking on the button below).

The second dive was better, more sheltered from the current, and more relaxed. I videod over a third of the hour we spent underwater. We saw the same parade of jacks as before, but I was more easily able to swim in amongst them, and I had the leisure of looking under rocks on this dive, where I found barracudas and crayfish lurking in overhangs and lairs. Thanks to the improved conditions, I had time to pan my camera on the scorpion fish, and spend some time with the batfish at the end of the dive.

Tuesday, Feb 11 - Koh Bon

Koh Bon was where we went on our very first two dives with Wetzone. Many people dived the sites around Khao Lak by going into dive shops that would line you up with dive outfits according to where they were going when you wanted to go. Therefore the clientele on the boats changed from day to day depending on who the clearninghouse shops had booked for that day. We were a little unusual in that we had selected Wetzone based on its reviews and booked to dive with them in advance by paying half up front, before we got there. That way we could select a hotel in the vicinity of the shop. 

It didn't matter where you stayed though because Wetzone sent a tuk tuk around each monring to collect everyone booked on the dives that day. On these rides we got a tour of the area. We got in the gates of some very impressive and remote resorts isolated from the madding crowd in the center of town. Down one back road we came out on a boxing school, active each morning with dozens of boxers paired off in rings or working at punching bags. A prim young lady joined our tuk tuk there the first day and the next. It turned out that she was enrolled at the school. She must have had a story that would make her decide to do that, pretty girl in the midst of all those men. 

We were also joined that first morning (and the next) by a trio of Brits, one of whom had an incessant cough and sniffles that she spewed over everyone else in the back of the van at close quarters. In tuk tuks the benches line the sides and everyone coughs toward the center. She wrote it off as "just a British cold" but we had been taking precautions ever since our arrival in Thailand in mid January. We had masks and wore them on the tuk tuks as we did at airports and on planes, but of course we understood that the lady with the cough was the one putting everyone at risk. The pandemic was upon us, millions were about to die, and this would be our last dive trip for a while. Once safely back in Malaysia, we would not be able to fly anywhere but home to the USA, and once there would not be able to return to Malaysia until the pandemic blew over. We had acquaintences on Malaysia my Second Home visas who were in Thailand in mid March and are still there, almost in June now, unable to return to their residences, dependent on others to feed their pets.

Back to the dives; according to the Wikipedia article cited earlier, Koh Bon was as far north as Jacques Cousteau actually got when he came to this area in hopes of getting permission to enter Burmese waters, which he was ultimately denied, so he turned back and missed Richelieu, according to

I've combined the video snippets from both dives on Koh Bon into one 14 minute video here. One reason for that is that the first dive had a bit of current making it hard to zoom in close on the critters, and so I didn't take all that much video. The second dive was calmer and toward the end became very relaxed with lots of big and little fish swirling in juxtaposition, creating tableaux that were quite mesmerizing. Be sure you stay right to the end, of fast-forward there, to catch the school of barracuda we saw at the end of that dive.

Thursday, Feb 13 - Koh Tachai

On our last day of diving, we visited the third dive site in Wetzone's weekly rota while the seas were still feeling the effects of the super moon from just a few days before. You can tell the current was strong from how we are using reef hooks at the beginning, and from the jerky camera motions and the way I don't linger over the animals as I lose purchase in the current. You can see it from the ripple in the anenomes, and from people finning and going nowhere. Also the fish behave differently in the current. The batfish like to ride flat in the water when the current is strong, and you can see one of them drifting off position even in that configuration, then regaining ground with a flip of his tailfin. 

Full disclosure, the video with me deploying my reef hook was actually the last one on my camera for this dive, but I put it at the beginning to give viewers an indication of what we would be dealing with on this dive.

There's not much remarkable in the sealife observed here, just the constant beauty of the marine environment. I'm particularly fascinated with the submission of the occasionally aggressive titan trigger fish and always coy batfish to the wrasse at the clearning stations.They seem to be torn between staying where they are or dealing with the large and unfamiliar creature that is moving in with outstretched camera. Eventually their concern for the latter causes them to break off their beauty treatment. That is why I sometimes write in my film credits, tongue in cheek, that "Some animals may have been slightly inconvenienced but none were harmed during the creation of this epic documentary".

The last dive of our trip to Khaolok and sadly our last dive in the pre-covid era now upon us, on Koh Tachai with Wetzone Divers, was about to transpire. You can tell from the videos that either we were in a more sheltered place and / or the current had abated, and we were having a more relaxing time of it. One feature of this dive was the swirling fish balls. There were plenty of fish around, but not so many jacks, and these tended to be near the surface easing in and out of the batfish hanging out there. Speaking of batfish, there were plenty of cleaning station antics on this dive. It was a long dive as I recall, and a pleasant way to end our three days diving around Khaolak.

And at this writing, we are stuck in Penang, with no prospects to go anywhere in the near future. Interstate travel in Malaysia is banned without permits, which I doubt we could get if we just wanted to go diving on Tioman or Redang, or Perhentian. On the up side,it's just as hard to get into Penang, which is doing well in corona virus terms, as long as it makes it hard for tourists to flood back here. We feel relativey safe here, but hunkered down for the duration.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Diving off Koh Lipe Thailand: Whale sharks and more in 4 days of diving

Logged dives #1603-1610, Koh Lipe, Thailand, May 27-30, 2019

Bobbi and I did 8 dives around Tarutao National Park conducted from Adang Sea Divers on the island of Koh Lipe, Thailand, between May 27 through May 30. The dives far exceeded our expectations.

Choose which dive bLog entry you would like to view

May 27 Dive 2: Seahorses and bamboo sharks at STEPS
May 29:Taru and 7 Rocks: a good diving day
May 30: WHALE SHARK FEVER consumes two dives at STONEHENGE


In the first video, above, also available here, https://youtu.be/ZcIwZzTPkuM, we are on the Stonehenge dive site having been taken there by Adang Sea Divers on the morning of May 27, 2019. Ris Finale is guiding Rachelle Stylo, Markus Wallerich, Vance Stevens, and my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens on our first ever dive in Koh Lipe. Due to our arrival date adjusted to dive as close to half-moon as possible, this dive was conducted in negligible current. Due to the almost ideal conditions, the dive lasts over 68 minutes.

In the water we see a nudibranch, a green moray eel, three scorpion fish, a lion fish, a crab, a black banded sea snake (most likely a yellow lipped krait), a sea centipede (or fire worm, perhaps), schools of fusiliers, barracudas, and bat fish, and colorful soft corals and fans, all shot on a single dive, our first on Koh Lipe, in the space of 68 minutes on my dive computer. We are impressed. At the end of the dive someone says it was something awesome. If you listen carefully at the end of the video you might be able to pick up what the 'something' was.

Here's what Adang Divers says about Stonehenge on their blog here


stoneStonehenge is our favourite dive site because of its diversity of species as well as its topography. Its name is due to the large monoliths positioned like menhirs on the bottom. There’s a large hard coral reef and an incredible soft coral garden. While diving here, if you’re lucky, you may see mackerel, tuna, devil rays, seahorse & ghost pipefish. Depth: 5 – 25 m.
Seahorses and bamboo sharks at STEPS

May 27 dive 2: Seahorses, bamboo sharks, colorful coral & creatures at Steps, Koh Lipe, Thailand

After a cracking first dive on Stonehenge on the morning of May 27, we moved over to nearby Steps, so named for the terraced nature of the terrain, though this was not obvious to first-time visitors. Here's the video, https://youtu.be/AuVvT00SY4E.

On this dive we descended over shallow sand where we saw cuttlefish, distant squid, and a couple of nudibranchs, only the second of which appears in this video compilation. We soon came on some fish traps whose netting was home to several seahorses. At the end of the segment, if you stop the video and release it slowly, you can make out another sea horse seen later in the dive, but that was just before the battery in my camera died, so I only got a few seconds of it. However, if you slow forward you can see it clearly (on subsequent dive trips, I was very careful to have battery packs handy to recharge my camera during the surface intervals). But before the camera died, I went on to film a playful clownfish darting up from an anemone, a den of bamboo (here, they're called 'cat') sharks, several lion fishes, a scorpion fish so huge we almost mistook him for the cabbage coral he was hiding in, some very interesting shrimps and a crab tucked inside a ledge, lovely soft corals, squids cavorting off in the blue, and some interesting foraging sea cucumbers (we see those a lot, but I rarely film them; don't know why, they are actually fascinating).


Here's the first compilation, two dives on 8 Mile Rock on May 28, 2019, with whale sharks,

8 Mile Rock is so named because it is that far south of Koh Lipe, Thailand. Adang Sea Diver says this about it on their website: http://www.adangseadivers.com/diving-koh-lipe/dive-sites/

8 mile rock

8 miles Koh Lipe, Thailand8 miles rock is Lipe’s Koh Lipes furthest – 8 miles south. It consists of a pinnacle in the middle of the sea. Its summit is at 16 m and from there it slopes down to a depth of over 50 m. It’s here that we have the best chance of seeing a whale shark or some large rays. Because this is a deep site we only take advanced divers wearing dive computers on this dive. This is a special trip that we can only plan to go to at certain times in the year.

Our day Tuesday (as if we knew what day it was) began with whale sharks coming up to greet the arrival of our dive boat, and us snorkeling down to them (we only saw one at a time, but one was larger than the other).

The video above compiles two dives on 8-Mile Rock with descents and ascents through schools of dancing bat fish, jacks, fusiliers, and sightings of scorpion fish, clowns, a green moray, and a barracuda having its teeth cleaned by wrasse, plus the occasional appearances of whale sharks with their retinues of cobia and jacks throughout our two dives there.

The Rollei videography is by Vance Stevens, PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor #64181. I am diving here with Ris Finale guiding Rachelle Stylo, Markus Wallerich, me, and my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens.

Here are some screen shots from Adang Sea Divers Facebook page after our first whale shark sightings:

May 29: Taru and 7 Rocks - A good, not great, diving day

Our third day at Koh Lipe, the diving was less pumping than the first two days and more what we had expected when we had started on our journey there. I often tell people diving has in common with sex that there are two kinds. There's good diving, and then there's (wait for it) great diving. Our diving on Taru and 7 Rocks was not great as in the previous two days, but it was good. We had decent vis, the water was warm, the sites were nearby and relaxed, though current was picking up a bit, 3 days out from half moon. However the sites chosen for this day were mediocre on the day we were there. Still we saw a titan trigger fish darting off a wall of green fan corals, schools of snappers, several green morays, a sea centipede or fire worm, darting clowns, some bamboo cat sharks, several scorpion fish, a shrimp under a rock, a flounder in the sand, nudibranchs and a puffer hanging out on a ghost fish-trap, an unusual leopard spotted eel, and teeming schools of fusiliers and delightful banner fish playing around salient sponge corals. The video tells the story exactly as it happened.

Our first two days of diving were so surprisingly good that we had decided by our third day to extend our stay a fourth. However our third day diving morning wasn't as exciting as the days before and we were re-considering whether we should stay for that fourth day. The answer as regards diving is always YES, you are there, why not stay, no telling what will happen!?? And sure enough, the group that went out with instructor Dan on the third dive of the day, scheduled for a shallow sandy area since there was a DSD diver with them (PADI Discover Scuba Diving experience) changed its plan at the last minute on news that whale sharks had seen playing around at Stonehenge, and went there instead. And of course they saw whale sharks.

One of the next day's dives had been planned for Stonehenge, so the divers who turned up that morning were excited with anticipation of seeing the big fish that cannot be named :-)

May 30: WHALE SHARK FEVER consumes two dives at STONEHENGE

Today Ris Finale is guiding his friend Em, Markus Wallerich, Vance Stevens, and my favorite dive buddy Bobbi Stevens on a return trip to Stonehenge. Photographers Jovana and Dusan Brkovic are also with us, having requested specifically that we return to Stonehenge for the second dive because, well ... anyway, no one objected.

This video compiles shots from the two dives we did there that day, organized around footage taken on descent, on the deeper reefs, whale shark encounters, and ascent, https://youtu.be/JuzJgZ31R8k.

We enter the water in strong current and see a lion fish under a coral outcrop, a scorpion fish (notice how Bobbi uses her tank banger in sand to help her pull through the current), a rarely seen Pikachu nudibranch, a pair of dragon fish or sea moths (Pegasidae), a school of fusiliers swarming near the menahirs, or outcrops, that give this dive site its name, and a green moray, all taken in the same terrain at the beginning of the two dives, before we are visited by the fish we came to see, and its attendant remora.

When the creature moves off I show footage of reef fish and schools of snappers, before showing the whale sharks seen on the second dive. But this video is missing the very best encounter. My camera contains a few minutes of video of the sea bottom where I had somehow not switched my video recording off. That segment ends with two tank bangs. I lifted my camera and pointed it at the silhouettes of  two whale sharks circling overhead. I ascended to join them and panned from one to the other as one disappeared into the limited vis to the left while the other approached from the right. But of course, nothing was recorded because when I thought I had pressed record ON I was actually turning the previous recording of banal seabed OFF. That's life when current and dopamine are abundantly present on such dives, but I still got other shots, and you can see that the last two whale sharks filmed are not the same, from the distinctively different shapes of their dorsal fins.

After seeing the whale sharks in open water just off the reef, we hide on both dives from disconcerting current, spotting a grouper, and ascending though graceful schools of bat fish, a couple of scorpion fish and a file fish among the shallow multicolored soft corals.

At the end of this video, Jovana swoops in to snap my new Facebook profile picture, having mistaken me for a whale shark perhaps.

Jovana's work can be found at http://jovanamilanko.com/

Meanwhile, I'm having a bit of trouble working out where these dive sites are exactly.

Adang divers has a map of the area on their site, but doesn't actually mark the sites, which are described in the text found below the map (some of these re-printed in the diver bLogs above).

Andaman Adventures publishes a map where dive sites are identified, here

Note that 8 Mile Rock, #2 on this map, is given at the southern tip of Ko Adang, just west of Koh Lipe, but Adang Sea Divers and most other web sites put it at 8 miles south of Koh Lipe. Also Stonehenge, #7 on this map, is given as being just east of Ko Bitai. This web page
says it's off Taru Island, just east of Koh Lipe on the Adang Sea Divers map.

Judging from direction of travel, and the fact that it Stonehenge had buoys to the east and west of one another, I would guess that Stonehenge was correctly marked on the Andaman Adventures map but that 8 Mile Rock is well south of there, way off that map.

I wish people wouldn't play with our heads like that :-)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fun diving from Phuket on Koh Bida Nok and Turtle Rock on Koh Phi Phi Leh

Logged Dives #1601-1602 February 24, 2019

Our dives today were here

Our dive sites, Koh Bida Nok and Turtle Rock, just north of Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh, are described at the link from which this map was taken, with attribution:

We decided to dive today with Sea Fun Divers, https://www.seafundivers.com/.  We chose them because we wanted to dive at Koh Phi Phi this Sunday and they were one of the only shops with their own boats going there. Also they immediately answered my email which I sent out on return to Patong from our half day diving with Merlin Divers in Kamala. I sent the mail while we were getting cleaned up from our diving with intent to go walking around to different dive shops in Patong, but I was able to arrange to dive with Sea Fun via email without leaving my hotel room. So instead of working up a sweat, we settled our next day diving with no hassle and celebrated with cheap beer from the downstairs 7/11 up at the pool on the roof of our Patong Mansion hotel, where we liked to enjoy the sundown from the lip of the waterfall pool there.

Sea Fun Divers had only booked a baker's dozen of divers on the trip. Dive groupings were made in teams of two to four divers. Bobbi and I were concerned at first about the other divers we were paired with but on the 2 hour trip to the site we got to talking to them and our concerns evaporated (they seemed to know what they were doing). Meanwhile our dive guide Jurgen had told us that if there was any disparity in air, since I was carrying a surface marker buoy, Bobbi and I could just carry on with our diving. In the end none of that was necessary, but it was nice to know that Jurgen was flexible enough to accommodate such contingencies, always appreciated when pairings are potentially inappropriate. Ours turned out to be fine.

Koh Bida Nok

Jurgen telling us what to expect at Koh Bida Nok

Fortunately there was a professional photographer aboard the boat, named Johan Torfason. Johan was working for an insurance company in Sweden when he decided to take a leave of absence for 6 months to try making a living at underwater photography in Thailand. One Christmas day a snorkeling boat he was on sunk in high waves and he and 35 others were rescued by sea gypsies who live in south Koh Lanta. He stayed on Lanta for a while, must have liked it but went back to Phuket, went back to Sweden, asked for another 6 months leave, was refused, so he quit and returned to Thailand and now he is the resident photographer for Sea Fun Divers. His Facebook page is here:

Johan asked everyone aboard, one by one, if he could take their pictures. When he came to chat us up he figured we'd be taking our own photos, and we thanked him and told him we were unlikely to want a complete set after the trip. Two things changed my mind.

The first was, as I was standing on the platform, all kitted up, about to make a giant stride into the water, I pulled my camera out and switched it on and got an error message, no memory card. This reminded me that when I was backing up photos the night before on my computer in our hotel room I had forgot to replace the memory card in the camera. Duh! I instinctively slapped my forehead. This jarred me back to the present so I left my hand where it was to hold my mask in place, and took a giant step into the water. Mai pen rai!

The second thing was, after the dives, when Johan showed everyone aboard his photos from that day in the dry cabin amidship, they were superb. He got some great shots of Bobbi and I after all. And he also got some excellent shots of the sharks many of us saw on that first dive. I had had missed an excellent chance to video black tips up close, but Johan got them, and us watching them.

These sharks were reminiscent of the black tips we used to see frequently in very shallow water at Dibba Rock in UAE, but the ones in Dibba were more evasive. These were on patrol. And Jurgen knew where they would be and manipulated our route, despite an unexpected current change that caused us to switch direction with reef on the left, not on the right as we'd been briefed, he made sure we ended up where the sharks were.

The sharks at Koh Bida Nok were the high point but there was more to see there than sharks

Turtle Rock on Koh Phi Phi Leh

Turtle Rock was kind of a set piece dive. Diving is always great, and this would be a great site if you had it to yourself, but there were many other boats all congregated on the same spot so that there were dozens of divers in the water, making it necessary for us to be micro managed, for example when a turtle was found, we had to wait our turn to come around it. Johan got some great shots though; here are just two of many :-)

We anchored for lunch and surface interval off Maya Bay, now closed with a rope across it with floats, to try and get it to come back after the depredations of so many tourists since Leonardo de Caprio made it famous as The Beach. There were dozens of boats, speedboats etc. not just dive boats, all anchored at the edge of the rope. Here is one of the islands there.

When it was time to dive we moved a few hundred meters toward the north end of Koh Phi Phi Leh and dived from there to the south. Here's Jurgen explaining the plan. 

I took this photo. All the other diving pictures on this page were from Johan's collection

We dived as a pack on this dive. Here are Bobbi and I swimming with the pack (green fins and black fins)

One of the first stunts was to have everyone swim through a tunnel. Johan had positioned himself to take pictures of all the divers passing into the tunnel. I decided to show off. These pictures, and the shark ones, are the reason I decided to buy Johan's pictures and put them here with his permission.

That's me, mask and reg back in place, disappearing down the rabbitfish hole
and completing the manouevre

One thing that I missed filming, and Johan missed it as well, in fact only I saw it ... was a huge crayfish in a cave I discovered by shining my lamp inside. It was easily as long as my arm. It looked delicious, but there you are.

Next day, after a 24 hour surface interval, it was time to say goodbye, Phuket to Penang on Firefly, in one of these birds (my picture again). This saved us two days on buses, Phuket to Surat Thani to Hat Yai, overnight and from there next day to Butterworth and Penang.